Exchange Between Keane Bhatt, Stephen Zunes and others re. Human Rights Watch

Others chime in at various points as well

Stephen Zunes
I’m losing patience with people who attack the credibility of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights organizations who have no background in international humanitarian law, have no empirical data to counter these groups’ findings, and have never even been to the countries in question much less engaged in on-the-ground research. Interestingly, about half the critics insist these groups have an anti-Western bias and the other half insist they have a pro-Western bias.

Jim Naureckas

I thought Keane Bhatt made a very well-informed case against the Latin America work of HRW.https://nacla.org/news/2014/2/4/hypocrisy-human-rights-watch

The Hypocrisy of Human Rights Watch

Lee Tax Carbon Diamond

The world is becoming schizophrenic, making you a Centrist LOL.

Stephen Zunes

I actually recall that HRW (whose Latin American division was then known as Americas Watch), played a leading role in exposing human rights abuses by U.S.-backed dictatorships during the 1980s. More recently, I’ve found their reports on human rights abuses by the US-backed regime in Colombia quite helpful. While I certainly have problems with some people on their board and in other positions of leadership, as well as some policy positions they have taken, I think the fact that Bhatt fails to even acknowledge in his article their outspoken criticism of U.S.-backed regimes is indicative that is he, not HRW, that is running an ideological bias here.

Jim Naureckas

I remember HRW doing good work on Central America too–30 years ago. Those laurels are getting pretty dusty.

Stephen Zunes

I still think their work on Colombia is pretty good, though. Why doesn’t Bhatt at least acknowledge that?

Jim Naureckas

I think he believes that they understress human rights abuses in US allies like Colombia and Honduras compared to issues in official enemy states.
23 hours ago • Like • 1

Stephen Zunes

Really? I found the Colombia and Honduras reports pretty strong and thorough. What are his objections?

Al Giordano

As one with ample experience on the ground in Latin America I find Human Rights Watch completely without credibility at least since late in the last century when I started doing this work. Whatever they did in previous decades, more recently they have been overwhelmingly obsessed with painting Venezuela and Cuba specifically as somehow worse than even Mexico when it comes to human rights. Yes, they do some things to try and create the illusion of balance, but the demagogic grandstanding in the past decade by Jose Vivanco in particular should embarrass anyone who associates themselves with that organization. Amnesty is less bad, but when it came, for example, to Plan Mexico – the US-imposed escalation of the drug war down here that has already killed 100,000 Mexicans – Amnesty USA actually pressured local human rights groups down here to support it (there are differences between Amnesty chapters around the world, so at least it is not speaking with only one voice; the European Amnesty is far better). The same criticism can be made of the major “press freedom” organizations (Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and others) as well as many, many NGOs with hidden agendas. At Narco News, we do not consider Human Rights Watch to be a credible source. That is based on hand-on experience, not on ideology.

Nikhil Shah

Francis Boyle who is a professor of International Law and who has worked for Amnesty in the past had severely criticized them. I am not endorsing his criticisms or expressing problems with his analysis…just pointing out that people with the background you mentioned have criticized them. I believe so has another international law professor, John Quigley.

Gregory Berger

I emphatically agree with Al on this one, Stephen.
22 hours ago • Like • 3

Stephen Zunes

Al: I’m much more familiar with their Middle East work, which has generally been quite good. My post was in response to apologists for Assad and apologists for Netanyahu.

Bill Samuel

It needs to be qualified. AI has lost its way. It campaigns for the execution of innocent children (abortion). No way I would support them.

Paula Friedman

Leaving the abortion issue to the side—-sounds from everyone’s interesting and informed statements here that there is, even among you all, sincere difference of perception about how much/what good or harm these groups are, currently and/or since 1980 or 1990 or so, doing, and so maybe people insisting on a black/white and utterly certain view on this need to ask more questions.

Marty Rosenbluth

The problem is that many people are simply hypocrites. For example, pro-Israel groups and individuals applaud AI when it condemns Palestinian violations but they attack AI when it condemns Israeli violations. And vice-versa.

Stephen Zunes to Jim Naureckas

When I write articles critical of some group or individual whom many progressives support (such as Obama), I’m usually careful to say, “Yes, he does deserve credit for x, but he fails to do y, z, etc.” Bhatt’s article fails to even acknowledge HRW’s good work on Colombia and Honduras, meaning if a reader isn’t familiar with the organization, they will assume it’s all bad and therefore will also dismiss what they say about U.S.-backed regimes. In addition, my impression is that Venezuela and Cuba get more attention not because HRW gives those countries a higher priority, but because the U.S. media highlights those reports while ignoring the others. Another reason I don’t trust Bhatt is his collaboration with a writer who has falsely accused me of supporting U.S. imperialism, U.S. destabilization efforts, etc. when I challenged her false claims that a pacifist scholar was training right-wing paramilitary groups in Venezuela.
7 hrs • Edited • Like

Jim Naureckas

I don’t know, Stephen–if someone does an expose of a corrupt sheriff who manufactures evidence against people, is it really an effective rebuttal to point out that the expose fails to point out that some of the people the sheriff jailed were actually guilty? Can you criticize a report documenting medical malpractice by saying it doesn’t note that every patient didn’t die?

