War Crimes Accusations and Human Rights Watch

by Avi Bell

The Jerusalem Post published a short piece of mine about Human Rights Watch and its accusations of Israeli war crimes in the recent Lebanon war. The two second version of the piece: Human Rights Watch accused Israel of the war crime of indiscriminate bombing in the Lebanese village of Srifa, where, according to Human Rights Watch, Israel killed forty-something civilians and no Hezbollah combatants and there was no sign of any Hezbollah activity anywhere near the Israeli bombings. However, the New York Times reported that most of the dead were, in fact, Hezbollah (and allied Amal) fighters, and numerous other papers reported Hezbollah activity in Srifa. How did Human Rights Watch get the facts so wrong? My conclusion is bias or incompetence — or, most probably, a combination of both.

The New York Sun has been going back and forth with Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch for a month now; the latest piece is an Alan Dershowitz article stringing together newspaper reports of Hezbollah activity in all the places Human Rights Watch claims to have seen none.

I have to admit that I haven’t yet gone through the Amnesty International material, but I suspect it will be pretty much the same. Amnesty investigators blogged their observations as they were in Israel and Lebanon. While the Amnesty investigators don’t explicitly claim to have seen no sign of Hezbollah activity as Human Rights Watch investigators did, they make no report anywhere of Hezbollah activities. This in itself is highly suspicious as Hezbollah is ubiquitous in south Lebanon, and was, throughout the war, highly active in managing and manipulating media coverage (see, for example, this L.A. Times piece about manipulated photographs).

There are, to my mind, two interesting lessons of this story.

The first is the importance of remembering that neutrals are not necessarily neutral. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are not combatants here, but their agendas go beyond the abstract and pure promotion of accepted international standards. Here are some possible reasons for the organizations promoting claims of Israeli war crimes in the absence of evidence or crimes: (1) The organizations get funding for perceived results. An accusation by Amnesty that sounds plausible and makes the front page of the New York Times is worth big bucks, even if it can’t really be backed up by the evidence. (2) The donors want to see published investigative results influencing politics. Accusations of Israeli wrongdoing have a chance of influencing behavior. Accusations of Hezbollah wrongdoing have none. (3) Cascade effects. Once one organization reports wrongdoing, the others are better off doing the same. To report the wrongdoing sounds credible, because it has already been reported by another. To deny it sounds like a lack of courage and a whitewash. The reporting itself establishes the credibility. I’m sure there are many other possible incentives, and I haven’t yet thought through what a model of NGO credibility would look like. But I am sure that we can’t take everything at face value.

The second is the importance of paying attention to the underlying facts. War crimes of distinction and proportionality are often highly fact-specific, and in wars like this one, where one side hides all the relevant facts (who is a combatant, where combatants are located, how many of the dead and injured are combatants, what targets contained weaponry or other military useful items, etc.), facts are very difficult to get a hold of.


8 Responses

  1. I would implore readers to go to the Amnesty International website and read the page, Israel/Lebanon: deliberate destruction or ‘collateral damage’? Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure (August 23, 2006):


    See too Kenneth Roth’s piece from the Jerusalem Post on ‘Indiscriminate Bombardment,’ which is also found at this Human Rights Watch webpage: http://www.hrw.org/doc/?t=mideast Scroll down to see the articles/reports relevant to Lebanon.

    I find the speculations here regarding the folks that work at these human rights NGOs outrageous if not prima facie implausible. Indeed, we should accord such organizations the presumptive benefit of the doubt given their track record here and elsewhere.

    As to Professor Bell’s ‘relevant facts,’ I’ve assembled a 350 pg. document on the invasion of Lebanon with news reports, analyses, comments and so forth from a variety of sources that may help one get a handle on the pertinent facts. I will send it out upon request: patrickseamus’at’hotmail.com (i.e., use @ symbol)

    One should keep in mind that there is not a hard and fast distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ inasmuch as one’s values, for instance, may color what one, in the end, counts as a fact. Of course this is not always a problem, but in such an emotionally-charged issue as this one, it can be. A.E. Singer, Jr. suggested we keep in mind the following principles:

    1.Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of theories.

    2.Knowledge of theories presupposes knowledge of facts.

    3.Knowledge of facts presupposes knowledge of values.

    4.Knowledge of values presupposes knowledge of facts.

