HRW on Israel-Palestine

Well, leave it to Israel-Palestine to jolt me out of my offline revelry and get me back on the blog. If you haven’t read Robert Bernstein’s latest op-ed in the Times, you should check it out and then come right back. Today’s topic: why smart people shouldn’t have sacred cows.

Mr. Bernstein is an original founder of Human Rights Watch, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, winner of many prestigious-sounding awards, a member of a bunch of civic-minded organizations, and – apparently – a very smart man. He’s a man who has professed to believe that violations of human rights should not be ignored in the service of another cause. As he says on the Yale website: “Human rights are not a luxury, or something to be observed if they don’t conflict with some other priority, like peace or economic development. They are instead the key to achieving those things and anything else of urgent importance to the world.” [emphasis added]

I couldn’t agree more with the Yale website Mr. Bernstein, or disagree more with the NYT Mr. Bernstein. The Mr. Bernstein we read in the NYT draws “an important distinction between open and closed societies”, asserting that HRW’s proper mission is to “pry open closed societies” and leave open societies to correct their own behavior. It’s the major basis of his objection to HRW’s reporting on Israeli human rights violations. And it”s a stunning viewpoint, if only because there are so many counterexamples of open societies failing to correct their own behavior from within. I don’t want to sound like a doctrinaire liberal, but it should be said that Guantanamo Bay is still open (with increasingly dim odds of closing this year), only a few ‘bad apples’ and zero higher level officials have been tried in connection with detainee abuses during the bad days of the War on Terror, and even the Obama White House is now saying that it wants to continue the practice of indefinite detention of suspected criminals for national security reasons.

And those are just the few examples of serious human rights violations in the US. For an example not so close to home for my fellow Americans, just look at South Africa: a modern democracy with a strikingly free press and an under-funded but admirable justice system that right now is prosecuting a former national police chief for corruption. It’s a protracted legal battle, with some new twist to the story coming out every day in the local papers. But the trial is moving forward, and most people expect justice to be done.

So South Africa, with it’s good-enough justice system and free press should be a good example of an open society correcting itself through domestic institutions, without the need for advocacy from international NGOs, right? Wrong. It turns out that the South African government has been flaunting its own laws and international law in the way it has dealt with an influx of migrants from neighboring Zimbabwe and other troubled African countries. Routine violence, perpetrated both by mobs and sometimes by the state, made life a living hell for some of these migrants. This story had flown under the radar until, you guessed it, Human Rights Watch used its megaphone to attract attention. After that dose of international scrutiny, the South African government has begun to take the issue a little more seriously, even taking the politically-damaging step of using the military to quell anti-immigrant riots (It was the first time the military was used for internal security since the end of apartheid).

In NYT Bernstein’s version of the world, HRW shouldn’t be meddling in South Africa and should be 100% focused on the closed society next door: Zimbabwe, just as he says HRW shouldn’t waste its time criticizing Israel when there are enough things to criticize in neighboring Arab dictatorships. And if NYT Bernstein had his way, the anti-migrant violence in SA of the last few years would likely have been even worse because of a lack of international scrutiny.

And Yale website Bernstein knows it. He knows that at the very core of the human rights ideology is its universality. Human rights are not valid only where convenient. They are for everyone, and defending human rights is an important component of other goals (like peace and economic development). The only reason NYT Bernstein can’t see Yale website Bernstein’s wisdom is because he is blinded by his sacred cow: Israel. Bernstein clearly cares deeply about Israel — to his credit. We should all care more about international events. But when interest becomes ardor, rational thought is often the victim.

Bernstein’s major premise in the NYT op-ed, that human rights-based critiques should be aimed at closed  rather than open societies, is the kind of argument that could be advanced only by someone protecting a sacred cow. In truth, it isn’t immediately clear what formula HRW should use to guide it’s criticism: equal coverage for all violations, or enhanced coverage for those cases where more coverage is more likely to lead to resolution? The strategic and political implications of human rights coverage are complex, but they certainly shouldn’t lead one to focus only on closed regimes while giving so-called democracies a free pass.


