Human Rights Watch Under Fire From Its Founder

Posted: Oct 21, 2009 12:01 AM
Human Rights Watch Under Fire From Its Founder

On Monday, the founder of the non-government organization Human Rights Watch issued a scathing editorial condemning the organization for its recent support of a U.N. resolution that accused Israel of war crimes.

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"HRW has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields," wrote Robert Bernstein, the chairman of Human Rights Watch from 1978 to 1998, in the New York Times.

His criticism echoes longtime critics of the organization who accused it of selectively prosecuting war crimes to suit liberal international agendas.

On Friday, HRW had pushed through a U.N. vote asserting that Israel had committed war crimes earlier this year as part of Operation Cast Lead. In that operation, Israel took to the offensive to stop thousands of Palestinian rockets from entering its southern border.

Bernstein's editorial didn't mention the recent vote. But the timing of the editorial and the vote seemed to indicate that it was the final straw for a long-frustrated founder.

Bernstein specifically mentioned the inability of the HRW to distinguish between "open" and "closed" societies, something Robert P. Barnidge, Jr., a professor at Reading law school, said reflected a longstanding institutional problem within the organization. Bernstein seemed to condemn the conflagration of liberal democracies and illiberal autocracies.

"[Bernstein] is writing this in a particular context, in which international discourse about intl law... is dragged into this morass of moral equivalency," he said. "Some states, by the nature of their regimes, are more likely to adhere to human rights."

Those states would be liberal democracies, such as Israel, which HRW and others have repeatedly ignored when considering the dynamics of international conflict. It's a theme that stems from Natan Sharansky, former Deputy Prime Minister of Israel and longstanding advocate for strong Israeli defense policies. Bernstein's "open" and "closed" socities were Sharansky's "free" and "fear" societies.

Joining with classical Israeli rhetoric in international affairs could represent an even stronger move to embrace Israel.

Anne Bayefsky, a senior fellow with Hudson Institute, said that Bernstein's move push HRW to reconsider its decisions with many other international affairs.

"HRW has decided for many years to refuse to do the hard work of confronting human rights abusers who have powerful friends, particularly within the United Nations," said Bayefsky. "With an annual budget of $40 million a year, the only way to change what has become of this human rights fraud is to withdraw financial support. Let's hope Bernstein's call wakes up HRW's funders first and foremost."