Strategy and human rights advocacy

In the last post, I critiqued Richard Bernstein’s op-ed for ignoring Bernstein’s own professed belief that human rights should not be sacrificed in the pursuit of other goals. In this case, it seems like Bernstein is perfectly willing to muzzle HRW’s criticism of Israel’s real violations of human rights in pursuit of his goal of supporting Israel on the world stage.

This post begins by taking seriously one thing that Bernstein briefly mentions in his otherwise poorly-argued op-ed. Bernstein worries about “The plight of [Palestinians and other Arabs in the region] is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.” Does HRW focus too much on Israel and ignore other human rights violations?

To answer that question we’ll have to decide what principle HRW should use to dictate how much attention it gives to one issue over another. As far as I can see, there are only two potential principles that a global human rights advocacy organization could use: either A) give equal coverage to all rights violations in an attempt to be as dispassionate and apolitical as possible, or B) pick and choose which issues to highlight in order to forward a given agenda.

There are far too many abuses of far too many types for principle A to be practical. How does 1,000 deaths in a militia raid in Congo stack up against systematic rape of lesbian women in black townships in South Africa? Clearly there is no objective, dispassionate method for weighting various abuses and distributing advocacy efforts accordingly.

Nor is it clear that dispassionate, objective advocacy should even be our goal. It certainly isn’t in the case of Human Rights Watch, which says on its About Us page that its investigations are conducted with an eye towards “strategic, targeted advocacy [to] build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse.”

Human Rights Watch, and other human rights advocates, are not merely foreign correspondents for a newspaper, sent to gather information and distribute it. They are strategic actors that target their advocacy to “raise the cost of human rights abuse” in order to lower incidence of human rights abuse.

Now we’re ready to go back to Bernstein’s argument that HRW unfairly focuses on Israeli rights abuses while under-documenting the abuses of neighboring autocratic Arab regimes, or of Hamas and Hezbollah. I haven’t done an exhaustive study on HRW’s coverage of the Israel-Palestinian situation, but a cursory look at their website shows that HRW is hardly ignoring Palestinian violations of human rights. By my quick count 6 of the 15 reports HRW has issued on Israel-Palestine in the last 3 years (since6  November 2006) are entirely or largely about violations of human rights perpetrated by Palestinian organizations or regional governments.

Of course, I’m no expert. Perhaps HRW does systematically focus on Israeli violations of human rights, whether in the total volume of reports or in their publicity. Let’s accept that for the sake of argument HRW over publicizes Israeli violations and underpublicizes Palestinian violations, on average. Would that prove HRW’s anti-Israeli bias? Hardly.

It isn’t HRW’s duty to dispassionately report every single violation equally. HRW’s role, as a thinking actor with a goal of reducing total violations of human rights, is strategic. And given certain assumptions about how HRW views the world, over-reporting Israeli abuses would be the rational, defensible choice. Just follow me through the following argument:

  1. HRW cares deeply about both Palestinian and Israeli violations of human rights.
  2. HRW wants to reduce the number and severity of those violations
  3. HRW views the near-total support of the US for the Israeli government’s actions on the world stage as a major or the major impediment to bringing peace to the territories and reducing human rights violations.
  4. HRW thinks it can increase the political costs to the US government for enabling Israeli intransigence by highlighting Israel’s widespread violations of human rights during recent conflicts.

Maybe HRW doesn’t actually believe parts 1 to 4, but as a strategic actor it is very likely that HRW has some sort of model of the world dictating its coverage of the issue. And that’s a good thing. All too often, human rights campaigners and activists more broadly are not strategic thinkers. It’s nice to think that maybe HRW is.

Taking into account HRW’s status as a strategic agent dedicated to reducing human rights violations, it is unsurprising and even somewhat expected that HRW would not give equal coverage to the atrocities perpetrated by both sides. Depending on its model of the world and its view of what is standing in the way of peace, HRW would rationally choose to highlight violations of one or the other side in order to achieve its goals. Mr. Bernstein’s complaint is thereby revealed to be at best incomplete, and at worst inane. If Mr. Bernstein rejects HRW’s role as a strategic actor with preferences, then he clearly has not learned much from his decades of experience dealing with governments and NGOs on the world stage. If, on the other hand, he knows HRW’s role well, then his complaint about unequal coverage falls short of being convincing. Merely pointing out a disparity in coverage isn’t enough. Mr. Bernstein must attack HRW’s model of the world that leads it to systematically create such a disparity.

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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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