Who Will Watch the Watchers?

by A. Jay Adler on October 30, 2009
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Who said, “To err is human, to be defensive about it divinely oblivious”? Oh, that was me. Not exactly the arresting pith of its model, but it begins my point.

It is always bracing to observe the response to criticism of those who devote themselves professionally to the analysis and criticism of others. News organizations, paper, televised, or blogged (they’ll flame your ass) commonly stiffen their prissy irreproachable spines when challenged themselves. Fox News will organize grassroots demonstrations and coordinate memed segments across its infotainment programming report and let you decide.

The other day I referred to developments that are undermining the hard-earned credibility of human rights organizations. One is the imbalance of focus on Israel. The other is the gradually altered and ideologically misdirected, current conception of their mission. Both developments emerge from the same source.

human-rights

“When lying on to paper human rights can hurt”, poster created by Simone Verza, Italy, for the Good project

Most recently, there has been a lot of attention on Human Rights Watch.  The culminating criticism, as I said, was the condemnation by its founder and twenty-year executive director, Robert Bernstein, of HRW’s bias against Israel . Prior to that there was the revelation that HRW’s Mideast military analyst, Mark Gelasco, is a collector of World War II military paraphernalia, with a particular passion for Nazi regalia. Just before coming to HRW, Gelasco served in the Pentagon, where among his duties was that of performing remote guidance of laser-directed bombs to their targets. He told the Washington Post that the transition had not been easy: “It really dawned on me that these aren’t just nameless, faceless targets.” Might HRW better have hired a Mideast military analyst – who has to monitor the military actions of Israel – who didn’t have a fascination with Nazi symbolism, and who hadn’t needed to learn after his military service that those under his fire were not “nameless, faceless targets”?

Still earlier, there had been the controversy over Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, who when she was hired by HRW was serving on the Board of the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee, which advocates for the Palestinian and other Arab positions. In June of this year she published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times advocating the removal of Israeli settlements and compensation to Palestinians for related losses. David Bernstein has highlighted the matter of Whtston’s prejudicial pitch to potential Saudi donors at the expense of Israel. Joe Stork, Whitson’s deputy, has a similar partisan history. Just last year HRW hired in this division Nadia Barhoum, who at Berkeley belonged to Students for Justice in Palestine and vocalized all the fully partisan Palestinian rhetoric. Might HRW more wisely have chosen as it regional director a person who did not have a partisan history regarding the disputes she would monitor, and who would not editorialize in newspapers regarding issues of the prevailing disputes? Not hired every significant figure in this division from among the partisans of one side in disputes these officials would monitor?

Are these questions of propriety not those that would draw cynical consideration from any party in any context – except those who were already partial to the findings of those criticized, and, of course, those criticized?

How does HRW respond to these concerns? With complete defensiveness, acknowledging no error in judgment or practice, just as the many states it sets itself up to judge. How does it respond to Bernstein, its founder, a man of justly earned reputation? It dismisses him in a letter to the New York Times distorting his argument as one calling for Israel to be held to a different standard from that of other countries and for HRW to report only on closed societies. Bernstein made neither argument; however, the argument he did make, that the difference between open and closed societies be acknowledged in the nature of HRW’s work, in order to avoid the kind of moral equivalencies that banish meaningful distinctions – that argument goes disingenuously unaddressed in HRW’s dismissive write off of its founder.

Of course, Bernstein’s concern about moral equivalence is more than justified by reality. It is reflected in the deplorable nature and constituency of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Worse, it is evident in the very nature of the, not indiscriminate, but discriminatory attention paid to Israel, by the U.N, HRW and many others. Part of the argument with Bernstein was over what imbalance may or may not be demonstrable in HRW’s reporting on Israel. Z-Word Blog spared me the completion of an identical search of HRW documents. Note the numbers, and the additional sleights of argument that Z-Word identifies. Note something further: go to the HRW site and do a search on, say, Sri Lanka, or Chechnya. Compare those numbers to Israel’s. Consider that widely varying estimates place civilian deaths during the two Chechnyan wars at anywhere from 50-250,000 thousand. Consider that civilian deaths in Sri Lanka since 2001 are reported as nearly 12,000. Consider that composite estimates of civilian deaths in Afghanistan since 2001 directly attributable to U.S.-led militarypicasso actions ranges from 5,300-8,100. Compare those to the number of civilian deaths in Israeli-Arab conflicts over a sixty year period.

Why, then, the incessant focus on Israel, on even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

It is in the nature of what the major human rights organizations, not just Human Rights Watch, have become, in contrast to what once they were. When Amnesty International was founded by Peter Benenson and six others in 1961, it was to promote organized letter writing campaigns on behalf of those who later would become officially designated by AI as “prisoners of conscience,” individuals who had been imprisoned by their governments because of their attempt to exercise what were already considered in most of the world, outside of closed societies, basic human freedoms. The individual human being in all of his or her natural autonomous liberty crushed beneath the boot of a repressive tyranny and removed from the world to languish in dark obscurity, even until death, forgotten.

But because of AI, if it could help it, not forgotten.

Human Rights Watch grew out of Helsinki Watch, the organization set up to monitor Soviet compliance with the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Most of the articles governed relations between the participating states. One article, VII, enunciated a “Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.”

These beginnings, for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, in comparison to the overreaching ambitions that drive their work today, are almost quaint in the consideration.

About those ambitions, their sources, motivations, and goals, next time…

AJA


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