Robert L. Bernstein, the former president and chief executive of Random House, was the chairman of Human Rights Watch from 1978 to 1998. Here, on the op-ed pages of the NYT he comes out on the side of HRW’s nemesis, NGO Monitor. This is big, very big.
Let’s see how HRW responds. They’ve always dismissed NGO Monitor and their other critics as over-zealous Zionists who object to any criticism of Israel. Now they’ve got big trouble and that line won’t work… which doesn’t mean they won’t try it.
Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast
By ROBERT L. BERNSTEIN
Published: October 19, 2009
AS the founder of Human Rights Watch, its active chairman for 20 years and now founding chairman emeritus, I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics. Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.
At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.
In other words, there’s a world of difference between self-critical, self-regulating societies, and authoritarian ones who shut down any criticism of their actions.
That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.
When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.
This is the disease of “moral equivalence,” and for those of us old enough to remember the sixties, even though we were there, this was already a serious problem. I remember well my arguments with the SDS types who, in my view, expressed a ludicrous “even-handedness” which systematically ignored the fact that, were they in the countries that they claimed were no better or worse than US capitalist society, they’d be dead. Lack of gratitude. And the attitude has only gotten worse over time. Joe Stork was one of that gang.
Nowhere is this more evident than in its work in the Middle East. The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.
Here’s an interesting way to illustrate the problem. Here’s what I call the “Casualty footprint” of two conflicts over the last 20 years (i.e., since the fall of the USSR). Taken from Stealth Conflicts, by Virgil Hawkins.
“Democratic Republic” of Congo, 5.4 million dead; Israeli-Palestinian conflict (including two intifadas), less than 10,000 dead.
Now take that and reverse the names and you have not only the MSNM footprint, but the NGO footprint. At HRW, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over 300 reports; DRC, 6.
Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.
Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields. They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism.
Do they know? Do they suppress the awareness, just like journalists suppress the awareness that they are systematically intimidated? Do they substitute an ideology and advocacy that considers the Palestinians victims and therefore justified in using the “weapons of the weak” like suicide bombers in real warfare and lethal narratives in cognitive warfare, and even if they weakly denounce them, their heart is not in it?
The organization is expressly concerned mainly with how wars are fought, not with motivations. To be sure, even victims of aggression are bound by the laws of war and must do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties.
I’m not sure what he means here. They are, of course, concerned with motivations, especially when they accuse Israelis of intentionally targeting civilians. That’s at the core of Palestinian lethal narratives from Muhammad al Durah to Abed Rabbo.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.
Precisely. But in the morally inverted world of people like Joe Stork and Sarah Whitson — and many “liberals” like Cherie Blair and Jenny Tonge — “resistance is not terrorism” and therefore it’s not that suicide bombers intend to kill civilians it’s that they “have no hope” and therefore no alternative.
But how does Human Rights Watch know that these laws have been violated? In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes. Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers.
Omri Cerem just interviewed me for his new radio show, and asked me what I thought, once the dust has settled will be the percentage of the Goldstone Report — based on a systematic credulity for Palestinian testimony — that turns out to be accurate. I think, to be generous, under 20%. And when it comes to accusations of deliberate murder of civilians, .01% if that.
Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”
In a response to my article in the Jerusalem Post, one disgruntled commenter noted:
22. The ego massaging itself – enough alraedy !
“…the army with the best record in the history of warfare…” :-) – who says so ? Is there a concensus somewhere on this planet on this self-congratulary pronouncement ? These ridiculous statements only serves to remind the world of the dismal ACTUAL record
Observer – US (10/11/2009 19:12)
I don’t suppose Colonel Kemp would give this fellow pause to think. But I maintain that any dispassionate study in the history of warfare would bear out those remarks.
Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.
I’d take it another step. This situation is rapidly spinning out of control. (As a medievalist I can say rapidly about a situation that’s been getting visibly worse for over a decade.) The delusions that drive people like Stork and Whiston — that Israel is one of, if not the worst, human rights violators in the world and destroying/dismantling her will be a great victory, ranks among the most self-destructive delusions the world has ever seen. I hope historians a generation from now will be able to say, “Wow, that was a close call.”