Human Rights Watch has some explaining to do

by Avi Bell

Rosa Brooks’ editorial is a must-read.

It is also a non-sequitur.

The New York Sun attacked Ken Roth as an anti-Semite for Roth’s remark that Israel’s behavior was an “[a]n eye for an eye – or more accurately in this case twenty eyes for an eye — [which] may have been the morality of some more primitive moment.” Whether Mr. Roth is an anti-Semite in fact is a question I cannot answer, but the remark itself certainly sounds like an anti-Jewish slur. Ms. Brooks pretends the entire incident never occured.

What’s her answer for Mr. Roth’s behavior? Mr. Roth’s father “fled Nazi Germany.” Oh, well that settles it.

Ms. Brooks claims good faith criticism explains Human Rights Watch focusing most of its attacks on Israel in the recent south Lebanon war. Yet, Human Rights Watch, in its one and only in-depth report, “Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon”, briefly acknowledged in the report itself that during the time of the twenty-one incidents in the report that HRW alleges constituted Israeli war crimes, Hezbollah engaged in 1,300 (!) indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians, each of which was a war crime. Does Human Rights Watch behave this way in other conflicts throughout the world? Does it observe side A committing 62 war crimes for every alleged war crimes of side B, and then focus most of its criticism on side B?

Another must-read editorial is Human Rights Watch board member Kathleen Peratis’ defense of HRW’s abysmal record in the Washington Post.

Kathleen Peratis says “it simply will not do to ‘rebut’ a detailed report such as the group produced [i.e., the aforementioned Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon] by accusing Human Rights Watch or its executive director, whose father fled Nazi Germany, of anti-Semitism (or other bad motives) and let it go at that. Indeed, the critics barely mention, much less discuss, the 24 incidents [sic] described in the report.”

But of course critics have mentioned the incidents.

I’ve observed that the description of two of the recorded incidents (in Srifa) don’t make sense in light of other newspaper reports.

Another of the incidents — an alleged Israeli air strike on ambulances in Qana on July 23 — has been seriously questioned; Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer stated that “[a]fter closer study of the images of the damage to the ambulance, it is beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax.” (Brit Hume of Fox News had a segment on the hoax a few days ago; the video is available here).

Yet another incident listed in the report as an Israeli war crime was an Israeli air strike on July 25 that killed four UN observers (from Austria, Canada, Finland and China), with Human Rights Watch alleging that “[t]here was no Hezbollah presence or firing near the U.N. position during the period of the attack.” However, the day after the attack Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie reported on CBC Toronto that the Canadian soldier killed had complained that “Hizbullah fighters were all over his position … and … [t]hey use the UN as shields knowing that they can’t be punished for it.”

This is four dubious incidents already out of the 21, and I have just culled reports from the press without any systematic research.

This doesn’t sound like good faith.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Human Rights Watch repeatedly jumped to make accusations without facts. Thus, Mr. Roth alleged in the New York Sun on July 31 that Israel had killed 42 civilians in Srifa. By the time Human Rights Watch’s report had come out on August 3, the number had shrunk to 30 (in one place in the report) and 23 (in another place in the report).

Similarly, on July 30, Human Rights Watch accused Israel of killing “at least 54 civilians” in Qana as part of “an indiscriminate bombing campaign.” By August 2, the number of dead had declined to 28, and Human Rights Watch was calling for an investigation. It must have been a quick investigation, because by August 3, the incident appeared in HRW’s report in alleged Israeli war crimes.

Human Rights Watch has some explaining to do.

Shooting the messenger will not do.

6 Responses

  1. I’m waiting to learn how the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and even the US State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, conspired with Lebanese civilians, the Lebanese government and news organizations to claim that Israel used cluster bombs during the conflict, indeed that reports of thousands of such bomblets found at 359 separate sites are completely fabricated. Moreover, I’m looking forward to an account of how these individuals, groups and organizations conspired to claim that 90% of the cluster bomb strikes ‘occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict when a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution was pending.’ Of course yet further evidence of this conspiracy is the utterly fantastical belief by many human rights activists that such cluster munitions are illegal under multiple provisions of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions (1977) as they are notoriously inaccurate weapons that spread damage indiscriminately. How can we not accept the Israeli government’s categorical denial that it engaged in the unauthorized use of cluster munitions in Lebanon, knowing in our heart of hearts that its weaponry and the use thereof invariably, consistently and closely conforms to international standards? It is exquisitely clear that this is yet another attack on the good name of the Israeli Defense Forces. What more proof do you need than to hear a UN relief coordinator making the extravagant if not delusional claim that ‘Every day, people are maimed, wounded and are killed by these ordnances.’ It’s unconscionable that yet others have unnecessarily created a state of alarm by recklessly asserting thousands of Lebanese men, women and children remain at risk from unexploded munitions.

