What ails Human Rights Watch?

What ails Human Rights W

In The New York Times on Tuesday, Robert Bernstein, the founder and chairman of Human Rights Watch for more than 20 years, wrote that he must now "publicly join the group's critics." This bold step is a result of several scandals that have plagued the powerful New York-based organization this summer, as well as the dawning recognition of its one-sided agenda in the Middle East which props up authoritarian regimes and terror groups - an agenda that culminated in the adoption of the Goldstone report at the UN Human Rights Council. Since its May 2009 Saudi fund-raising jaunt, where Mideast North Africa program director Sarah Leah Whitson boasted about taking on "pro-Israel pressure groups," HRW has been in overdrive lobbying for the one-sided, and widely criticized Goldstone report. Since Richard Goldstone's appointment in April, HRW has launched a PR blitz releasing almost 30 statements supporting his mission and the report. Its staff members, in addition to Whitson, have also gained wide media coverage. These statements range from whitewashing the HRC's biased mandate, testimonials regarding Goldstone's character, admonitions against Israel for its refusal to cooperate with the inquiry and lobbying governments to press for a Security Council referral of Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). HRW's September 30 release, for instance, calls the US and the EU "shameful" and scolds them for "undermining justice" by not immediately and unreservedly embracing Goldstone. A letter by HRW executive director Ken Roth, in the Economist, repeats Goldstone's charges accusing Israel of "punitive attacks" and the "deliberate infliction of suffering on civilians." NOT COINCIDENTALLY, Goldstone was a member of HRW's board until the conflict of interest was exposed shortly after his appointment. He was also a staunch defender of Ken Roth during the 2006 Second Lebanon War after Roth leveled false claims regarding Israeli operations against Hizbullah. And Goldstone's September 17 New York Times op-ed so closely mirrors HRW's September 16 press release backing his report that it appears the two collaborated on the timing and content of the piece. It is certainly in HRW's interest to bolster the report aside from personal connections with Goldstone - HRW is cited by Goldstone more than 36 times and the credibility of the organization is directly tied to the report's acceptance. Rejection of Goldstone's substance calls into question HRW's own findings regarding the Gaza conflict. Manufacturing PR for Goldstone also diverts attention from the growing criticism HRW has faced regarding its employment of staunch anti-Israel activists in the Mideast department and the Nazi memorabilia penchant of its "senior military expert," Marc Garlasco (author of many harsh reports on Israel). The most outrageous and untenable argument HRW officials are advancing, however, is that the US has to promote Goldstone's discredited report so that it will have greater standing going after crimes in Darfur. According to Whitson, "failure to demand justice for attacks on civilians in Gaza and the Negev will reveal hypocrisy in US policy. The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free." HRW's "emergencies senior researcher" Fred Abrahams made similar claims on a conference call organized by B'Tselem and the fringe group Ta'anit Tzedek (Jewish Fast for Gaza). To equate January's Gaza confrontation aimed at eliminating rocket attacks on Israeli civilians with the genocide in Darfur, where hundreds of thousands have been murdered, and systematic mass rapes and torture are a daily horror is an affront. As the Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein commented about the immoral tenor of these claims: "[Reasonable people would not think] to analogize Israel's action in Gaza to the wars in Congo and Sudan to begin with." If any further proof was needed, HRW has clearly lost its moral foundations. Perhaps HRW is trying to win over its prospective Saudi patrons who have routinely backed the Sudanese government led by ICC fugitive Omar al-Bashir. In addition to Saudi Arabia, HRW's support of Goldstone aligns it with such human rights stalwarts as Cuba, Libya, Iran, Malaysia, Venezuela, Egypt and Hamas, which have all vigorously advocated for Goldstone's adoption. In contrast, democratic countries like Canada, the US, Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands all refused to endorse the mission's mandate or its findings. HRW's overzealous promotion of Goldstone and its siding with the world's worst regimes are further examples of why Elie Wiesel has called for a full and complete investigation of HRW, Irwin Cotler (former Canadian justice minister and attorney for Nelson Mandela) has remarked that Ken "Roth writes not like a lawyer - let alone a human rights lawyer - but as a propagandist," and now its own founder believes the group needs to "resurrect itself" and return to its "spirit of humility." HRW needs to do some serious soul searching - is it up to the challenge? The writer is the legal adviser of Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor and author of NGO Lawfare: Exploitation of Courts in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.