    See Stephen Mitchell, ‘Misplacing Freedom, Displacing the Imagination: Cavell and Murdoch on the Fact/Value Distinction,’ in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and

    Putnam, Hilary. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

  2. Readers may be interested in Helena Cobban’s post yesterday at her blog, ‘Just World News’: ‘How can Israeli civilians be protected from Hizbullah shelling?’

    http://justworldnews.org/ (scroll down a bit)

  3. Finally, I should have mentioned that in our endeaveor to ‘pay attention to the underlying facts,’ we should hold no illusions about the debilitating effects of such psychological phenomena as wishful thinking*, self-deception**, and states of denial,*** in addition to the the sorts of cognitive difficulties discussed in the works of Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Thomas Gilovich, Dale Griffin, Reid Hastie and Robyn M. Dawes, Hal Arkes, and Kenneth Hammond.

    * Elster, Jon. (1983). Sour Grapes: studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge

    University Press.

    * Pears, David. (1984). Motivated Irrationality. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

    ** Fingarette, Herbert. (2000 ed.). Self-Deception. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    ** Giannetti, Eduardo. (2000). Lies We Live By: The Art of Self-Deception. New York: Bloomsbury.

    *** Cohen, Stanley. (2000). States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

  4. I find the speculations here regarding the folks that work at these human rights NGOs outrageous if not prima facie implausible. Indeed, we should accord such organizations the presumptive benefit of the doubt given their track record here and elsewhere.

    It is, in fact, Amnesty International’s history of playing fast and loose with the truth that makes these allegations unsurprising.

    Let’s not forget their role in the Jenin “Massacre” or the Barrick libel case.

    Mr. Bell’s criticism is if nothing rather guarded, seeing as how Amnesty’s selectiveness in who they condemn would lead one to rather darker conclusions as to their motives. He politely dances around the less seemly possibilites by assuming they are politically neutral in the outcome of the conflict.

  5. It should also be noted that the U.S. State Department has found allegations of Israeli use of cluster bombs credible enough to open an investigation this week. See Jurist Report

    Professor Bell might want to actully do some investigating before accusing others of bias: see HRW warnings and war crimes accusations against Hezbollah:



  6. Amnesty International’s initial report on the Israeli military assault on the Jenin Refugee Camp estimated a high number of deaths, but it later corrected those estimates. It was journalists who first reported a massacre at the refugee camp. Recall that ‘throughout the period 4-15 April, the IDF denied access to Jenin refugee camp to all, including medical doctors and nurses, ambulances, humanitarian relief services, human rights organizations, and journalists.’ The IDF itself initially gave inaccurate and inflated figures of those killed. It was human rights organizations like AI and Human Rights Watch that later documented what occurred there and acknowldeging in effect that no ‘massacre’ took place. Although this hardly vindicates the behavior of the IDF, as later accounts of what took place there are still chilling….

    I don’t see how AI was culpable in the Barrick libel case (which was successful in part because of a notoriously generous conception of libel in British law), as it seems the facts as reported by AI and Tanzanian newspapers and later relied upon by Greg Palast remain unimpeachable.

    Be that as it may, and all things considered, Amnesty International’s track record does not evidence ‘a history of playing fast and loose with the truth.’ It’s rather frightening to imagine a world without Amnesty International, particularly if one cares about human rights and international law.

  7. As Avi Bell writes, “facts are very difficult to get hold of” in a war like the one in Lebanon. Yet, unlike Mr. Bell, that’s exactly what Human Rights Watch got, in its extensive on-site examination in Lebanon of over two dozen attacks involving Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians with no evidence of Hezbollah activity at or near the attack. Had Bell actually focused on facts, and not polemics, he might have been slower to conclude that our coverage of the attack on Srifa on July 19 was inaccurate, “proving” our supposed bias.

    We documented two attacks on Srifa: a July 13 attack that killed four Brazilian-Lebanese civilians and a July 19 attack that destroyed at least 13 houses and killed at least 19 people whom residents said were civilians, including eight members of one family. Subsequent to release of our report, there was a third attack on Srifa, around August 13, which, according to news reports, included Hezbollah fighters who had come to Srifa at that time. Each of the three attacks was on a different neighborhood of Srifa. Bell simply assumes that all deaths in Srifa reported after the mid-August bombings were due to the July 19 attack. Statements by Lebanese officials on the scene, as reported in the very New York Times article Bell relies on, strongly suggest this was not the case.

    Readers should judge for themselves, of course, and we invite them to read the report in question, as well as our coverage of Hezbollah’s conduct, and our coverage of over 70 countries around the world, at our website, http://www.hrw.org. As for Mr. Bell, if he spent half as much time considering Israel’s wartime conduct as he does condemning Israel’s critics, he might actually be of some help.

    Sarah Leah Whitson

    Executive Director,

    Middle East and North Africa Division

    Human Rights Watch

  8. Sarah Leah Whitson, do you really mean to assert that the Israelis first launched “an indiscriminate bombing of civilians” and that Hezbollah fighters arrived to Srifa subsequently?

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