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Home THE BIAS IN HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH

Human Rights Watch
by NGO Monitor Summary Saturday, Apr. 08, 2006 at 10:03 AM

If America knew :Media bias in Middle East

Human Rights Watch in 2005: Political Bias Despite
Wider Middle East Focus

While NGO Monitor's analysis shows a significant reduction in Human Rights Watch's disproportionate focus on Israel in 2005, compared with 2004, clear evidence of systematic political bias remains. Many HRW publications continue to reflect what can be described as gratuitous political attacks against Israel, often based on unverified media reports, and reflecting a hostile political agenda. Similarly, as found in NGO Monitor's 2004 report, HRW's use of language to condemn Israel is highly politicized, especially when compared to reports on other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Libya, and continues to deny Israel the right to self-defense under international law. Some sporadic condemnations of Palestinian terror not withstanding, this analysis shows that the measures taken to end the anti-Israel bias among HRW officials and to restore the principle of universality in human rights have been insufficient.

Using the methodology outlined in NGO Monitor's 2004 report on HRW, this report first presents a quantitative analysis of HRW publications regarding Israel (including the use of language), followed by detailed examples from individual publications in 2005. In addition, this report provides an update on HRW's approach to the Middle East during the first quarter of 2006.

Quantitative Analysis of HRW publications on Israel: 2005

Following NGO Monitor's analysis showing the disproportionate level of HRW's resources devoted to condemning Israel in the period between 2000 and 2004, there has been a significant downward trend. This is measured using the quantitative comparative method explained in the earlier reports (see full report for details). The following graphs demonstrate this change:

HRW Middle East Focus:

>From July to December 2005, greater emphasis was placed on reporting human rights abuses in Tunisia (29 points), Morocco (33 points), Iran (49 points), Iraq (53 points), Egypt (48 points), Jordan (19 points), Tunisia (29 points), Saudi Arabia (21 points) and Syria (13 points), than on claims regarding Israel (7 points).

The shift in the allocation of resources away from an extreme over-emphasis on Israel coincides with a number of internal developments at HRW. These include the reorganization of the Middle East Advisory Board (following NGO Monitor's earlier reports on HRW bias), which led directly to the expanded scope of its regional activities. In 2005, HRW issued no biased and unverifiable reports comparable to "Razing Rafah", which was accompanied by a large-scale anti-Israel public relations campaign. The involvement of officials in promoting divestment and other campaigns was also curtailed.

In addition, in the past year, HRW has expanded its professional staff significantly. Aisling Reidy, former executive director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is the new Senior Legal advisor, whose role is to "provide advice on international human rights and humanitarian law, and on organizational policy, to the regional and thematic divisions of [HRW]". John Sifton, former HRW researcher on Afghanistan, Iraq and military and counterterrorism issues has taken the new post of Project Director for Terrorism / Counterterrorism. The HRW website does not identify who has filled the position of the Beirut-based researcher on Syria and Lebanon. This may reflect legitimate security concerns, but this lack of transparency makes it impossible to assess his/her qualifications or monitor the credibility of the reports. HRW is now advertising for a new Deputy Director, to market the NGO's 30th anniversary and "to place Human Rights Watch more effectively in the public domain."

This expansion follows a $15m funding commitment from Herb and Marion Sandler, co-CEOs of Forbes.com. Other major HRW funders include the Ford Foundation, Novib- the Dutch Organization for International development cooperation (part of Oxfam International), and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Language as a reflection of HRW's political agenda

NGO Monitor's analysis of HRW's activities in 2004 included an examination of the language that was used in various reports and campaigns. The findings showed that by repeating claims of Israeli violations of international law, war crimes, collective punishment, etc. without providing any consistent criteria for the use of such terminology, HRW was contributing to the demonization of Israel, consistent with the Durban strategy.

In 2005, despite the considerably lower level of resources devoted to such attacks, the language used in HRW reports with respect to Israel continued to exhibit clear disproportionality and a lack of universality, despite its claim "that international standards of human rights apply to all people equally."

In the activities related to Israel, NGO Monitor found 38 instances in which HRW made allegations of "Violation International Humanitarian law / human rights law", in comparison to the much lower levels in the case of the PA (2), Egypt (4), Syria (3) and Morocco (1). Israel was charged with "grave" and /or "serious" human rights"violations" and/or "abuses" 32 times*; compared to Egypt (22) while all other countries examined received fewer than 10. Israel was the only country charged with "collective punishment" and "war crimes". Eighteen citations of "Arbitrary/ unlawful Killing / killing of civilians / extra judicial killings / summary executions" were found describing Israel, compared to Egypt (1), Algeria (3) and Syria (1). As noted above, in terms of the scale of reports of human rights violations, Egypt was cited twice as much as Israel in 2005. This shows that HRW's terminology of condemnation, in which the proportions are reversed, is particularly salient and inconsistent.

HRW's use of language in such a disproportionate and non-universal way demonizes and delegitimizes Israel, and fundamentally undermines the universal human rights standards that HRW claims to uphold.

* This number includes the following citations: human rights violations, human rights abuses, grave human rights violations, grave human rights abuses, serious human rights violations, serious human rights abuses.

Note: There are no incidences of the use of the word "terrorist" by HRW to describe actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Armed Palestinian" or "militant groups" are used frequently, even in relation to suicide bombings. "Terrorist" only appears when a second source is quoted, e.g. "Ha'aretz reported that during a government debate on cutting electricity to Gaza, 'the prevailing view was that Palestinian public opinion could pressure the terrorist organizations.'"

