Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Questions re Human Rights Watch's credibility in Lebanon reporting

(Update, November 24, 2006. Someone has pointed out to me that I have been quoted from this post by NGO monitor in an exchange over Aryeh Neier's piece in the New York Review of Books (November 2, 2006) defending Human Rights Watch from attacks by NGO monitor. The letter is here. I certainly have criticisms of HRW - I make some of them below - but I do find that the quotation in the letter is taken more than bit out of context. It does come, after all, in the middle of a paragraph defending HRW as nonetheless the most scrupulous of the human rights monitors. I can't address the specific factual issues in the Lebanon war that got this dispute underway; I criticize below HRW's tendency to present to the public and press what are essentially lawyers' briefs that shape the facts and law toward conclusions that HRW favors without really presenting the full range of factual and legal objections to its position - I think this is tendentious because these brief-reports are not addressed to a court that would receive briefs from both sides, but instead to a credulous press that has no real basis for understanding the debate on both sides. I think - and have repeatedly told people at HRW - that it has an obligation to present fairly the entire debate; I can say categorically that it has never paid the slightest attention and that its reporting continues to be as tendentious as ever. But that's something quite limited and does not take a position on the current argument between HRW and NGO monitor, which, truth be told, I had not been following until someone mentioned that this blog post had been quoted.)

I don't suppose this argument over Human Rights Watch's credibility in its Lebanon reporting is going to be resolved anytime soon. Here is Volokh Conspiracy's David Bernstein on the subject; Dershowitz is over at the Huffington Post, here. And Maimon Schwarzschild, here, thanks Instapundit. And Avi Bell, guestblogging at Opinio Juris, here. There are probably some others I don't know about, but will add the links here as I find out. For that matter, here is HRW's website. I'm afraid I don't have anything to say on the actual facts of what they dispute - but wanted to archive the dispute here for future reference.

(Welcome, Instapunditeers, and thanks Glenn for the Instalanche. I should add autobiographically that I was the first director of the HRW Arms Division and worked for HRW for several years back in the early 1990s; I had also done a great deal of pro bono work for the organization back in the 1980s, reporting on countries such as Guatemala, Yugoslavia, Panama, Georgia, Iraq, and other places. I am reticent about criticizing an organization I once worked for, and anyway, although I have grave concerns about where the human rights movement is headed - on a general perception that NGO movements, such as the human rights movement, often get trapped in a kind of spiral toward more and more extreme views, trapped in a certain rhetoric that eventually leads over a cliff - I still regard HRW, for the difficulties it clearly has, as the most credible of the human rights monitors. Amnesty International has clearly gone over the cliff; I very much hope that HRW does not - but it will take considerable outside pressure, I think, to shift it away from the kind of internal dynamic that so often seizes hold of NGO movements and carries them into weirdness. The risk, we should all bear in mind, that as they get weirder, they carry with them into disrepute moral language and concepts - the concept and language of human rights - that the rest of us cannot afford to lose. It's not merely an organization or a movement that is at risk - it is the credibility of human rights itself. HRW clearly thinks that it is sufficiently pure to be the Gate-Keeper of the True Path, or the human rights Vatican, or something like that - Kant, maybe - but everyone else who values these things as well might want to exercise their own judgment on that.)

I have criticized Human Rights Watch in the past on some of its legal judgments. In particular, I and others challenged HRW's reporting on Jenin, criticizing legal standards used in its reporting that made little or no reference to the obligations of defenders - ie, the commingling of military targets among civilians in advance of anticipated fighting. HRW wound up changing its characterization of the report on the website, at least for a time, to acknowledge the obligations of defenders, although not in the report itself. It is a general problem for human rights organizations, seemingly, that they focus to near exclusion on what the attackers do, especially in asymmetrical conflicts where the attackers are Western armies presumably more susceptible to media pressure of the kind that human rights monitors are able to generate. In addition, I suppose, these groups have so thoroughly internalized the asymmetrical rules of Protocol I that it is hard for them even to see that their legal standards have a problem. (See the discussion of this problem in relation to NGOs, press, and human rights monitors reporting on the commingling of civilians and military targets in the Iraq war, in this public letter, here.)