9 Responses to “HRW on Israel-Palestine”

  1. 1 Ray in Seattle October 22, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    JSC5, I think you should read NYT Bernstein again. You entirely missed his premise. For example, early on he says,

    At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.

    That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.

    Bernstein logically shows why drawing attention to suspected cases of human rights abuses in Israel while it is engaged in mortal defensive combat, against a dictatorship that casually denies many of its citizens human rights as a matter of course, is not just demeaning the cause and effect of civil rights efforts worldwide – but is basically antisemitism.

    You do understand about the moral equivalence game – so adeptly played by commenters like Bengt and abb1, don’t you?


    • 2 JSC5 October 23, 2009 at 3:50 am

      Yes, I know about moral equivalence, both in general and in the specific case of Israel-Palestine. And in theory I agree with the position that says that we shouldn’t allow someone to denigrate a good-enough party that has some slight ethical violations as being ‘as bad’ as another party with ethical violations that are substantively worse. Just because there is no black and white, and just because everything is shades of gray, doesn’t mean that we can’t point to ‘better’ and ‘worse’. I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism of moral equivalence arguments, and I usually agree with people who point out and challenge the moral equivalence fallacy.

      But I also think that this typical argument against moral equivalence has a serious hole in it: how can we tell when someone is truly trying to draw moral equivalence, instead of simply commenting without attempting to draw any moral comparison at all? What matters more in determining whether the ‘moral equivalence card’ was played: the original speaker’s intent, or the observer’s interpretation? The trouble is that for someone who cares deeply about the party under attack, it’s all too easy to see a moral equivalence fallacy when there is only strategic criticism. And a very few sophisticated defenders are adept at decrying the moral equivalence fallacy knowing full well that no moral equivalence was intended, if only because it’s so hard to defend oneself against such a critique. For a more complete analysis on strategic decision-making and human rights criticism, I urge you to read my subsequent post:

      As a brief introduction to that post, I’ll just say that whether the behavior of Israeli and Palestinian actors is morally equivalent or not is irrelevant when it comes to human rights criticism. I’m not at all convinced that human rights criticism is or should be driven by completely dispassionate and equal reporting of all atrocities. Human rights organizations are and should be strategic actors. The debate should then become about what goals and strategies are appropriate or inappropriate given this strategic environment, not about abstract and largely undefinable ‘moral equivalence’.

  2. 3 Ray in Seattle October 23, 2009 at 6:33 am

    JSC5, thanks for your thoughtful reply. You say,

    “The debate should then become about what goals and strategies are appropriate or inappropriate given this strategic environment, not about abstract and largely undefinable ‘moral equivalence’.”

    I agree. I would add a phrase in the middle which I hope you would agree with:

    “The debate should then become about what goals and strategies are appropriate or inappropriate given this strategic environment, to reduce the incidence of human rights abuses within the conflict, not about abstract and largely undefinable ‘moral equivalence’.”

    I’d say the main problem I have with your view and that of most others including Matt – is that you need to step back and consider what it is we are really talking about. This has been done by thinkers before us. They came up with an important distinction between crimes against humanity and war crimes.

    Crimes against humanity include first and foremost the initiation of a war of aggression.

    During the Nuremburg trial, the chief American prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, stated: “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

    As a liberal who wishes to minimize civilian deaths and war generally I concur with that premise – as I think all liberal-minded people would. What he is saying is that starting a war of aggression is the cause of all the deaths that occur in that war. It’s OK if you wish to sort out individual war crimes that may have been committed. But, the defending party must be given the opportunity to defend themselves. They have the right to a proportionate response. That does not mean proportionate to the attack. It means proportionate to the level needed to end the aggression. If the enemy hides among civilians yet keeps attacking (in this case by shooting more rockets and mortars intro S. Israel) then Israel has the right under this law to use as much force as is necessary and incidentally kill as many civilians as necessary without overtly attacking targets that have no military value – to end the aggression. Without that rule then an aggressor would have no need to reconsider their attack. Simple by effectively hiding behind their own civilians they could make the defender into the war criminal – which is exactly what Hamas has tried to do here.

    I do not believe Goldstone has even provided a single bit of credible evidence that Israel killed civilians intentionally. The fact that the Hamas rockets and mortars continued until the end provides de facto evidence that Israel did not violate the rules of war as written.

