Another Bernstein Post Attacking Human Rights Watch
David Bernstein is back with yet another attack on Human Rights Watch. This time, Bernstein is up in arms that, in 2006, HRW retracted a claim that armed Palestinian groups had committed war crimes by using human shields — an action that he believes proves, in light of HRW’s refusal to apologize for its allegedly false criticisms of Israel, that the organization “is implicitly hostile to Israel and its supporters.” Here is what Bernstein writes (links in the original):
It was therefore enlightening for a reader to point me to a prior controversy involving HRW and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. HRW criticized Palestinian officials for urging civilians to serve as human shields. Anti-Israel commentators, led by rabidly anti-Israel activist Norman Finkelstein, went ballistic.
So how did HRW react? Did Ken Roth say, “We report on Palestine. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception.” Did Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson accuse HRW’s critics of racism? Not exactly. HRW instead issued an abject apology. In fact, if you try to find the original press release on its website, you instead find a page that first has the lengthy apology, and only then republishes the original press release.
You can’t make this stuff up!
I have to admit, I was concerned when I first read Bernstein’s post. Would HRW really apologize for criticizing Palestinian officials “for urging civilians to serve as human shields”? That would indeed be indefensible.
But then I read HRW’s “abject apology.” And not surprisingly, Bernstein’s characterization of it turned out to be completely misleading. HRW’s original press release criticized armed Palestinian groups for encouraging Palestinian civilians to shield the house of a military commander in the Popular Resistance Committee, an act that the press release described as a war crime. HRW’s later statement in no way retreated from the claim that the use of human shields during armed conflict was criminal; indeed, the statement emphasized that the press release was designed
to underscore one of the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law: the obligation of warring parties to take all feasible measures to spare civilians from harm. This includes the important principle that parties to a conflict, including military leaders and civilian officials, may not use civilians to “shield” against a military attack or otherwise unnecessarily put civilian lives at risk.
So why did HRW issue the statement? For two reasons. First, it wanted to correct the impression that the organization was “criticizing civilians for engaging in nonviolent resistance.” According to the statement, ” [t]his was not our intention. It is not the policy of the organization to criticize non-violent resistance or any other form of peaceful protest, including civilians defending their homes.”
Second, and more importantly, HRW had re-examined the incident and determined that the facts did not support its assumption in the press release that the IDF attack had been committed during armed conflict. That was obviously a critical assumption, because IHL only applies — and thus war crimes can only be committed — during armed conflict.
Here are the critical paragraphs from the statement:
We said that the planned IDF attack on the house of a military commander in the Popular Resistance Committee, Muhammadwail Barud, fell within the purview of the law regulating the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict. We criticized Barud for reportedly urging civilians to assemble near the house in order to prevent the attack, in apparent violation of that law. Our focus was not on the civilians who assembled, their state of mind, or their behavior (such as whether they willingly assembled or not), but on Barud for risking the lives of civilians.
We have since concluded that we were wrong, on the basis of the available evidence, to characterize the IDF’s planned destruction of the house as an act of war. If the planned attack against the house – a three-story building housing three families – was, in fact, an administrative action by the Israeli government aimed at punishing a militant for his alleged activities, the law regulating the conduct of hostilities during armed conflict would not apply and could not be violated.
An important consideration in this regard is whether the IDF had reason to believe that the house was being used for military purposes at the time of the planned attack. To date, Human Rights Watch has not obtained conclusive evidence as to whether the house was being so used, but eyewitnesses we have been able to speak with, including two journalists on the scene, claim they saw no such evidence. The IDF, moreover, has not responded to our requests to explain what military objective it could have had in targeting not a militant but his home after having ordered it vacated.
This is not an “abject apology,” but a laudable attempt by HRW to ensure that it applies international law with the precision that it requires.
It is also misleading to imply, as Bernstein does, that the “abject apology” was motivated by Finkelstein’s post for Counterpunch. What Bernstein conveniently fails to mention is that Finkelstein’s criticism of HRW concerning human shields was a small part of a long post accusing HRW of being too critical of the Palestinians and too soft on Israel. Here are some revealing snippets from Finkelstein’s post about the 2006 events:
It is at times like this that we expect human rights organizations to speak out.
How has Human Rights Watch responded to that challenge? It criticized Israel for destroying Gaza’s only electrical plant, and also called on Israel to “investigate” why its forces were targeting Palestinian medical personnel in Gaza and to “investigate” the Beit Hanoun massacre.
On the other hand, it accused Palestinians of committing a “war crime” after they captured an Israeli solder and offered to exchange him for Palestinian women children held in Israeli jails. (Israel was holding 10,000 Palestinians prisoner.) It demanded that Palestinians “bring an immediate end to the lawlessness and vigilante violence” in Gaza. It issued a 101-page report chastising the Palestinian Authority for failing to protect women and girls. It called on the Palestinian Authority to take “immediate steps to halt” Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.
Indeed, although Israeli solders have frequently used Palestinians as human shields in life-threatening situations, and although HRW has itself documented this egregious Israeli practice, HRW has never once called it a war crime.
It took weeks before HRW finally issued a report condemning Israeli war crimes in Lebanon. Although many reliable journalists were daily documenting these crimes, HRW said it first had to conduct an independent investigation of its own.
Was HRW seeking to appease pro-Israeli critics after taking the heat for its report documenting Israeli war crimes in Lebanon?
HRW executive director Kenneth Roth “commended” Israel during its last invasion for warning people in South Lebanon to flee — before turning it into a moonscape, slaughtering the old, infirm, and poor left behind.
Bernstein’s right about one thing: you really can’t make this stuff up.
Disclaimer: I worked with HRW on the Saddam trial.