    This will soon be followed by overwhelming evidence that the recent reports by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) on human rights violations by Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in the occupied Palestinian territory are an utter fabrication. Please see:

    Finally, we look forward to an elaborate apologia that persuades us of the reasonable and absolutely necessary nature of the following actions taken by the Israeli government [edited material from JURIST]:

    Tuesday, August 22, 2006

    Israel military court charges Palestinian parliament speaker

    Joshua Pantesco at 2:19 PM ET

    An Israeli military court on Tuesday charged Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Dweik [1] with membership and activity in a terrorist organization, over Dweik’s complaints that the Israel Defense Forces court has no jurisdiction over elected Palestinian officials. Dweik’s next court hearing is scheduled for August 31, again at the Ofer military base in the West Bank. Dweik was arrested [2] at his home in Ramallah on August 5 for being a senior leader of Hamas which Israel contends is a terrorist organization. He was hospitalized last week for chest pains and breathing problems, which he alleges were brought on by abuse at the hands of his Israeli captors, allegations echoed by two now-released Hamas officials and denied by Israel.

    Israel seized seven Palestinian government ministers and some 20 legislators on June 29 following the abduction of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Israeli officials said in June that the captured Palestinian lawmakers would be tried under standard criminal warrants for membership in or leadership of a terrorist organization. Arrests of several high-ranking Palestinian officials continued over the weekend with detentions of Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nasser Shaer and Mahmoud al-Ramahi secretary-general of the Palestinian Legislative Council.


    1. Dr. Aziz Dweik…the academic who became Speaker of the PLC: Dr. Aziz Salem Murtada Dweik “Abu Hashem” was born on December 1, 1948. he holds three Masters degrees in Education, City Planning and Regional Planning. he is also the founder of Geography Department at al-Najah University and acted as Public Relations Official at the Patients Friend Society and he had a leading role in supervising several Masters theses and PhD dissertations. Dweik holds PhD in Regional and Architecture Planning from University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in the US. he is married and father of seven children. Dweik was arrested in the Israeli occupation prisons five times in a row and was one of the 400 Palestinians who were deported to Marj al-Zuhur for one year at the end of 1992. during that experience, he was the spokesperson (In English) of the deportees. Dweik was one of the most important companions of Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi while in deportation to the point that he was named the “West Bank Rantisi” Dweik has several publications including the “Palestinian Society” book. he held several positions, mainly: Head of the Geography Department at al-Najah University in Nablus, Head of the Higher Education Committee of several charitable institutions, member in Scientific Research Committee at al-Najah University. [Jerusalem Media &Communication Centre—- ]

    2. Israeli security forces late Saturday detained the speaker of the Palestinian parliament after surrounding his home in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Aziz is a senior member of Hamas, the movement now in control of the Palestinian government, and an Israeli army spokesman told Reuters that “Since Hamas is a terrorist organization, he is a target for arrest.” Israeli troops surrounded Dweik’s home twice before without taking him into custody; on at least one occasion he was away. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya has denounced what he called Israel’s act of “piracy.” Israel seized eight Palestinian government ministers and some 20 legislators on June 29 following the abduction of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit in Gaza. On Wednesday two of the men arrested – the Palestinian Minister for Prisoners’ Affairs and a deputy speaker in the Palestinian Legislative Council who were released from Israeli custody earlier this week – told reporters that they had been tried under standard criminal warrants membership in or leadership of a terrorist organization.

    Thursday, August 31, 2006

    Israel court adjourns Hamas lawmakers trial for diplomatic immunity arguments

    Joe Shaulis at 8:37 PM ET

    The Israeli military court trying Palestinian parliament speaker Aziz Dweik and 18 Hamas cabinet ministers on charges of membership in a terrorist organization adjourned Thursday after granting defense lawyers two days to prepare arguments on diplomatic immunity. The defense, which asked for an eight-day extension, contends that the officials should be shielded from prosecution because they were democratically elected by the Palestinians. Prosecutors counter that the suspects should not receive immunity because they are members of Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist group.

    Dweik was detained early this month after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) surrounded his home in the West Bank. About 30 Palestinian lawmakers, including a third of the Palestinian Authority’s cabinet, have been captured since the June 25 abduction of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

  2. ‘Another of the incidents — an alleged Israeli air strike on ambulances in Qana on July 23 — has been seriously questioned’—on this, please read Daniel Davies’ post today at Crooked Timber: ‘A conspiracy so vast…’ (scroll down a bit)

  3. Mr Roth’s comment was unfortunate, less because he belittles Judaism but that he misunderstands it. “An eye for an eye” was, I believe, a limitation on the use of organized violence (shades of proportionality no?). Along with the condemnation of human sacrifice, these Jewish laws were a major step forward for the civilization of a primitive time. It fostered a respect for human life that allowed for the development of a more advanced moral code both within the Jewish tradition and beyond it. It is a precursor to the laws of war and the prohibitions of state violence that Mr Roth advocates.

