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Human Rights Watch vs. Human Rights By: Joshua Muravchik
The Weekly Standard | Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Just three weeks after Hezbollah invaded Israel, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and causing the deaths of eight others, Human Rights Watch issued a 49-page report about the war that had been ignited by this attack. The title of the report was Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon. "Our research shows that Israel's claim that Hezbollah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel's indiscriminate warfare," declared Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based nongovernmental organization. "In some cases, these attacks constitute war crimes," the group concluded. Then it added the most damning charge of all: "In some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians."

Human Rights Watch did not claim that its representatives were present when any of these alleged crimes occurred. Rather, the report explained that its information was gleaned from interviewing "eye-witnesses and survivors" of Israeli strikes who "told Human Rights Watch that neither Hezbollah fighters nor other legitimate military targets were in the area that the IDF attacked." To reinforce its interpretation, the report added that when Human Rights Watch investigators arrived at the various scenes, they did not see "any signs of military activity in the area[s] attacked, such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers, other military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters."

There was of course no dependable method by which Human Rights Watch could assess the veracity of what it was told by the "witnesses." Indeed, there was no means by which it could be sure that they were not Hezbollah cadres, since members of the group do not ordinarily wear uniforms or display identity badges. As for the absence of physical signs of Hezbollah's presence at bomb sites, the report seemed to assume that the group would have left in place damaged weapons and fallen and injured comrades during the hours, or more likely days, that passed before HRW's investigators arrived at each site. For the especially grave accusation that civilian deaths were inflicted "deliberately," no evidence was offered. Civilians were hit, of course, and individuals claiming to be witnesses denied Hezbollah had been in the area.

A couple of weeks earlier, Human Rights Watch had issued a press release criticizing Hezbollah's bombardment of the Israeli city of Haifa. "Attacking civilian areas indiscriminately is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and can constitute a war crime," it said before going on to chastise both sides. This hedged judgment ("can constitute") contrasted with the group's unequivocal statement that Israel was guilty of war crimes. Only after its broadside against Israel evoked angry retorts from Israel's sympathizers did Human Rights Watch sharpen its criticism of Hezbollah to make it as plain as its criticism of Israel. "Lobbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime," clarified Roth.

Still, Human Rights Watch did not issue any report about the attacks against Israel perpetrated by Hezbollah, although these amounted to several thousand missiles fired blatantly at civilian targets, every one of them an unambiguous war crime. The warheads of these missiles, moreover, were packed with ball bearings, which are of minimal use against military targets but intended to maximize harm to civilians, this in itself constituting in each instance an additional probable war crime. Such criticisms of Hezbollah as passed the lips of Human Rights Watch came in the few brief words of press releases, while its bitter condemnation of Israel came in the lengthy report as well as in numerous shorter documents.

The decision by Human Rights Watch to treat Israel as the main culprit in this war also entailed a studied refusal to make basic moral and legal distinctions. The group did not differentiate between Hezbollah's action in initiating the conflict and Israel's reaction in self-defense, nor between Hezbollah's openly announced and quite deliberate targeting of civilians and Israel's alleged indiscriminate firing that caused civilian casualties despite Israel's appeals to Lebanese civilians to evacuate areas it intended to bombard.

Most remarkably, Human Rights Watch did not take note of the contrasting goals of the combatants. Hezbollah's declared aim, in the words of its "spiritual" leader, Sheikh Fadlallah, is to "obliterate" Israel, while Israel's goal boiled down to not being obliterated. Human Rights Watch justifies this self-imposed moral blindness on the grounds that its touchstone is law, not morality. But why, then, was it deafeningly silent on the overriding legal issue that the conflict presented--namely, genocide?

International human rights law consists mostly of multi lateral treaties, called conventions. The most fundamental and important of these treaties, because it concerns the ultimate offense against human rights, is the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Presumably because of the weightiness of the issue and the overwhelming moral stakes, its enforcement provisions differ from those of most other human rights treaties. The usual treaty is simply a pledge of good behavior: Each signatory state promises to undertake or refrain from certain acts within its own jurisdiction. But the Genocide Convention enjoins its parties "to prevent and to punish" genocide wherever it may occur and whoever commits it. In other words, when a state signs, for example, the Convention on Racial Discrimination, it promises to stamp out this abomination within its borders, but when it signs the Genocide Convention, it in effect promises to go to war to stop someone else from committing genocide. (This explains the 1994 decision by the Clinton White House not to call the mass murder in Rwanda "genocide," for fear that this would obligate the United States to take action to stop it.)