Stephen Zunes

What if the sheriff is an African-American who is the target of repeated racist attacks? Yes, you expose the corruption, but it would also be important to defend him where he deserves to be defended. AI and HRW are repeatedly attacked on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for exposing Israeli war crimes and other human rights abuses by other US allies. People like Bhatt give the right-wing ammunition, as in “Even those on the left don’t have anything good to say about them!”

Keane Bhatt

Sorry to jump in so late; Stephen, you raise a lot of issues, and I’m happy to respond to all of them, but I’d like to start with one of your original points. After reading my article, you say that it’s me–*not HRW*–”that is running an ideological bias here.”

You presumably read what I quoted from HRW’s then-Washington advocacy director Tom Malinowski, who argued that “under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place” for US renditions (http://j.mp/1ilidxv). Under international law, there are no circumstances under which CIA renditions are legitimate (http://j.mp/1lcghww). Do you agree that for a human rights advocate like Malinowski, such a statement is inappropriate? Further, isn’t it inappropriate for Malinowski to then accept a nomination by Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary of State?

If you agree with those points, then It’s impossible to deny HRW’s pro-US ideological bias. HRW would never take a position permissive of a clear violation of human rights were Venezuela carrying out the renditions. And while HRW’s leadership happily integrates itself into the direction of the foreign policy goals of one of the world’s leading human rights violators, it would never take a high-level executive post to manage Ecuador’s foreign policy. All that’s to say, I’d be interested to know why you maintain that HRW has no ideological bias.

Stephen Zunes

Keane, I have no objections to any of the specifics of your article regarding Malinowski nor do I have any disagreements with what Alnoted earlier.
As I mentioned, I’m mostly familiar with HRW’s work on the Middle East and North Africa, for which they have been repeatedly attacked, primarily by supporters of the Israeli government and various Arab dictatorships, which was the subject of my original post. I also referred to those who “have no background in international humanitarian law, have no empirical data to counter these groups’ findings, and have never even been to the countries in question much less engaged in on-the-ground research,” which would not include some of HRW’s more thoughtful critics, such as Al and yourself.

I was curious, though, why you failed to even mention what they’ve done on Colombia and Honduras? If they were simply following Washington’s like, why would they report the very kind of repression that U.S. policy makers deny? In other words, while I think you make the case that some people within HRW (particularly dealing with some Latin American countries) have a pro-Western bias, they are hardly Washington’s puppet. I know quite a number of folks, particularly in their Middle East/North African division, who have enormous integrity, whose own politics are decidedly on the left, who have literally put their lives on the line to gain factual information. I think people like that need to be recognized and not be ignored or be subjected to a broad brush denouncing a flawed, but generally worthwhile and important, organization.

Al Giordano

I can’t speak to the Middle East stuff because I’m not there. But in Latin America, these groups are ancillary pieces of information that nobody needs and that has never helped anybody struggling for rights and change. HRW really wasn’t helpful in Honduras when it was really needed back in the summer of 2009 after the coup d’etat. It waited until after it was a done deal to speak up, but when the game was still in play it was AWOL. That’s a big part of its Modus Operandi. And I don’t really see the problem as “pro Western” or not. It is more a matter of them being pro free-market capitalism, of labeling any attempt to reign that in as somehow an attack on human rights, of these groups that think that “human rights” extend to corporations and that “free markets” must be part of free societies. I honestly see HRW’s occasional Colombia stuff as window dressing to provide cover for a wider regional agenda. Their Colombia stuff has never made the regime there sweat at all. Part of what I look at is the timing of their statements. They’ll pick on a US ally when it is strong enough to withstand the attack, but look for the opportunities to jump on whenever a country not so friendly with the US is at its weak moment. To me, their game is really naked and transparent. The answer to the question is not even close. In Latin America, Human Rights Watch is an enemy of authentic human rights.

David Swanson

Is it OK if I ask them to recognize the UN Charter?

Stephen Zunes to Keane

To elaborate further:
Sorry if I came down kind of hard on you in one of those earlier comments. I really do think HRW needs to be called out where appropriate. My concern is a pattern I’ve sometimes noticed with left critics who will take a liberal or non-ideological organization and highlight their problematic actions while ignoring their positive contributions, thereby giving the wrong impression of where they are actually coming from.
For example, I work with a non-political educational foundation which provides information on strategic nonviolent resistance to whomever requests it. Most of those who’ve used the material have been progressive activists in the US, Palestinians, Western Saharans, indigenous Guatemalans, progressive Egyptians, West Papuans, Bahrainis, and others struggling against US policies and US-backed governments, as well as leftist journalists, human rights defenders, progressive academics, and others involved in solidarity work. However, since some of it has also been used by Zimbabweans, Burmese, Iranians, and Venezuelans, a number of people have written articles mentioning only the latter (which represent only a tiny fraction of our work), ignoring all we do for progressive movements, and thereby paint us as having some kind of imperialist agenda.
Thus, I sometimes get a little defensive when I see material attacking HRW and other groups, even for what I fully acknowledge are questionable activities/positions, if I feel it does not give a representative picture of the group as a whole.

