Should ‘Human Rights Watch’ watch Israel?

Should ‘Human Rights Watch’ watch Israel?

Maybe Robert Bernstein, the founding chairperson of Human Rights Watch who served HRW from 1978 to ’98, is right in his NY Times op-ed of Tuesday, Oct. 20, that HRW should focus only upon correcting human rights abuses in closed, authoritarian societies. The British officer, Col. Richard Kemp may even be correct, or close to correct, in his assessment that Israel was attempting to be humane in the Gaza war (doing “more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare”).

There were those cell phone calls telling civilians to flee their neighborhoods about to be targeted– creepy yet humane insofar as lives were saved– but it still should be clear that things went wrong in producing so many non-combatant victims. For my money, the strategy itself was problematic: fighting in heavy population centers in pursuit of an ill-conceived mission that punished the people of Gaza as a whole for Hamas attacks on Israel.

I don’t have any magic prescription for Israel’s dilemma in facing an enemy that insisted on attacking Israel proper even after a wholesale withdrawal from Gaza of Israel’s settlements and soldiers in 2005, but I have some thoughts. For one, Israel is said to have been obligated to end the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip as part of its ceasefire agreement that survived four of the agreed upon six months; what if the blockade were ended, but with a newly negotiated provision to end the smuggling of rockets and other arms through those tunnels built beneath Gaza’s border with Egypt?

Bernstein would be correct that “intent” needs to be assessed in relation to whether such events were crimes: “… there is a difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.” But Israel needs to react more openly in this regard, as even the Likud deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, suggests with his new proposal for establishing an independent commission to investigate the events described in the Goldstone Report.

To sum up, Bernstein makes some interesting points on where HRW may be going wrong, but he fails to address what Israel actually did in Gaza. Here are highlights of his op-ed:

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them ― through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.

That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. …

When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.

Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East. The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.

Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world ― many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. …

Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. …

Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism. …

By | 2009-10-22T04:48:00-04:00 October 22nd, 2009|Blog|2 Comments


  1. David Ehrens October 23, 2009 at 2:43 pm - Reply

    I think I liked the Bernstein of 25 years ago better than the one today who makes excuses for a nation he does not regard as a “closed, authoritarian” society.

    Human rights are not just for bite-sized states. All nations with human rights problems, even those who claim to be fully democratic, like the US and Israel, should not be held to a lower standard.

    Bernstein even undermines his own argument. He writes of the difficulty of gauging the actual facts on the ground in Gaza. Well, perhaps the same could be said of facts in Sudan, Burma, or N. Korea. Should HRW just wave its hands and give up because data points are hard to come by?

    Sorry, but I’d like to see Messrs. Olmert and Bush in adjoining cells at the Hague.

  2. Werner Cohn November 6, 2009 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    just wondering: the gentlemen from Hamas, should there be any cells for them at the Hague ? Or shouldn’t we worry about that sort of thing ?

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