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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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Of course, merely counting the number of documents issued about a country is a crude measure of Human Rights Watch's work. For one thing, not all documents are equally long or detailed, as we have seen in the current Lebanon war. In search of a more sensitive measure, NGO Monitor assigned weights to different kinds of HRW documents--press releases, "background briefings," "reports," etc.--to reflect their length and detail. When all these numbers were added up, however, the results were about the same as the results of just counting documents. The weighted score of the attention paid to Israel came to 145, while for Syria the weighted score was 23 and for Libya, 13.

The study then applied one further refinement. Not all Human Rights Watch documents are wholly critical of the country in question. Some herald positive developments, such as the relaxation of government repression, while others are mixed, commenting on positive as well as negative developments. To assess the tenor of the documents aimed at the various Middle Eastern countries, NGO Monitor classified their titles. Here are some examples of what it called "critical" titles: "Israel: Budget Discriminates Against Arab Citizens," or "Israel: West Bank Barrier Violates Human Rights." And here is an example of what it called a "noncritical" title: "Egypt: Emergency Court Acquits Political Dissident." NGO Monitor found that of the 33 documents aimed at Israel, 76 percent had critical titles. Of the 19 aimed at Egypt, the proportion was 63 percent. The share of documents with critical titles for other regional countries was: Iran 64 percent, Saudi Arabia 64 percent, Palestinian Authority 40 percent, Libya 75 percent, and Syria 50 percent. Of all the countries in the region, not only was Israel singled out by Human Rights Watch for the most attention, but also for the highest share of negative attention. In the same period that Human Rights Watch issued 25 separate documents with critical titles aimed at Israel, it issued exactly 2 such aimed at Syria.

NGO Monitor found that the disproportionate focus on Israel lessened in 2005, perhaps in response to its own criticism of HRW, but still bore no reasonable relation to the degree and frequency of abuses by the Israeli government in comparison with those of others in the region. Then in 2006, with the war in Lebanon, the previous pattern reemerged.

Manifestly, the work of Human Rights Watch on the Middle East is motivated less by concern for human rights than by the goal of damning Israel. Why this might be is not self-evident. But it perpetuates a long tradition of the appropriation of human rights terminology by groups and individuals whose true goals lie elsewhere, often quite far afield.

Consider, for example, that most venerable of American rights-protection organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of its early leaders expressed open sympathy for Soviet communism, and one of those founders, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was also a leader of the Communist Party USA throughout Stalin's tyranny. (One may infer that this particular "civil libertarian" dreamed of an America in which millions of recalcitrant, bourgeois "enemies of the people" would be shot or dispatched to prison camps.) The gradual disillusionment of other ACLU leaders with the Soviet Union intensified with the Stalin-Hitler pact, and in 1940 they decided to expel Flynn from their ranks. This marked a triumph for the sincere civil libertarians over those who used the ACLU for ulterior motives. It was not, however, to be the final chapter.

In the 1960s and '70s, the group took a sharp tack to the left. It began with the New York City teachers' strike of 1968. The strike was precipitated by a purge of union members carried out by black radicals who had taken over a local school board. Insofar as there were civil liberties aspects to the confrontation, the victims were the teachers whose rights to due process and freedom of association had been trampled. But in a stunning inversion, the head of the ACLU's New York branch, Aryeh Neier, aligned the organization against the teachers. To Neier, the crucial priority was to stand with the black revolutionaries, civil liberties be damned.

This split the ACLU, with many of the true civil libertarians leaving, thus facilitating Neier's efforts to turn the organization into more of a multipurpose agitational group for leftist causes. The new posture was consecrated in 1976, when the group voted to rehabilitate Flynn (who had gone on to become the national chairman of the Communist party and died in the USSR). In a ritual reminiscent of Soviet bloc politics, she was posthumously restored to a position of honor in the ACLU.

Neier would soon broaden his ambit to international affairs. The rise of human rights as an issue in U.S. foreign policy began in the early 1970s, stemming from two causes. One was the campaign for free immigration from the Soviet Union. The other was the opposition to the war in Vietnam. For the former movement, human rights for Soviet citizens was an end in itself. For the latter, human rights was a means to an end, the ultimate goal being America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Exposing human rights violations on the part of our ally, the government of South Vietnam, was a way of convincing the public that our side was not just.

As the antiwar movement grew more radical in its critique of U.S. policy, it came to see Vietnam as but one instance of a broader pattern in which America and its local right-wing allies worked to repress indigenous liberation forces around the globe. Accordingly, the goals of these activists broadened beyond Vietnam.