    It is possible that a state that has been attacked may wish to exact revenge on the civilian population of their attackers. But unless there is reasonably solid evidence of that why smear the morals of the side that is defending itself? Unless of course, you are actually on the side of the aggressors – the ones who started the war by attacking a state that was not attacking them? And also, if you don’t care about innocent civilian deaths.

    If a state knows from past experience that if even a state like Israel, that goes to extreme lengths to avoid civilian casualties will be accused of war crimes – then less cautious states may just opt for the maximum lethal response when attacked. Why risk extra deaths on your side when carpet bombing the area where the attack came from will serve the purpose? Especially if you’ll be accused of war crimes ayway? Wouldn’t you, as a general, choose to save the lives of your soldiers and face the tribunal that everyone knows is infested with the aggressor’s agents and sympathizers? Any honorable general would do that.

    I’d be interested in your views on this. You seem like a reasonable and intelligent person. I will give you the benefit of the doubt for now as to your sincerity.

    Thanks, Ray

    • 4 JSC5 October 23, 2009 at 8:22 pm

      I agree with your revised wording of my conclusion:

      > “The debate should then become about what goals and strategies are appropriate or inappropriate given this strategic environment, to reduce the incidence of human rights abuses within the conflict, not about abstract and largely undefinable ‘moral equivalence’.”

      That is largely the wording I use in my post on strategy and human rights advocacy.

      As for your use of just war theory, I am largely sympathetic to the view that aggressive defense in a war of aggression is legitimate. However, in the particular case of Israel-Palestine, it seems like everyone in the debate has their own view about who is the aggressor. And it all depends on what time horizon we limit ourselves too when making the judgment. And as a non-expert, I really don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the subject. That’s why I feel that instead of adjudicating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict directly, it’s more helpful in this context (ie, as non-expert observers in the US) to instead focus on something a little more tangible: the proper role of a human rights advocacy organization when approaching the Israel-Palestine issue.

      And I really believe that our conclusions about HRW’s strategy can be divorced from the principal questions of just war and retaliation. The way we judge HRW’s actions should hinge on what they and we see as the primary obstacles to reducing total human rights violations. If HRW thinks the main international obstacle (or at least the biggest one they can do anything about) is staunch US support of Israel regardless of Israeli actions (ie, expanding settlements, indiscriminate use of force, unacceptably high civilian casualty rates, etc), then it’s rational to focus its energy on raising the costs to the US of supporting Israel. And that is true regardless of who is perceived as the aggressor-of-the-moment, because in the long run there is enough aggression to go around – at least in public opinion.

      I’d say that the real debate should be about how HRW and we create our models of the world. HRW seems to see excessive US support of Israel as a major roadblock to eventual peace. If you take a different position on this issue, then that’s where the argument should take place. It’s an argument that is at least more likely to be fruitful than an argument about initial aggression and just war. That argument has been played out so often I’m not sure that there’s much to be gained from going over it. Partisans on both sides are convinced that they’re right, and us agnostics in the middle (among whom I count myself) are left with very few credible moderates on either side to believe.

  3. 5 Ray Pelland October 24, 2009 at 2:51 am

    JSC5, you say, “As for your use of just war theory, I am largely sympathetic to the view that aggressive defense in a war of aggression is legitimate. However, in the particular case of Israel-Palestine, it seems like everyone in the debate has their own view about who is the aggressor.”

    Yes, when the world is not concerned about who starts wars of aggression – the world creates an environment where anyone is free to create and promote their own narratives for political cover – which is what we see. This does not mean that the world is wise to follow that course. My premise is that this is precisely what leads to wars where innocent civilians die in large numbers. That’s what I wish to prevent. I am advocating that liberals in the West should be demanding that the world through the UN – or unilaterally if necessary – arrest and harshly punish those who start wars of aggression.

    The question of who is the aggressor is really a simple one. At any moment in time it is the party who attacks the other – not in defense from an existing attack. For example, when Hamas started firing rockets into S. Israel the day after Israel evacuated Gaza that was an act of aggression. It was the act that precipitated the current stage of conflict and the deaths of some hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.

