Human Rights Watch was founded in 1978 in New York (as Helsinki Watch) with the mission of using public demonstrations and other forms of “naming and shaming” to free prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Many Gulag denizens, including Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, later recognized HRW’s role in gaining their freedom. Shortly thereafter HRW began advocating on behalf of political prisoners and torture victims in other totalitarian regimes, including in Chile, Argentina, and Greece.
But since then, HRW has lost its moral compass, and the organization is using its substantial budget ($42 million in 2008) to repeatedly attack Israel by exploiting the language of human rights and international law. Tendentious reports and press conferences, using distorted legal rhetoric in place of credible evidence, target Israeli responses to terror attacks from Arafat, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
My organization, NGO Monitor, annually releases a systematic analysis of HRW’s agenda, and our reports clearly show that HRW singles out Israel in the Middle East. For years, this arbiter of international morality and human rights had very little to say about Libya, Saudi Arabia, or Palestinian terrorists. HRW’s recent cautious criticism of Saudi policy came only after a reorganization of the organization’s board — and then only after receiving unwelcome attention for its see-no-evil treatment of the Kingdom. In May 2009, Arab News reported that HRW officials went to Saudi Arabia to raise funds, advertising the numerous condemnations and pseudo-research reports against Israel in the Gaza war. Some of the founders, including Robert Bernstein, are in strong disagreement with the organization they built.
How and why did this human-rights superpower turn into a major Israel-basher, along with London-based Amnesty International (which began with a similar mission at about the same time)? And why do such groups appear to be credible and moral — if not as vocal — only when it comes to human-rights violations outside the Middle East, such as those in China?
Part of the answer is the addiction to the influence, power, and money that lies just below the moral façade. The collapse of the Soviet empire forced groups like HRW to create new objectives if they wanted to keep the donations coming (and they succeeded; HRW executive director Ken Roth has a $350,000 salary package). The struggle against South African apartheid was but a short-lived substitute.
HRW and Amnesty transformed from human rights groups to “research organizations,” claiming expertise in the complexities of international law and armed conflict. They added a few self-proclaimed experts in these fields, and began producing impressive-looking battlefield reports based on unverifiable “eyewitness testimony” and emotive graphics. The Arab-Israeli conflict was a prime target — and HRW’s agenda fit directly into the Palestinian political strategy of isolating and demonizing Israel through the vocabulary of human rights.
The campaign to label Zionism as racism, endorsed by the U.N. in the mid-1970s, returned in the late 1990s as the Oslo process exploded, giving the NGO network a powerful platform. For the Arabs and Iran, anti-Israel NGO activists who labeled Zionism as “neo-colonialism” and the “new apartheid” became convenient allies. Double standards promoting anti-Israel positions provided direct access to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (now Council), led by moral stalwarts such as Iran, Libya, Pakistan, and Cuba. In every round of violence, including the 2002 Jenin “massacre” myth, the 2006 Lebanon war, and numerous others, HRW officials called for international investigations of Israeli “war crimes” and “violations of international law.” Meanwhile, HRW’s annual income grew as fast as Bernie Madoff’s balance sheets.
Most recently, during the Gaza war, the U.N. Human Rights Council appointed HRW board member Richard Goldstone to head the inquisition. This highlighted the symbiotic relationship between powerful political NGOs and the anti-Western and anti-Israel regimes that control the relevant U.N. frameworks. And as a U.S.-based NGO with many Jewish donors, HRW was a welcome ally in Israel-bashing. (Goldstone resigned from HRW, and his name was quickly removed from the website, after NGO Monitor highlighted the conflict of interest.)