    But this condemnation of Human Rights Watch seems a bit absurd, no? After a military campaign that did very little, after the Chief of Staff of the Army looked like a war profiteer and the Justice Minister a pervert, friends of Israel might better spend their time addressing these internal issues than on how many casualties an NGO happened to report.

    And maybe HRW does have a point. It was only 30 years ago that Israel faced a hostage crisis in Uganda. It got 100 of its civilian hostages back, while taking few if any civilian lives in Entebbe. The operation was a model of restraint, fortitude, and tactical ingenuity in the face of a terrorist enemy. A far cry from the operations in Lebanon in 2006.

    Maybe it’s too painful to ask where are the modern day Yoni Netanyahus and Yitzhak Rabins.

    Though I doubt that victory over HRW is quite the same as victory over Hizbullah, even if victories for supporters of Israel are in short supply today.

  4. Professor Bell takes a quote from Ken Roth out of context and offers a link to one of his own articles on this subject, but does not link to any of Ken Roth’s efforts to respond to his claims.

    I hope readers of this blog will refer to the primary sources and draw their own conclusions as to whether Human Rights Watch– or Ken Roth– is biased.

    You can read Ken Roth’s letters to the New York Sun (in chronological order) here, here and here.

    You can read material in HRW’s archive of materials on the Israel-Lebanon conflict here.

    You can sample some of Human Rights Watch’s work on a wide range of other issues by browsing their site:

    Like any organization made up of human beings, HRW occasionally makes errors (which they readily correct when corrections are warranted). But anyone who believes that HRW, or Ken Roth, has an “anti-Israel bias” is drawing conclusions based on a willfully distorted view of the facts.

  5. Why do pro-Israel people always equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism? Even if he was anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, these do not seem to me morally problematic in themselves, unlike being anti-Semitic.

    Even if Israel committed no war crimes, they ended up killing 1,000 civilians in an operation that was (predictably) a total failure. Not to mention gross violations of international sovereignty – not that Israel has ever cared much for such laws in the first place.

  6. I was delighted to see Ms. Brooks respond to some of my criticisms of her oped. And I heartily agree with one thing she said: readers should read the primary sources cited by Ms. Brooks, as well as the criticisms, and draw their own conclusions. In addition to the cites provided by Ms. Brooks, readers should consider looking at the New York Sun pieces on HRW here (together with all of Ken Roth’s correspondence). You can see collected criticisms of HRW’s conduct during the war on the NGO Monitor website, as well as HRW responses here. Other criticisms of HRW’s conduct are here. You can find details about the July 23 ambulance hoax that HRW lists as an Israeli war crime here.

    I was also delighted that Ms. Brooks referred to the “Israel-Lebanon conflict.” Mr. Roth had been bizarrely insisting that the war was not an “interstate” conflict in order to excuse holding Hezbollah to the full panoply of the laws of war.

    If Ms. Brooks is still with us, I would also appreciate her explanation of how the context of Mr. Roth’s eye-for-an-eye comment makes it less of an anti-Jewish slur, or how things are made better by Mr. Roth’s subsequent explanation (available here), that not only pretends not to notice how the words might give offense but adds a new false insinuation that Israel’s decision-making process is theocratic.

    Finally, I would like to ask if Ms. Brooks if, as she says, HRW corrects its errors when corrections are warranted, why HRW has stubbornly refused to correct the obvious errors in its coverage of the south Lebanon conflict? Why did Ms. Brooks’ LA Times oped ignore all the substantive errors in HRW’s coverage and try to turn the issue into “imaginary anti-Semitism”?

    To the aptly named “non liquet”: while the sausage-making politics of Israel don’t pose interesting issues of international law, I certainly agree there’s plenty to criticize in Israel’s tactical and strategic conduct of the military campaign, as well as the character of a fair number of Israel’s politicians. And perhaps you are right that my pointing out HRW’s misbehavior doesn’t really help Israel.

    But that doesn’t mean I or others in academia should excuse HRW’s anti-Israel mania, its shockingly incompetent or fabricated “investigations” or its aggressive attack on all critics when faced with evidence of HRW’s many obvious errors.

    More to the point is that HRW’s misbehavior hurts the credibility of human rights reporting. And HRW’s (and knee-jerk defenders of HRW’s) stubborn refusal to admit its wrongs only worsens the damage.

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