    It makes no difference what happened up until that moment. Revenge and repeated attacks to get your way are not acts of defense. Attempts to blur this distinction or the failure to demand that this simple rule be followed are IMO disingenuous. They are simply excuses to allow the side that you prefer to get its way – to get its way. They are not sincere attempts to decrease civilian death and suffering. They are tactics in the war.

    I still want to believe you sincerely share that goal to decrease civilian death and suffering with me. Please show me why arguing over which side played fair or not in isolated incidents of combat after the war starts – will result in fewer civilian deaths in the future than arresting and severely punishing those who start wars of aggression. Esp. if that results in punishment and sanction for the side that was acting in self defense from that aggression.

    You seem to be saying that wars of aggression are not such a big deal if you approve of the aggressor’s motives. I think you need to convince me (and yourself perhaps) that you don’t really believe that – because that’s what you are effectively justifying in your argument.

    • 6 JSC5 October 24, 2009 at 7:57 pm

      There’s not much more I can add to what I’ve said, except to say that I share your interest in reducing atrocities and I’m down with punishing those responsible. I don’t justify aggression. You’re worried about human rights groups ‘blurring the line’ between what is clearly aggression on one side and defense against it on the other. I’m saying that although this aggression-defense paradigm is very important politically, both for you and any interested party, it’s not really what human rights groups are all about. They’re about reducing violations of human rights, plane and simple. They don’t have to talk in terms that conflict partisans find amenable. They just have to operate so as to reduce human rights violations. This is not to diminish the aggression-defense debate or your use of the language. I’m just saying that human rights groups don’t have a dog in that fight. It’s equally possible for defenders and aggressors to violate human rights in the course of violent action, and when they do groups like HRW have to evaluate how best to prevent future such violation by acting strategically within the system as is. While conflict partisans would clearly like to drawn such groups into their own particular side of the conflict, it’s perfectly acceptable for the groups to remain aloof. Does it really matter what they view as aggression and what they view as defense, so long as they are accurately judging the best strategy for reducing future human rights violations?

  4. 7 Ray in Seattle October 25, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Thanks for being patient with me. In this last comment I think I can see your position more clearly. If you don’t mind I’d still like to respond, not so much to “win an argument” or change your mind as to just continue discussing an interesting topic with you. I may be wrong and only someone who approaches it like you do would be able to explain it to me if that’s the case. I don’t want to be wrong about this important part of my belief system. I just would not change my views on it unless I saw a clear logical reason why I should. So don’t hold back.

    First, I think that HR violations are bad and should be noted and dealt with whenever they occur. The political philosophy of Western democracies is to provide governments that protects human rights and eliminates HR abuses and I am glad I am part of that society.

    Second, it’s good that human rights orgs focus on HR violations within ongoing conflicts, regardless of who started it. I’m sure we agree so far.

    I think the problem though is that once a conflict reaches the stage of violent war those concerns have the potential to make things even worse – to cause or allow more violations of human rights, more human suffering than would otherwise occur. That’s especially what will happen if those concerns are used by the aggressive party to impede the ability of the attacked party to defend itself.

    Thus, the HR concerns of the defender become a weapon in the hands of the aggressor that severely limits their ability to reduce or eliminate the threat against their people.

    You might say then that even so, it is still important to prevent atrocities in war and that without that focus they are even more likely to occur.

    I agree – but only with the provision that the HR watchdogs understand the huge advantage to the aggressor if they allow their HR watchdog work to be used to delegitimize the defender’s attempts to defend itself – and if they go to extreme lengths to assure that that does not happen. I would think HR watchdogs would do this voluntarily and document their efforts thoroughly and transparently if they were truly concerned about human rights and their future ability to credibly defend those human rights in conflict.

    In this case HRW and UNHRC have done the opposite. They have willingly allowed themselves to become a part of the aggression and attempts to hinder the defender’s ability to protect its citizens’ lives. There is indisputable voluminous video proof that Hamas does the following:

    a) They wear civilian clothes when fighting.

    b) They locate and fire from civilian areas and “protected” zones and buildings.

    c) They encourage and sometimes force civilians to remain in those areas while fighting is ongoing.

    d) They use ambulances to ferry fighters around combat zones and escape from IDF forces.

    e) They store weapons, bivouac their fighters and put command centers in mosques, schools and hospitals.

