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Home » Human Rights, Middle East Crisis, Non Governmental Organizations, Public International Law

Human Rights Watch Under Fire

Submitted by on 17/07/2009 – 1:15 am3 Comments

There has been some controversy this week over Human Rights Watch and both its reporting on Israel and its fundraising efforts more generally.

The story originated with David Bernstein writing in the Wall Street Journal, but Jeffrey Goldberg‘s article is the most reasonable and informative, and also contains a detailed exchange of emails between Goldberg and Ken Roth, HRW’s executive director, so readers are free to make up their own minds.  The story essentially boils down to the allegation of Goldberg’s that:

[T]he director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s “supporters,” who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.

In other words, it is alleged that the organisation plays up the fact that it pays particular attention to Israel, knowing that this is likely to be viewed positively in the Arab world and more pertinently by Arab financial donors.

Human Rights Watch and its coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict has been the subject of posts by me in the past, when I pointed out that the organisation had too eagerly pursued a certain line of argument without adequate basis in law or clear evidence. This is in fact a common theme with most NGOs vis-a-vis Israel. However, I do not believe that either this, or the recent controversy concerning Saudi Arabia, is an indication of anti-Israel bias within HRW.

Rather, I believe that HRW is a victim of the untrustworthy nature of media reporting on the Israel/Palestine issue, which is all too frequently exaggerated, bombastic, and inaccurate. (An example was the hysterical character of the reporting on the Jabalya school incident of January this year, which largely accused Israel of having shelled a UNRWA-run school, killing 40 civilians – a story which later turned out to be untrue, put down to a ‘clerical error’ on the part of the UN [see update at bottom of linked BBC report].) Journalists writing on the conflict tend to focus their attention on stories which they believe make the best copy, rather than what is actually taking place, and this also affects Human Rights Watch – so that when for example it reported that Israel used white phosphorus in the recent fighting in Gaza, it recieved a great deal of media attention in the West, whereas when it stated that it is:

[I]mpressed with the IDF’s system of checks and balances concerning its artillery fire in the Gaza Strip and unlike Hamas which specifically targeted civilians in its rocket attacks, the Israelis [invest] a great amount of resources and efforts not to harm innocent civilians

No Western media outlets appeared to notice and only Israeli newspapers picked up the story.

This case is similar. A cursory search quickly brings up a vast list of reports indicating Human Rights Watch’s record of speaking out on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Yet these reports are rarely if ever referred to in the Western media. However, the organisation’s statements on Israel frequently appear. It is this, rather than any institutional bias, which leads to the appearance of unfairness on the part of HRW in its reporting on Palestine.

Last 5 posts by David McGrogan