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Aryeh Neier

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Human Rights Watch Should Not Be Criticized for Doing Its Job

Posted: 11/02/09 03:14 PM ET

It was particularly sad for me to read Robert L. Bernstein's op-ed article last month in The New York Times criticizing Human Rights Watch for its reporting on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Bernstein and I collaborated closely in establishing Human Rights Watch and in making it influential.

Robert Bernstein first approached me in 1978 to join him in founding the Helsinki Watch Committee. Its main purpose would be to criticize the Soviet Union for violating the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, an East-West agreement signed by 35 countries of Europe and North America. Eleven men and women in Moscow had formed the first Helsinki Committee in 1976. By the time Bernstein called me in 1978, most had been imprisoned. There was a need for a new organization to take up their cause and call attention to their plight.

The reason Bernstein asked me to join him was obvious. At the time, I was Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Bernstein was then a prominent book publisher. My public reputation was based on my role in dealing with violations of civil liberties in the United States. If I joined him in launching Helsinki Watch, it would make clear that we were not just engaged in a Cold War exercise of bashing the Soviet Union. I could help make the organization credible in defending rights everywhere.

Bernstein became Chairman of Helsinki Watch; I became Vice Chairman. A little later, after I left my post at the ACLU, I also became Executive Director of the new organization. Over the next dozen years, with Bernstein still Chairman, I took the lead in gradually extending our work to other parts of the world and in renaming it Human Rights Watch. By the time I left in 1993 for my present position, HRW reported on violations in every part of the world. We became particularly known for documenting violations of the laws of war by all parties to armed conflicts.

In criticizing HRW's reporting on the Israeli-Arab conflict, Robert Bernstein makes a number of points. He argues that HRW should focus on closed societies, whereas Israel is an open society. Also, he says that HRW has focused far more on Israel than on the "brutal, closed and autocratic" regimes of the region. Another point made by Bernstein is that HRW errs by not differentiating "wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally." Finally, Bernstein criticizes HRW's reporting on "Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield" and claims that, "Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified...."

Though Bernstein is right to differentiate between closed and open societies, he is wrong to suggest that open societies should be spared criticism for human rights abuses. The United States was an open society when it practiced slavery and racial segregation and when it interred the Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was an open society when it tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. A human rights organization that keeps silent on such matters would be worthless. The only way to protect human rights is to hold all to the same standards. Robert Bernstein knew that when he asked me to join him in founding Helsinki Watch. He seems to have forgotten.

The claim that HRW focuses disproportionately on Israel is simply mistaken. When I was Executive Director, we began our work on the Middle East by publishing a book length report on abuses in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. We also reported on Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. Currently, reporting on abuses by others constitutes about 85 percent of Human Rights Watch's publishing on the region. That reporting on Israel accounts for as much as 15 percent of the organization's work in the Middle East reflects Israel's involvement in armed conflicts, a specialty of Human Rights Watch.

The distinction Bernstein makes between "wrongs committed in self-defense and those committed intentionally" is not made by the laws of war. It is also a dangerous distinction. On such grounds, groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq that murdered tens of thousands of civilians after the American invasion of 2003 could claim excuses for their crimes. In Gaza, both sides might claim self-defense and, thereby, justify abuses.

It is true, of course, that there was no access to Gaza while the conflict was underway. Denial of access was the policy of the Israeli government. As should be obvious, such a policy should not be rewarded by silence. If a government could eliminate human rights reporting in this manner, HRW would never have published accounts of abuses in Saddam's Iraq. Moreover, in the Gaza case, HRW had a consultant there throughout the conflict and sent in a research team three days after hostilities ended. Though witness testimony is often self-serving, it plays a crucial role in judicial determinations of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Cross-checking the details of testimony and consistency with other evidence are essential. HRW has an immense amount of experience in all parts of the world in fact-gathering and getting the story right. That is why its reporting matters.

Robert Bernstein deserves great credit for his pioneer role in establishing Human Rights Watch. I regret that he does not share my pride in its present-day performance.