More broadly than that, however, my primary problem with Human Rights Watch's reporting is its lawyerly tendency toward tendentiousness. I mean that Human Rights Watch's reports are not neutral, scrupulously acknowledging the evidence or law or legal views that run against its reporting and legal conclusions. On the contrary, it rather proudly offers what can only be called briefs - shaping the law and evidence towards whatever conclusions it has decided to offer. In occasional conversations I've had with its senior staff and lawyers over the years, they defend this practice on the grounds that it is a legal organization, writing conclusions based on law applied to facts.

In my view, it is, however, a tendentiousness and frankly noxious practice because this 'brief-writing' is aimed not a court, which will at least have the benefit of an opposing counsel's briefs, with a different point of view, but instead a credulous, not well educated, and alas not-so-bright media. The media tend already to share HRW's point of view, and hence tend to ask few questions - if they could even think of any - and mostly wind up quoting the press release. (I don't think anyone - except in the most extraordinary instances, such as the Lebanon war - ever reads the actual reports, least of all the press, and it became something of a joke in the organization, with senior executives pleading with staff not to write so many pages that simpl;y won't get read. I'm sure that during the years I worked with and for HRW, and wrote many reports from the field, no one ever read the actual texts.)

In my view, an organization genuinely scrupulous about its neutrality and objectivity would make a concerted point, in its reports and analyses, of noting the objections that might be raised to its views, on both factual issues as well as legal points of view. It should adopt, that is, a scholarly or historical point of view, rather than that of a lawyer presenting one side to a court. This is not to say that it should not adopt whatever conclusion it thinks is right - but that it should make a genuine point, always, of presenting what a knowledgeable opponent might reasonably say on the other side, rather than relying on the ignorance and credulity and pre-existing sympathy of its media audience to not ask it any hard questions.

But this is a point I've made repeatedly over the years to HRW, and I'm not holding my breath. In any case, compared with the leading competition, the downward spiraling Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch is a beacon of disciplined thought.

(PS. The question of neutrality by NGOs is an important one, something I took up in an academic article a couple of years ago, available as a pdf from SSRN, here.)

(PPS. I had forgotten that I wrote a little about these issues while critiquing Amnesty International's infamous report talking about Guantanamo as a gulag. Here in the Weekly Standard from June 13, 2005.)


Anonymous said...

everything you need to know about hrw's intellectual integrity is revealed by ken roth's 'response' to his critics in last week's new york sun...

...they say a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client....apparently, that's as true for the letters section of a newspaper as it is in a courtroom...

he may be a smart man; he ain't an honorable one...

Anonymous said...

If I'm not mistaken, your objection to Human Rights Watch boils down to their tendency to abhor all violations of human rights, regardless of whether they are committed by democracies or terrorist groups.

The fact that terrorists cannot be swayed by media reports is a fact of life, and is not any reflection on the values of human rights monitors. That our countries can be held accountable for their human rights violations is the price we pay for living in free democratic societies.

I seriously question whether your objections are based on legal grounds or are based in the political realm. Surely as a lawyer you know that HRW, as an NGO, will criticise the violence of those whose causes you believe in as much as those you firmly oppose.

Anonymous said...

"Flying Rodent",

You are, in fact, mistaken. His objection is clearly to HRW's tendency towards not applying the same rules across the board. i.e. In particular, I and others challenged HRW's reporting on Jenin, criticizing legal standards used in its reporting that made little or no reference to the obligations of defenders - ie, the commingling of military targets among civilians in advance of anticipated fighting.

Do you understand what "tendentious" means?

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, even lawyers (good lawyers, at least) know that to make an argument they have to make the argument for the other side. Fascists argue by saying we're right and there is no argument for the other side. For example an enemy operative stated in a recent opinion against the American people:

"The [thing we don't like] has undisputedly been continued for at least five years, it has undisputedly been implemented without regard to [a law] , and obviously in violation of the [the constitution]."

That's how a dumb liberal argues. Stupid liberals have faced no dissent since they conquered the culture. Human Rights Watch is a classic example. The dumb liberals at Human Rights Watch (who probably all voted for that illiterate D student, Mr. Kerry) simply do not understand how to make an argument that acknowledges another side to an issue.