    Each one of those is a very serious war crime. That’s because each of those acts eliminates the human rights protections of civilians in the war zone under international law as protected parties in war. Each of those acts makes it highly likely that those civilians will be harmed by Israel’s legitimate attempts to defend its citizens from attack.

    With this being the case, any human rights organization that was sincerely concerned about civilian human rights in a war zone, would make this the focus of their efforts. They would point out that any civilians killed under these circumstances were caused by Hamas’ blatant disregard of the rules of war meant to protect those civilians. They would be demanding the arrest and severe punishment of Hamas’ operatives and especially their leadership for so severely endangering the human rights of their own population by removing their status as protected persons.

    But what do we see? We see little or no mention of such violations in their reports. Instead, we see highly questionable and unverified accusations that the IDF purposely attacks innocent civilians.

    As someone who cares about the human rights of innocent civilians – don’t these facts make even some difference to you in your judgment of Israel’s actions, and Hamas’ actions and of course, Human Right’s Watch’s actions in this conflict?

    I can’t help but wonder why someone who has a sincere concern for the welfare of Palestinian civilians would not be enraged at Hamas’ behavior and demanding that their leaders be arrested and sentenced to life prison terms if not hung. I can’t help but wonder why you support organizations like HRW that so willingly allow themselves to be part of Hamas’ efforts to de-legitimize Israel’s lawful defense of its citizens’ lives. In a better world it seems to me you would be demanding that HRW be scorned, sued by their donors and disbanded for doing so much to damage the lives of the innocent civilians they profess to care about.

    How can you care about the suffering and deaths (the human rights) of innocent civilians and do otherwise? I’m interested in your explanation.

    • 8 JSC5 October 28, 2009 at 3:09 am

      Sorry for not responding for a few days. I was busy with some stuff, but now I’m back. I hope you come back to check on the thread.

      As a point of fact, HRW does vociferously denounce the kind of actions by Hamas that you point out. In fact, it released a sharply-worded letter just this week ( demanding that Hamas investigate war crimes perpetrated by Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Looking at the list of published reports on the Israel-Palestine situation in the last few years (, HRW dishes a great deal of criticism towards Hamas’s political violence.

      So while it may be your perception that “We see little or no mention of such violations in their reports”, your perception is inaccurate. Understandably, given the amount of attention the world gives accusations against Israel versus how often accusations against Hamas and other violent Arab groups are ignored.

      But that disparity in world attention is crucial to understand. Why when HRW releases a report attacking Israel does it get much, much wider attention than when they attack Palestinian or other Arab groups? I think the main reason is that in the West, the average person doesn’t know too much about Hamas, Hezbollah, or Fatah. But they know Israel exists and is a democracy. They might even be able to point it out on a map. The average perception in America at least is that Israel is a decent democracy, with some good night clubs and a rising tech economy. The average perception of Hamas, when it exists at all, is of rocket attacks. In financial terms, Hamas’s stock is so low that it’s been de-listed from the major exchanges. Israel’s a blue chip.

      It’s hardly surprising, then, that criticism of Hamas would go in one ear and out the other. Journalists, policy-makers, regular citizens — we all just tend to assume the worst about Hamas anyway. The news that Israel violated human rights during the Gaza war, however, might reasonably be seen as unexpected news to large numbers of people in the US.
      So from the strategic point of view, even if HRW did skew its coverage (which its not clear that it does), it might make sense for HRW to focus on publicizing Israeli infractions – assuming its larger goal is to raise the cost of violating human rights. From a public diplomacy and a US public opinion perspective, it’s pretty much as high as it can be already for Hamas. Maybe HRW thinks it’s time to raise that cost for Israel.

  5. 9 Ray Pelland October 28, 2009 at 11:14 pm

    No problem. I have it set to send me an email when anyone adds to this thread. Let me consider your latest comment. I don’t want to simply get into the mindset of trying to prove you wrong whatever you say. Let my try to focus on the point you are making. I’ll get back when I think I have it figured out.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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