The convention defines "genocide" as any of a variety of acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." Clearly, Hezbollah's announced goal of obliterating the state of Israel constitutes the intent to destroy a "national group," namely, Israelis. Even if one were to consider that destroying Israel is not the same as destroying the Jewish people, Hezbollah stands no less guilty under the terms of the convention. Some Hezbollah apologists might claim that the group intends only, as its spokesmen sometimes say, to drive the Jews "back" to Europe, i.e., that it intends "merely" ethnic cleansing, not genocide. But even if such a statement of intent is given credence, the reasoning is fatuous. Most Israeli Jews did not come from Europe. They either are native born or come from Arab countries where they would not be taken back and where they would find no safety if they were.

And if such casuistic arguments needed further refutation, there is the eloquent testimony of Hezbollah's anti-personnel missiles fired at Israeli civilians. As Hezbollah's Sheikh Fadlallah puts it: "There are no innocent Jews in Palestine." Nor is that all. Hezbollah's strongman, Hassan Nasrallah, has affirmed that Hezbollah's target is not only the Jews of Palestine. "If they [the Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide," he declared in 2002, according to a report in Lebanon's Daily Star, the accuracy of which is not disputed.

Such words are not mere bluster. In addition to its assaults on Israelis, Hezbollah has murdered other Jews. In the mid-1980s, acting under the front name Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, Hezbollah kidnapped and murdered several of the few dozen native Jews who still lived in Lebanon. It was also Hezbollah, according to investigators, that carried out the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 and wounded more than 300 others.

As it happened, nearly half of the civilians slaughtered by Hezbollah's missiles in the recent conflagration were not Jews, but Israeli Arabs. This prompted Nasrallah to issue a personal appeal to Arabs to evacuate Haifa so that only Jews would be killed. In sum, from whichever angle you examine it, whether to obliterate Israel or to kill Jews, Hezbollah is an operation whose purpose is genocide. For this reason, disarming Hezbollah should not fall to Israel alone. It is the legal obligation of every one of the 137 state parties to the Genocide Convention.

None of this, however, drew the attention of Human Rights Watch or diverted it from its main mission of attacking Israel. It is a mission that predates the recent crisis.

Last year an Israel-based project called NGO Monitor released a study of the statements and documents on the Middle East issued by Human Rights Watch in 2004. It found that these had amounted to 33 separate documents about Israel, 19 about Egypt, 11 each about Iran and Saudi Arabia, 5 about the Palestinian authority, and 4 each about Syria and Libya. By what scale, one wonders, did Israel warrant eight times as much attention as Syria or Libya? The latter two ranked a rock bottom 7 on the Freedom House scale (1 to 7) of freedom, making them two of the eight most repressive regimes in the world.

Of course, merely counting the number of documents issued about a country is a crude measure of Human Rights Watch's work. For one thing, not all documents are equally long or detailed, as we have seen in the current Lebanon war. In search of a more sensitive measure, NGO Monitor assigned weights to different kinds of HRW documents--press releases, "background briefings," "reports," etc.--to reflect their length and detail. When all these numbers were added up, however, the results were about the same as the results of just counting documents. The weighted score of the attention paid to Israel came to 145, while for Syria the weighted score was 23 and for Libya, 13.