Anonymous said...

No, I am far too stupid to understand what complicated words such as "tendentious" mean.

From my feeble understanding of your point, I assume that you mean that Mr. Anderson is opposed that old debbil "moral relativism".

My understanding of the term is that it means "applying a higher standard of conduct to one group of people as opposed to another because of context".

I do not dispute Israel's right to defend itself from attacks by terrorist groups. What I do dispute is the notion that those attacks somehow allow Israel to ignore its treaty obligations.

The fact that Hezbollah mingles with civilians does not grant carte blanche to Israel, any more than it would to Iran or Syria, to disregard its obligations.

If Israel wishes to derogate from the UDHR, the ICCPR and the Geneva Conventions, that is its own affair.

But it cannot complain if it is caught violating those treaties, and neither can its supporters.

Human rights organisations are concerned with human rights violations, not political justifications for military conflicts. They do not care whether the dead are killed by terrorists or democratic nations.

It is not logical to smear HR organisations - they are the vanguard of democratic reform in countries with autocratic regimes. Is it not possible that they, who have visited and inspected the countries they are talking about, are correct?

Or would you, from the chair in front of your computer, claim to know better?

Anonymous said...

Rich Vail,
Pikesville, MD
...says...(I don't hide behind the anonimity of a nom'd'plume)

Flying Rodent, I beg to differ that the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to Hizb'Allah because it is NOT a is a terrorist organization the purposely puts civilian populations at risk as a part of their tactics to show the imperialist/zionist entity as being evil. The BBC addmitted that it's reporting of civlilian casualties was flawed in that the majority of "civilian" casualties were men of military age (i.e. 17-35 y.o.). As a mater of simple fact "guerrillas/terrorist" are exempt from coverage of the Geneva Conventions...HRW is guilty of presenting propoganda on behalf of Hizb'Allah...and NOT condeming Hizb'Allah's actions against Isreal.

Anonymous said...


Israel cannot contravene its international obligations. If it does so, it provides precedent for other far less scrupulous nations to follow suit.

But why don't you all check this out, cut and pasted from another site?

Human Rights Watch on Janjaweed militia in Sudan:

Human Rights Watch on Bashar Al-Asad, supreme tyrant of Syria:

Human Rights Watch to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regarding the conflict in Lebanon?

I believe this is the point where you say that these letters were created to cover HRW's backside.

HackleHead said...

As I have discussed here the left seems to think that nobody notices the double standards they promote when they issue their reports

Anonymous said...

Flying Rodent,

You must have read Ken's post far differently than me. His objection is precisely that the HRW has taken a side and fails to present all HR violations. I have no problem if any alleged Israeli violation is reported by HRW provided it does the same with respect to Hizbollah.

But your sermonizing about HR orgs being in the "vanguard" of promoting democracy indicates that you perceive them without fault and therefore shows a bias toward HRW and other organizations, thereby undermining your argument. They are far from perfect (see the rush to judgement by them in the "massacre" at Jenin).

Lastly, I don't know the Geneva Conventions with regard to non-state actors, but if the Conventions do not apply to orgs like Hizbollah, it needs amending to ensure all actors have commitments in war to be followed.

Anonymous said...

NGO Monitor ( documented numerous of examples in which human rights norms and the rhetoric of international law have been distorted by NGO's like HRW. During the war, NGOs, including HRW, issued a highly disproportionate number of publications, the vast majority of which condemned Israeli responses to Hezbollah attacks. In response, NGO Monitor analyzed more than 100 statements by 19 major NGOs, including HRW. Many of these analyses included demonstrably false statements, contradictions and unverifiable claims from Lebanese "eyewitnesses", and they attempted to apply a biased version of human rights and international law.

Attached is a link to NGO Monitor's Analysis of NGO Responses to the Lebanon War:

Please see, for more detailed reporting and analysis on NGO activities, including those of HRW.

Sildenafil Citrate said...

I have my doubts about the credibility of human rights in Lebanon after all my eyes have seen there and I really wish that authorities do something about it!

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