The Magazine

Human Rights Watch vs. Human Rights

The cynical manipulation of a worthy cause has a history.

Sep 11, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 48 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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Just three weeks after Hezbollah invaded Israel, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and causing the deaths of eight others, Human Rights Watch issued a 49-page report about the war that had been ignited by this attack. The title of the report was Fatal Strikes: Israel's Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon. "Our research shows that Israel's claim that Hezbollah fighters are hiding among civilians does not explain, let alone justify, Israel's indiscriminate warfare," declared Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based nongovernmental organization. "In some cases, these attacks constitute war crimes," the group concluded. Then it added the most damning charge of all: "In some instances, Israeli forces appear to have deliberately targeted civilians."

Human Rights Watch did not claim that its representatives were present when any of these alleged crimes occurred. Rather, the report explained that its information was gleaned from interviewing "eye-witnesses and survivors" of Israeli strikes who "told Human Rights Watch that neither Hezbollah fighters nor other legitimate military targets were in the area that the IDF attacked." To reinforce its interpretation, the report added that when Human Rights Watch investigators arrived at the various scenes, they did not see "any signs of military activity in the area[s] attacked, such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers, other military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters."

There was of course no dependable method by which Human Rights Watch could assess the veracity of what it was told by the "witnesses." Indeed, there was no means by which it could be sure that they were not Hezbollah cadres, since members of the group do not ordinarily wear uniforms or display identity badges. As for the absence of physical signs of Hezbollah's presence at bomb sites, the report seemed to assume that the group would have left in place damaged weapons and fallen and injured comrades during the hours, or more likely days, that passed before HRW's investigators arrived at each site. For the especially grave accusation that civilian deaths were inflicted "deliberately," no evidence was offered. Civilians were hit, of course, and individuals claiming to be witnesses denied Hezbollah had been in the area.

A couple of weeks earlier, Human Rights Watch had issued a press release criticizing Hezbollah's bombardment of the Israeli city of Haifa. "Attacking civilian areas indiscriminately is a serious violation of international humanitarian law and can constitute a war crime," it said before going on to chastise both sides. This hedged judgment ("can constitute") contrasted with the group's unequivocal statement that Israel was guilty of war crimes. Only after its broadside against Israel evoked angry retorts from Israel's sympathizers did Human Rights Watch sharpen its criticism of Hezbollah to make it as plain as its criticism of Israel. "Lobbing rockets blindly into civilian areas is without doubt a war crime," clarified Roth.

Still, Human Rights Watch did not issue any report about the attacks against Israel perpetrated by Hezbollah, although these amounted to several thousand missiles fired blatantly at civilian targets, every one of them an unambiguous war crime. The warheads of these missiles, moreover, were packed with ball bearings, which are of minimal use against military targets but intended to maximize harm to civilians, this in itself constituting in each instance an additional probable war crime. Such criticisms of Hezbollah as passed the lips of Human Rights Watch came in the few brief words of press releases, while its bitter condemnation of Israel came in the lengthy report as well as in numerous shorter documents.

The decision by Human Rights Watch to treat Israel as the main culprit in this war also entailed a studied refusal to make basic moral and legal distinctions. The group did not differentiate between Hezbollah's action in initiating the conflict and Israel's reaction in self-defense, nor between Hezbollah's openly announced and quite deliberate targeting of civilians and Israel's alleged indiscriminate firing that caused civilian casualties despite Israel's appeals to Lebanese civilians to evacuate areas it intended to bombard.

Most remarkably, Human Rights Watch did not take note of the contrasting goals of the combatants. Hezbollah's declared aim, in the words of its "spiritual" leader, Sheikh Fadlallah, is to "obliterate" Israel, while Israel's goal boiled down to not being obliterated. Human Rights Watch justifies this self-imposed moral blindness on the grounds that its touchstone is law, not morality. But why, then, was it deafeningly silent on the overriding legal issue that the conflict presented--namely, genocide?