The study then applied one further refinement. Not all Human Rights Watch documents are wholly critical of the country in question. Some herald positive developments, such as the relaxation of government repression, while others are mixed, commenting on positive as well as negative developments. To assess the tenor of the documents aimed at the various Middle Eastern countries, NGO Monitor classified their titles. Here are some examples of what it called "critical" titles: "Israel: Budget Discriminates Against Arab Citizens," or "Israel: West Bank Barrier Violates Human Rights." And here is an example of what it called a "noncritical" title: "Egypt: Emergency Court Acquits Political Dissident." NGO Monitor found that of the 33 documents aimed at Israel, 76 percent had critical titles. Of the 19 aimed at Egypt, the proportion was 63 percent. The share of documents with critical titles for other regional countries was: Iran 64 percent, Saudi Arabia 64 percent, Palestinian Authority 40 percent, Libya 75 percent, and Syria 50 percent. Of all the countries in the region, not only was Israel singled out by Human Rights Watch for the most attention, but also for the highest share of negative attention. In the same period that Human Rights Watch issued 25 separate documents with critical titles aimed at Israel, it issued exactly 2 such aimed at Syria.

NGO Monitor found that the disproportionate focus on Israel lessened in 2005, perhaps in response to its own criticism of HRW, but still bore no reasonable relation to the degree and frequency of abuses by the Israeli government in comparison with those of others in the region. Then in 2006, with the war in Lebanon, the previous pattern reemerged.

Manifestly, the work of Human Rights Watch on the Middle East is motivated less by concern for human rights than by the goal of damning Israel. Why this might be is not self-evident. But it perpetuates a long tradition of the appropriation of human rights terminology by groups and individuals whose true goals lie elsewhere, often quite far afield.

Consider, for example, that most venerable of American rights-protection organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of its early leaders expressed open sympathy for Soviet communism, and one of those founders, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was also a leader of the Communist Party USA throughout Stalin's tyranny. (One may infer that this particular "civil libertarian" dreamed of an America in which millions of recalcitrant, bourgeois "enemies of the people" would be shot or dispatched to prison camps.) The gradual disillusionment of other ACLU leaders with the Soviet Union intensified with the Stalin-Hitler pact, and in 1940 they decided to expel Flynn from their ranks. This marked a triumph for the sincere civil libertarians over those who used the ACLU for ulterior motives. It was not, however, to be the final chapter.

In the 1960s and '70s, the group took a sharp tack to the left. It began with the New York City teachers' strike of 1968. The strike was precipitated by a purge of union members carried out by black radicals who had taken over a local school board. Insofar as there were civil liberties aspects to the confrontation, the victims were the teachers whose rights to due process and freedom of association had been trampled. But in a stunning inversion, the head of the ACLU's New York branch, Aryeh Neier, aligned the organization against the teachers. To Neier, the crucial priority was to stand with the black revolutionaries, civil liberties be damned.

This split the ACLU, with many of the true civil libertarians leaving, thus facilitating Neier's efforts to turn the organization into more of a multipurpose agitational group for leftist causes. The new posture was consecrated in 1976, when the group voted to rehabilitate Flynn (who had gone on to become the national chairman of the Communist party and died in the USSR). In a ritual reminiscent of Soviet bloc politics, she was posthumously restored to a position of honor in the ACLU.

Neier would soon broaden his ambit to international affairs. The rise of human rights as an issue in U.S. foreign policy began in the early 1970s, stemming from two causes. One was the campaign for free immigration from the Soviet Union. The other was the opposition to the war in Vietnam. For the former movement, human rights for Soviet citizens was an end in itself. For the latter, human rights was a means to an end, the ultimate goal being America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Exposing human rights violations on the part of our ally, the government of South Vietnam, was a way of convincing the public that our side was not just.

As the antiwar movement grew more radical in its critique of U.S. policy, it came to see Vietnam as but one instance of a broader pattern in which America and its local right-wing allies worked to repress indigenous liberation forces around the globe. Accordingly, the goals of these activists broadened beyond Vietnam.

The antiwar wing of the human rights movement formed a highly effective lobby called the Human Rights Working Group. Organized under the umbrella of something called the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, it was responsible for securing most human rights legislation (other than the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked trade with the Soviet Union to free emigration). This included laws placing human rights conditions on U.S. foreign aid, requiring annual reports from the State Department on the human rights records of other governments, and the like.

