War Crimes Accusations and Human Rights Watch
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.