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Watching Human Rights Watch

Unfair and unbalanced.

12:16 PM, Mar 29, 2010 • By DANIEL HALPER
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The Times of London has a comprehensive rundown of the problems facing Human Rights Watch:

When the story broke that one of the organisation’s most prominent and vocal members of staff might be a collector of Nazi-era military memorabilia it felt like some sort of sexual scandal had erupted in the Victorian church. For a lobbying group accustomed to adulatory coverage in the media, it was a public-relations catastrophe.

Human Rights Watch is one of two global superpowers among the world’s myriad humanitarian pressure groups. It is relatively young — established in its current form in 1988 — but it has grown so quickly in size, wealth and influence that it has all but eclipsed its older, London-based rival, Amnesty International.

Unlike Amnesty, HRW, as it is known, gets its money from charitable foundations and wealthy individuals — such as the financier George Soros — rather than a mass membership. And, also unlike Amnesty, it seeks to make an impact, not through extensive letter-writing campaigns, but by talking to governments and the media, urging openness and candour and backing up its advocacy with research reports. It is an association that is all about influence — an influence that depends on a carefully honed image of objectivity, expertise and high moral tone. So it was perhaps a little awkward that a key member of staff was found to have such a treasure trove of Nazi regalia.

By day, Marc Garlasco was HRW’s only military expert, the person that its Emergencies Division would send to conflict zones to investigate alleged war crimes. He wrote reports condemning the dropping of cluster bombs in the Russia-Georgia war, the alleged illegal use of white phosphorus by the Israeli army in Gaza and coalition tactics that he said “unnecessarily” put Iraqi or Afghan civilians at risk. An enthusiastic source of quotes for the media, he was incessantly on the phone to journalists.

But by night, Garlasco was “Flak88”, an obsessive contributor to internet forums on Third Reich memorabilia and an avid collector of badges and medals emblazoned with swastikas and eagles....

Human Rights Watch does perform a useful task, but its critics raise troubling questions that go beyond Garlasco’s hobby or raising money from Saudis. Why put such effort into publicising alleged human-rights violations in some countries but not others? Why does HRW seem so credulous of civilian witnesses in places like Gaza and Afghanistan but so sceptical of anyone in a uniform?

It may be that organisations like HRW that depend on the media for their profile — and therefore their donations — concentrate too much on places that the media already cares about.

HRW’s reaction to the scandals has perhaps cost it more credibility than the scandals themselves. It has revealed an organisation that does not always practice the transparency, tolerance and accountability it urges on others.

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