According to Bruce Cameron, who served as one of its two co-chairs, "the agreements made at the beginning [were] that the Human Rights Working Group would not touch . . . the Soviet bloc . . . because they were regarded as on the side of the 'good guys.'" This did not mean that the Soviet Union was an object of veneration, as it had been for Elizabeth Flynn. Instead, "the core group clearly thought of the world [as being] divided between the evil U.S., the questionable Soviet Union, and the good Third World People." When this group designed laws constraining U.S. aid to rightist regimes, it was not with the goal of pressuring them to reform; rather, it was to weaken the incumbents so they might more easily be overthrown. As Cameron explained, "The motive was that if you cut the link . . . then you create more space for the revolutionary Third World people to assert their right to self-determination."

To say that this motive was ulterior is not to say that these activists were insincere in their profession of commitment to human rights. Rather, they harbored an idiosyncratic picture of reality, perceiving an efflorescence of human rights in revolutionary regimes that appeared to others as the bleakest dictatorships. For example, Cameron's co-chair of the Human Rights Working Group, Jacqui Chagnon, went off after a few years to live in the Lao People's Democratic Republic as a field worker. The Laos regime, which always scored the lowest possible rank on Freedom House's survey of freedom, and which was widely regarded as a puppet of Vietnam's, stirred Chagnon's profound admiration.

"What I found," she told me in 1983 after her return, "is that most of the rich people, not all, didn't like the current government and most of the poor people did. But the majority are poor; therefore the majority do like the current government." As for the notorious Laotian reeducation camps that one might think would trouble a human rights activist, Chagnon was upbeat. "They simply just took the heavy-duty 'baddies' and put them in remote areas, essentially, and said, 'take care of yourselves,'" she explained. When I asked about the 300,000 Laotians, some 8 percent of the population, who had by then fled the country, most seeking asylum in the United States, Chagnon said that this was at bottom due to a misunderstanding: "They have this conception that we don't pay taxes. In some way the word 'freedom' and the word 'free' got mixed up. So therefore they were blaming their government for making them pay a tax that we could consider wonderful by our standards." The Lao nation, apparently, was rife with libertarians. Whichever of them had the misfortune to reach our shores would surely bolt for the first boat back as soon as they got wind of the IRS.

In short, the human rights movement had two wings, one whose focus was anti-Soviet and one whose focus was anti-American. Human Rights Watch, founded by Aryeh Neier and a couple of colleagues in 1978, amalgamated both. Initially, in fact, it was not a single organization but a constellation of several, organized by region: Helsinki Watch (for the Soviet bloc), Americas Watch, Asia Watch, etc. Later, they combined into a single body.

Helsinki Watch distinguished itself by fine work in support of Soviet and Eastern European dissidents. And some of the other regional groups did likewise. Asia Watch, for example, advocated powerfully on behalf of the Chinese democracy movement mowed down around Tiananmen Square. As with the ACLU, many of those involved in HRW, including even some with hard left pasts, came to value the human rights cause above ideology. But the leftist strain that turned the human rights cause upside down--exemplified in Jacqui Chagnon's dogged and inventive devotion to the Lao People's Democratic Republic--was ever present.

In the 1980s, it made itself felt most forcefully in the work of Americas Watch, led directly by Neier. While combating the very real crimes of rightist military regimes in Central America, Americas Watch also made evident its sympathy for the leftist guerrilla opposition, whose depredations were less lethal, if at all, only for lack of opportunity. This ideologically twisted use of the human rights issue came into especially bold relief in Nicaragua, where the usual roles were reversed.

The Communist Sandinistas had taken power, instituting a dictatorship, and were opposed by anti-Communist guerrillas. Suddenly, Americas Watch directed less of its critical scrutiny to the people in power than to the insurgents, whereas elsewhere it had justified ignoring the misdeeds of (leftist) guerrillas on the grounds that they did not constitute a government. While Americas Watch sometimes criticized the acts of Sandinistas, these criticisms were hedged with excuses and explanations--the abuses did not constitute a "pattern," or they were justified by "national security"--the very sorts of argument to which Americas Watch gave no credence when offered by rightist regimes.

In addition, Americas Watch issued numerous documents debunking charges against the Sandinistas by Nicaraguan defectors and other human rights organizations, both Nicaraguan and American. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights, a venerable Nicaraguan group that had defended the Sandinistas when they were repressed by the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and whose denunciations of the Sandinistas therefore carried special credibility, was, perhaps for that very reason, a notable target of Americas Watch. Another such was the U.S.-based International League for Human Rights.