The antiwar wing of the human rights movement formed a highly effective lobby called the Human Rights Working Group. Organized under the umbrella of something called the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, it was responsible for securing most human rights legislation (other than the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked trade with the Soviet Union to free emigration). This included laws placing human rights conditions on U.S. foreign aid, requiring annual reports from the State Department on the human rights records of other governments, and the like.

According to Bruce Cameron, who served as one of its two co-chairs, "the agreements made at the beginning [were] that the Human Rights Working Group would not touch . . . the Soviet bloc . . . because they were regarded as on the side of the 'good guys.'" This did not mean that the Soviet Union was an object of veneration, as it had been for Elizabeth Flynn. Instead, "the core group clearly thought of the world [as being] divided between the evil U.S., the questionable Soviet Union, and the good Third World People." When this group designed laws constraining U.S. aid to rightist regimes, it was not with the goal of pressuring them to reform; rather, it was to weaken the incumbents so they might more easily be overthrown. As Cameron explained, "The motive was that if you cut the link . . . then you create more space for the revolutionary Third World people to assert their right to self-determination."

To say that this motive was ulterior is not to say that these activists were insincere in their profession of commitment to human rights. Rather, they harbored an idiosyncratic picture of reality, perceiving an efflorescence of human rights in revolutionary regimes that appeared to others as the bleakest dictatorships. For example, Cameron's co-chair of the Human Rights Working Group, Jacqui Chagnon, went off after a few years to live in the Lao People's Democratic Republic as a field worker. The Laos regime, which always scored the lowest possible rank on Freedom House's survey of freedom, and which was widely regarded as a puppet of Vietnam's, stirred Chagnon's profound admiration.

"What I found," she told me in 1983 after her return, "is that most of the rich people, not all, didn't like the current government and most of the poor people did. But the majority are poor; therefore the majority do like the current government." As for the notorious Laotian reeducation camps that one might think would trouble a human rights activist, Chagnon was upbeat. "They simply just took the heavy-duty 'baddies' and put them in remote areas, essentially, and said, 'take care of yourselves,'" she explained. When I asked about the 300,000 Laotians, some 8 percent of the population, who had by then fled the country, most seeking asylum in the United States, Chagnon said that this was at bottom due to a misunderstanding: "They have this conception that we don't pay taxes. In some way the word 'freedom' and the word 'free' got mixed up. So therefore they were blaming their government for making them pay a tax that we could consider wonderful by our standards." The Lao nation, apparently, was rife with libertarians. Whichever of them had the misfortune to reach our shores would surely bolt for the first boat back as soon as they got wind of the IRS.

In short, the human rights movement had two wings, one whose focus was anti-Soviet and one whose focus was anti-American. Human Rights Watch, founded by Aryeh Neier and a couple of colleagues in 1978, amalgamated both. Initially, in fact, it was not a single organization but a constellation of several, organized by region: Helsinki Watch (for the Soviet bloc), Americas Watch, Asia Watch, etc. Later, they combined into a single body.

Helsinki Watch distinguished itself by fine work in support of Soviet and Eastern European dissidents. And some of the other regional groups did likewise. Asia Watch, for example, advocated powerfully on behalf of the Chinese democracy movement mowed down around Tiananmen Square. As with the ACLU, many of those involved in HRW, including even some with hard left pasts, came to value the human rights cause above ideology. But the leftist strain that turned the human rights cause upside down--exemplified in Jacqui Chagnon's dogged and inventive devotion to the Lao People's Democratic Republic--was ever present.

In the 1980s, it made itself felt most forcefully in the work of Americas Watch, led directly by Neier. While combating the very real crimes of rightist military regimes in Central America, Americas Watch also made evident its sympathy for the leftist guerrilla opposition, whose depredations were less lethal, if at all, only for lack of opportunity. This ideologically twisted use of the human rights issue came into especially bold relief in Nicaragua, where the usual roles were reversed.

The Communist Sandinistas had taken power, instituting a dictatorship, and were opposed by anti-Communist guerrillas. Suddenly, Americas Watch directed less of its critical scrutiny to the people in power than to the insurgents, whereas elsewhere it had justified ignoring the misdeeds of (leftist) guerrillas on the grounds that they did not constitute a government. While Americas Watch sometimes criticized the acts of Sandinistas, these criticisms were hedged with excuses and explanations--the abuses did not constitute a "pattern," or they were justified by "national security"--the very sorts of argument to which Americas Watch gave no credence when offered by rightist regimes.

