Slandering Human Rights Watch

Aryeh Neier, formerly of Human Rights Watch and currently of the Open Society Institute, had a great article in The New York Review of Books a couple of issues ago about the Lobby That Shall Not Be Named’s scandalous campaign against Human Rights Watch and its executive director, Kenneth Roth, in the wake of the Lebanon War. Having issues reports condemning crimes committed by Hezbollah as well as ones critical of Israeli conduct, the group got the following treatment:

One of those who responded angrily to the Human Rights Watch report was Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He said, “Human Rights Watch’s approach to these problems is immorality at the highest level,” and he accused Kenneth Roth of engaging in “a classic anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews” for using the term an “eye for an eye” when referring to Israel’s policies.[2] Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a leading Orthodox group, compared Roth to Mel Gibson.[3] Martin Peretz of The New Republic said that “this Human Rights Watch libel has utterly destroyed its credibility, at least for me.”[4] And Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, never to be outdone, wrote in The Jerusalem Post, “When it comes to Israel and its enemies, Human Rights Watch cooks the books about facts, cheats on interviews, and puts out predetermined conclusions that are driven more by their ideology than by evidence.” . . .

Under Roth’s leadership, most observers would probably agree, Human Rights Watch is the preeminent source of reliable information on human rights abuses throughout the world. Hardly any nongovernmental organization anywhere is comparably influential with respect to international public policy. It is, perhaps, awareness that reporting by Human Rights Watch carries such weight that makes those who object to its reporting on Israel’s conduct in Lebanon so intent on disparaging its performance. Attacking its director seems to be a deliberate strategy intended to suggest that the organization has not simply made errors but that its reporting reflects deep bias against Israel and, if Abraham Foxman and others are to be believed, against Jews. . . .

To the extent that the current campaign against Human Rights Watch is organized the driving force has been a newspaper launched in 2002, The New York Sun, which accused Kenneth Roth of anti-Semitism in a two-column editorial. . . .


On July 25, just two weeks after the beginning of the war in Lebanon, the Sun published an attack on Human Rights Watch by Avi Bell, whom it identified as a law professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University and a visiting professor at Fordham University Law School. . . .

This was deficient, according to Bell, because it did not address the question of aggression, and he accused Human Rights Watch of “whitewashing Hezbollah’s crimes of aggression.” Another alleged fault was the failure to label Hezbollah’s acts as genocide despite the fact that Hezbollah’s leader had made statements indicating a desire to kill Jews. In early September Joshua Muravchik, writing in The Weekly Standard, also criticized HRW’s failure to denounce aggression and claimed that HRW failed to accuse Hezbollah of genocide because this would divert it “from its main mission of attacking Israel.”

One of the difficulties with these criticisms is that they suggest that Human Rights Watch should abandon the standards it has applied in the other conflicts it has addressed. The organization has never labeled any party to any conflict as an aggressor, holding that the concept of aggression is poorly defined. As Israel and the United States argued at the Rome conference in 1998 when the treaty for the International Criminal Court was adopted, it is impossible to come up with a definition of aggression that is not politically controversial. . . .

As for genocide, like others who address human rights issues responsibly, Human Rights Watch is sparing in its use of the term because genocide is the ultimate crime and it would be a mistake to diminish its significance by using the term indiscriminately. There have been vast numbers of killings, many of them where ethnic or religious motives were a factor, in such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Sudan, Burma, India (Kashmir, Gujarat), Indonesia, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia (Chechnya), but there has been no situation in the past decade that Human Rights Watch has labeled as genocide. It has used that label only three times in its history: to describe the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s; of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994; and of Iraqi Kurds by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the Anfal campaign of 1988.

Among the factors it considered before using the term were the scale and systematic nature of the killing. In the cases that HRW labeled as genocide, the number of those killed ranged from several scores of thousands to several hundreds of thousands. Human Rights Watch described the killing of Israeli civilians as war crimes but the total number killed throughout the conflict with Hezbollah — forty-three, of whom at least eighteen were Israeli Arabs — is often exceeded in a single day by the number of Iraqis killed in sectarian violence.

I think of this as a genuinely sad historical moment. The world’s Jewish community has had, I think it’s clear, two primary responses to the mid-century Holocaust — one has been the Zionist project in various forms and the other has been an intense interest in the international human rights movemet. The vicious and fundamentally unfounded assaults on one of the main pillars of the latter is designed to protect the former but were it to be successful in discrediting Human Rights Watch and others who called attention to Israeli abuses would have far wider, and seriously malign, implications.