All of this was a peculiar use of resources for a human rights organization. Americas Watch therefore explained in one of these broadsides why it was defending an abusive government. "Ordinarily, we do not take pains to state the abuses of which a government is not guilty," it said. "In the case of Nicaragua, we feel called upon to do so because the Reagan administration has engaged in a concerted effort to distort the facts, charging the Nicaraguan government with abuses far in excess of what it actually commits." Clearly, Americas Watch deemed it more important to combat Reagan than to combat human rights violations.

The end of Soviet expansionism also brought an end to the Sandinista regime, which, shorn of its superpower protector, was forced to hold free elections that turned it out of office. It also diminished the distortions in Human Rights Watch's work that had been caused by the ideological polarization of the Cold War.

But it did not eliminate them entirely. The leftist and anti-American impulses were still strong, even if robbed of a long familiar context. Ten days after the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a call to arms:

In the coming weeks and months, we at Human Rights Watch will make every effort to monitor compliance with international humanitarian law by all parties to an armed conflict that now seems inevitable. We will have teams of researchers deployed throughout central and south Asia to investigate any failure in the duty to spare civilians and to insist that refugees from the fighting be properly protected. Where police are engaged in bringing suspects to justice, we will uphold international standards of law enforcement. And in countries where the fear of terrorist attack runs highest, we will be vigilant for harassment and discrimination against Muslims, people of Arab or Asian descent, and other people of color who may be unfairly targeted in this fraught political climate.

Clearly, the anticipated threat stemmed not from the terrorists but from the response by the United States and its allies. With war looming against al Qaeda, Human Rights Watch further admonished Americans that "like the office workers in the World Trade Center, the ordinary women and men of Afghanistan do not deserve to die." This suggested that to make war on al Qaeda, with its inevitable collateral casualties, would make America no less culpable than the terrorists. What, then, should the United States do about the attacks perpetrated against it? "Those responsible should be held accountable and brought to justice before a court of law," recommended HRW.

Spurning this advice, the American government declared a war against terrorism. Throughout the five years of this war, Human Rights Watch has focused on what it portrays as an endless parade of abuses by the United States and its allies.

In response to the criticisms leveled by NGO Monitor at Human Rights Watch's treatment of Israel, HRW produced its own count of the documents it issued regarding the Middle East and North Africa over a five and a half year period, starting in 2000. It shows that there were about as many documents on Iran as on Israel and marginally more on Egypt.

It also showed that the one Middle Eastern country that had received appreciably more attention from Human Rights Watch, the subject of twice as many reports as Israel, Iran, or Egypt, was Iraq. And who do you suppose was the main villain in Iraq? Saddam Hussein? Al Qaeda in Iraq, which planted bombs killing civilians day in, day out? Of course not. The villain was the United States. Human Rights Watch issued nearly three times as many documents focusing on the depredations of the United States as on Saddam and the Iraqi "resistance" combined. HRW's treatment of Iraq also cast further light on its treatment of Israel. The period covered by HRW's self-study included the last 39 months of Saddam's rule, during which time it had addressed 20 documents to the behavior of his regime. During the same period, HRW found cause to issue some 62 documents aimed at Israel. Saddam might have been an unfortunate ruler for Iraq, but it seems he was nowhere so bad as the prime ministers of Israel.

This was the period during which the second intifada began. It pitted a democratic state against an insurgency whose method consisted almost entirely of terrorism and whose ideology ran the gamut from authoritarian to totalitarian to nihilist. Why is it not shocking to report that Human Rights Watch, among others of its ilk, reserved most blame for the country that practices democracy and allies itself with America?

It is not shocking because we have grown all too familiar with the misuse of terms like "democratic," as in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and "human rights" by people who harbor disguised ideological agendas. When Human Rights Watch decided in the recent war in Lebanon to treat Israel, rather than Hezbollah, as the blameworthy side, it was not acting from any logic of human rights as most would understand that term. It was upholding a long, lamentable tradition.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes often about international human rights issues.

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