In addition, Americas Watch issued numerous documents debunking charges against the Sandinistas by Nicaraguan defectors and other human rights organizations, both Nicaraguan and American. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights, a venerable Nicaraguan group that had defended the Sandinistas when they were repressed by the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and whose denunciations of the Sandinistas therefore carried special credibility, was, perhaps for that very reason, a notable target of Americas Watch. Another such was the U.S.-based International League for Human Rights.

All of this was a peculiar use of resources for a human rights organization. Americas Watch therefore explained in one of these broadsides why it was defending an abusive government. "Ordinarily, we do not take pains to state the abuses of which a government is not guilty," it said. "In the case of Nicaragua, we feel called upon to do so because the Reagan administration has engaged in a concerted effort to distort the facts, charging the Nicaraguan government with abuses far in excess of what it actually commits." Clearly, Americas Watch deemed it more important to combat Reagan than to combat human rights violations.

The end of Soviet expansionism also brought an end to the Sandinista regime, which, shorn of its superpower protector, was forced to hold free elections that turned it out of office. It also diminished the distortions in Human Rights Watch's work that had been caused by the ideological polarization of the Cold War.

But it did not eliminate them entirely. The leftist and anti-American impulses were still strong, even if robbed of a long familiar context. Ten days after the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, Human Rights Watch issued a call to arms:

In the coming weeks and months, we at Human Rights Watch will make every effort to monitor compliance with international humanitarian law by all parties to an armed conflict that now seems inevitable. We will have teams of researchers deployed throughout central and south Asia to investigate any failure in the duty to spare civilians and to insist that refugees from the fighting be properly protected. Where police are engaged in bringing suspects to justice, we will uphold international standards of law enforcement. And in countries where the fear of terrorist attack runs highest, we will be vigilant for harassment and discrimination against Muslims, people of Arab or Asian descent, and other people of color who may be unfairly targeted in this fraught political climate.

Clearly, the anticipated threat stemmed not from the terrorists but from the response by the United States and its allies. With war looming against al Qaeda, Human Rights Watch further admonished Americans that "like the office workers in the World Trade Center, the ordinary women and men of Afghanistan do not deserve to die." This suggested that to make war on al Qaeda, with its inevitable collateral casualties, would make America no less culpable than the terrorists. What, then, should the United States do about the attacks perpetrated against it? "Those responsible should be held accountable and brought to justice before a court of law," recommended HRW.

Spurning this advice, the American government declared a war against terrorism. Throughout the five years of this war, Human Rights Watch has focused on what it portrays as an endless parade of abuses by the United States and its allies.

In response to the criticisms leveled by NGO Monitor at Human Rights Watch's treatment of Israel, HRW produced its own count of the documents it issued regarding the Middle East and North Africa over a five and a half year period, starting in 2000. It shows that there were about as many documents on Iran as on Israel and marginally more on Egypt.

It also showed that the one Middle Eastern country that had received appreciably more attention from Human Rights Watch, the subject of twice as many reports as Israel, Iran, or Egypt, was Iraq. And who do you suppose was the main villain in Iraq? Saddam Hussein? Al Qaeda in Iraq, which planted bombs killing civilians day in, day out? Of course not. The villain was the United States. Human Rights Watch issued nearly three times as many documents focusing on the depredations of the United States as on Saddam and the Iraqi "resistance" combined. HRW's treatment of Iraq also cast further light on its treatment of Israel. The period covered by HRW's self-study included the last 39 months of Saddam's rule, during which time it had addressed 20 documents to the behavior of his regime. During the same period, HRW found cause to issue some 62 documents aimed at Israel. Saddam might have been an unfortunate ruler for Iraq, but it seems he was nowhere so bad as the prime ministers of Israel.

This was the period during which the second intifada began. It pitted a democratic state against an insurgency whose method consisted almost entirely of terrorism and whose ideology ran the gamut from authoritarian to totalitarian to nihilist. Why is it not shocking to report that Human Rights Watch, among others of its ilk, reserved most blame for the country that practices democracy and allies itself with America?

It is not shocking because we have grown all too familiar with the misuse of terms like "democratic," as in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, and "human rights" by people who harbor disguised ideological agendas. When Human Rights Watch decided in the recent war in Lebanon to treat Israel, rather than Hezbollah, as the blameworthy side, it was not acting from any logic of human rights as most would understand that term. It was upholding a long, lamentable tradition.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writes often about international human rights issues.