‘Fact finding” in armed conflict has become an industry.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issue splashy, full-color publications, accompanied by videos and interactive multimedia. They push their narratives using highly sophisticated and expensive efforts led by media and fundraising professionals; the inevitable harrowing and emotional results of the “investigations” can be leveraged to generate millions in donations.
The PR campaigns also achieve visibility in the biggest news outlets, including The New York Times, the BBC, and Le Monde. The NGOs’ well-circulated conclusions are then adopted by the UN and policy makers.
Despite the nearly ubiquitous presence of NGO fact-finding in armed conflict situations, few responsible consumers of NGO products have actually examined the methodologies and factual bases underlying NGO claims. Surprisingly, no agreed standards exist for NGO fact-finding, and NGOs have largely rejected efforts to regulate it.
In early November, the Amuta for NGO Responsibility, an Israel-based non-profit whose projects include NGO Monitor, co-sponsored a lecture by Professor Asa Kasher at the UN Library in Geneva, discussing these very issues.
Professor Kasher, a world-renowned philosopher and military ethicist, highlighted the need for professionalism and expertise in fact-finding.
The event was held to build upon the research of the book I co-authored, Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-finding (Nijhoff 2012), as well as the reissue of the 1982 seminal work, International Law and Fact-Finding in the Field of Human Rights, co-edited by former acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bertrand Ramcharan (Brill/Nijhoff 2014).
As Kasher noted, one would not trust a layperson to dispense medical advice, so why trust those without military, legal, or forensic expertise to pontificate on armed conflict? Without an understanding of military tactics, operations, rules of engagement, and strategies, as well as knowledge of what actually transpired, it is impossible to draw meaningful conclusions. This lack of expertise, however, has not inhibited the proliferation of armed conflict amateurs opining on matters of life and death and leveling serious criminal charges.
Another major problem in the NGO fact-finding industry, according to Kasher, is the failure to consider a variety of potential explanations for the outcomes of military operations. For example, if there was widespread damage during a conflict, NGOs routinely surmise that the cause was wicked intention to inflict destruction. But it is also completely reasonable to assume that many legitimate targets such as rocket launchers and weapons depots were dispersed over a wide area.
Invariably, when examining the military operations of Western armies, NGOs always determine that their actions were wrong. Yet, it is dubious that a legitimate inquiry would find that every single action taken is somehow improper. Rather, NGOs construct a narrative that supports their claims of malevolent intent and criminal behavior.
Kasher’s concluding remarks, which stressed the ethical dimension of fact-finding, suggest a possible explanation: Unlike the medical profession, which rests upon a clear obligation to help patients, the motivations and ethics of NGO fact-finders are not clear. NGOs rarely state the motivations for their “investigations,” whether they are to underpin legal proceedings, advance a certain political agenda or to “save the world.” Without knowing the purpose, NGO reports cannot be evaluated in context, and thus, cannot be deemed trustworthy.
A November 2014 publication issued by Amnesty International, “Families Under the Rubble,” exemplifies the problems laid out by Kasher. In the document, Amnesty draws broad conclusions that Israel showed “callous indifference” to civilians and “fail[ed] to take necessary precautions” in its targeting. The NGO superpower further claims that due to the “expected” civilian harm, which was well known according to Amnesty, Israel should have canceled, postponed or revised the “choice of means and timing” of its attacks.
Amnesty provides no analysis as to how it drew these conclusions. Amnesty does not explain how it knows what “harm” Israel “expected,” what intelligence Israel received prior to its operations, or how an attack could be equally effective if its timing were changed. Amnesty does not entertain the possibility that Israel was returning enemy fire, targeting rocket launchers, or destroying weapons depots or tunnel entrances. It does not state whether it considered the impact on Israeli civilians in recommending postponing or canceling attacks.
Amnesty claims that it vetted its work with “military experts,” yet these individuals are unnamed. Amnesty admits it did not have access to Gaza and so relied on two unnamed “field workers.” Again, information as to affiliations or expertise is not provided.
Finally, Amnesty claims to “document” serious violations by “Israel, Hamas, and Palestinian armed groups.”
Yet, Amnesty has not issued reports detailing attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian terror groups, describing mass displacement of hundreds of thousands in southern Israel, and documenting the extensive economic and property damage caused to Israeli civilian infrastructure.
This grave neglect belies claims of even-handedness and commitment to civilian protection.
Viewed from any other angle, it is clear that Amnesty has failed to live up to professional fact-finding standards and ethical norms.
Sadly, Amnesty is not an anomaly. Similar problems abound in almost every NGO publication related to armed conflict, as well as reports from UN bodies, such as the Human Rights Council.
One of the main messages conveyed by Professor Kasher is that there is a critical need to professionalize the fact-finding industry and to adopt both procedural and substantive standards. Fact-finding done the right way can be a useful tool to improve military operations and to enhance civilian protection. Without professionalization and standardization, however, NGO “fact-finding” should be viewed as nothing more than politicized advocacy bringing us no closer to the “facts.”The author is the legal adviser of NGO Monitor and the co-author of Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-finding (Nijhoff 2012).