Note on methodology: Citations were counted only when the words used referred to the country in question in a specific and descriptive manner. The academic discussion of the boundaries of certain human rights violations that often appears in the introduction to Human Rights Watch publications were therefore not included in the count. The HRW Annual Human Rights Overview published in January 2006 (covering 2005) is included in the language analysis. See Appendix for complete table of results.

Examples from 2005 showing HRW's continuing political agenda and bias

HRW's activities related to Israel continue to reflect a strong political bias, despite the reduction in the volume of condemnations. Combined with the omission of any mention of human rights abuses in the Palestinian Authority (by either the PA or terrorist groups) in the second half of 2005, HRW's politically motivated attacks still contribute to the wider vilification campaign against Israel. By continuing to play a central part in the ongoing Durban strategy, these activities undermine the credibility of HRW's claim to pursue universal human rights norms.

On December 27, HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson (whose anti-Israel activism predates her employment at HRW) attacked Israeli policy in a letter to President Bush condemning "Expanding Settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories". As in past HRW allegations against Israel, this letter was based on unverified media reports and invoked the distorted politicized rhetoric of international law, including references to the discredited advisory opinion of the ICJ. It also included some factually wrong statements, such as the claim that "no one but Israel disputes the fact that its settlement policy violates IHL (international humanitarian law)" - for over 25 years, the US government has adopted the position that Israeli settlements are not illegal. Similarly, in referring to the security barrier, Whitson describes it as the "metal and concrete barrier (hereinafter the 'wall')," - in reality, over 95% of the barrier is fence and less than 5% "wall." Whitson concludes her letter by restating the overriding political objective of HRW's leadership: sanctions against Israel, including cutting US aid.

On December 23, Sarah Leah Whitson again used the rhetoric of international law in attacking a column by an Israeli journalist on options for responding to continued Palestinian missile attacks from Gaza. Whitson's clearly political press release was headlined "Israel: Gaza Power Cut Would Violate Laws of War: Militant Attacks Cannot Justify Unlawful Collective Punishment". Although the statement condemned "the use of Qassam rockets, which are indiscriminate weapons often fired into Israeli civilian areas in violation of international humanitarian law", this was a secondary issue for HRW, and not the focus of the statement.

These tendentious political attacks led to criticism of HRW's agenda. The Vice President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, strongly criticized HRW's biased approach. He noted that Israel has shown a willingness to make adjustments to the fence, which is "movable and reversible," but "the victims of terror can't be reversed." Mr. Hoenlein also faulted Human Rights Watch for its failure to use its resources to highlight the human rights abuses of Palestinian terrorists, as demonstrated by NGO Monitor reports.

Examples from January to March 2006

From January to March 2006, HRW has continued the increased emphasis on human rights violations beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict zone. It has published analyses regarding events in Libya, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Tunisia, Syria, Algeria, Egypt and Morocco.

However, HRW officials also continued to pursue a political agenda, using language that reflects the anti-Israel bias. In its Annual Human Rights Overview, Israel/OPT section, published in January 2006, HRW repeats the standard slogan of the politicized NGO network when it states that after disengagement "Gaza remains occupied." Alleging that "[s]ince the withdrawal, Israel has carried out aerial bombardments, including targeted killings...[in] Gaza," the summary omits any mention of the continued rocket and terror attacks from Palestinians inside Gaza. Israel is routinely blamed for "contributing to a serious humanitarian crisis" due to its policy of closures, while the context of terrorism remains completely erased. Suicide bombers and other terrorists are referred to by HRW as "Palestinian fighters." The overall effect of the summary is to demonize Israel, undermine its right to self-defense in international law and portray the Palestinians as unfortunate victims, unable to take responsibility for their actions.

After the election of Hamas, HRW issued a press release on January 30 2006 stating that "attacks that intentionally kill and maim civilians are among the very worst kinds of crimes - war crimes and crimes against humanity." In early February HRW also issued a press release and sent a letter to Islamic Jihad condemning "atrocities that flagrantly violate the most fundamental principles of international humanitarian law". While the belated inclusion of terrorism as a violation of human rights is a promising development (although neither group is referred to as "terrorist"), HRW continues to artificially "balance" criticism of Palestinians with condemnations of Israel. These brief statements were closely followed by a highly critical publication based on claims regarding IDF investigations into alleged human rights abuses.

In a letter of February 9 to European Commission President Josť Manuel Barroso, Sarah Leah Whitson stated that EU aid to a Hamas-led P.A. should be conditioned on the human rights record of the Palestinian government. However it also supported the continuation of EU aid for the time being, since Hamas "largely has maintained a moratorium on such attacks for more than a year." The letter ignores the declarations by Hamas leaders that the ceasefire is temporary and that violent activity will be renewed. The letter also condemns attacks "against Israeli civilians" but implies that attacks on Israeli military targets should not preclude EU funding. HRW's position as set out in the letter also fails to mention the requirement that Hamas adhere to previous international agreements signed between the PA and Israel.

By failing to address these issues, HRW effectively backs the continued flow of money to a Hamas-controlled government, despite its refusal to recognize Israel or renounce or take clear measures to end terrorism. HRW's apparent acceptance of Palestinian violence is further reflected in its screening of the controversial film "Paradise Now" in the HRW film festival 15-25 March. The film depicts two suicide bombers yet the HRW review simply describes their plan as a "strike on Tel Aviv."

Thus, the evidence from 2005 and early 2006 indicates that HRW has reduced considerably its overemphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However the language used in HRW reports to condemn Israel continues to be excessive and highly disproportionate, in comparison with reports on other countries in the Middle East; and the substance of the reports reveals a strong political agenda that takes precedence over universal human rights norms.