Based on what you and Al Giordano (whom I know pretty well and whose perspectives I trust a lot) have said, the problems with HRW’s Latin American division are indeed a lot more serious than I thought. l should mention, though, that the regional divisions of HRW are under different leadership–indeed, they used to be separate groups (Americas Watch, Middle East Watch, etc.)– which could also explain why those of us who concentrate on the Middle East generally have a positive view of them while those who focus on Latin America feel otherwise.

Keane Bhatt

Thanks, Stephen, for your apology. I must admit that I was surprised that after having read all of the cases I had outlined in the piece, you claimed that it was I who was ideologically biased and–far more importantly–that HRW was not. In your most recent note, you still seem to characterize HRW as a “non-ideological organization,” and I still strongly disagree. If the hypothetical cases of Venezuelan renditions or HRW leaders’ involvement in Ecuadorian foreign-policy objectives don’t sway you, take another example:

HRW characterizes itself as “independent,” and yet allows on its board of directors a former NATO secretary general, Javier Solana, who presided over the bombings on Yugoslavia that resulted in violations of international humanitarian law, according to HRW’s own researchers. Could a high-level, non-Western perpetrator of human rights violations ever hope to serve on HRW’s board of directors? Could HRW as an institution allow the leader of a non-Western military alliance to shape its governance and priorities without facing endless choruses of scorn and ridicule? Solana’s directorship alone shows the bias and ideology that are engrained in both HRW’s thinking and the broader intellectual culture.

To comment on Colombia and Honduras: given that Colombia has been far and away Latin America’s leading human-rights abuser over the past 10 years, one would expect HRW to at least use the same strong language it reserves for Venezuela. That’s not the case, despite the fact that in Colombia (unlike Venezuela), political opponents have been routinely murdered by state forces and state-allied forces. There is not a single instance, for example, of HRW employing the word “authoritarian” in its material on Colombia’s government or Alvaro Uribe over the past decade, while HRW constantly hurls that epithet against Venezuela. Ken Roth has even described the Venezuela’s reaction to the protests as “fascist” on Twitter (http://j.mp/1rrT4qn).

And it’s not just rhetoric. While Amnesty and other human-rights groups were vigorously opposing U.S. aid and arms to Colombia in 1997, an HRW research associate actually sent this note to Congress (http://j.mp/1fbUkhj):
“we state very clearly that we are not opposing aid to the Anti-Narcotics Police because of their good human rights record, but continue to oppose aid to the Army… You’re fully welcome to refer to this as the HRW “Seal of Approval” for police aid, if you wish. Hang onto it–it doesn’t come often!
HRW wrote this despite high-level links between the Colombian national police and Los Pepes, a notorious paramilitary group (http://j.mp/1ilJNL4).

On Honduras, after denouncing the 2009 coup, HRW remained silent for a month and a half in the face of egregious human rights violations, prompting 90 academics to urge it to make a statement about the repression (http://j.mp/1lOUaPF). Four days after that letter, HRW did do so. As someone involved in Honduras solidarity activism, I can tell you firsthand that a surprising amount of HRW’s output on Honduras comes from nonpublic pressure and cajoling from other activists.

In many ways, HRW’s reticence on Honduras is a step up from its shameful behavior after the 2004 US-administered coup in Haiti. HRW did virtually nothing in the wake of Aristide’s overthrow (http://j.mp/1k327vd) and actually sent a note to the Bush administration–the government that kidnapped an elected president!–asking that it support prosecutions against both the coup perpetrators *and* officials of the deposed, constitutional government (http://j.mp/1iWJnzh). An independent, principled human rights group would have instead demanded from Bush the restitution of Haiti’s legitimate government.

I agree with you that the Latin America division is probably far worse than its Middle East division. But even there I see major flaws, related largely to what David Swanson pointed out: its intentional silence on the UN Charter’s prohibition of the threat or use of force. I’ll quote Roth in the lead-up to the Iraq war (http://j.mp/1rupFxB):

“Human Rights Watch does not make judgments about the decision whether to go to war – about whether a war complies with international law against aggression. We care deeply about the humanitarian consequences of war, but we avoid judgments on the legality of war itself because they tend to compromise the neutrality needed to monitor most effectively how the war is waged…Human Rights Watch thus does not support or oppose the threatened war with Iraq.”

Stephen Zunes:

Actually, I said “liberal or non-ideological.” I think of them more in the former category. Like many liberal groups, they do a lot of good things, but still have a number of blind spots and contradictions…

What prompted my initial post were coming across recent attacks on AI and HRW from both apologists for the Assad regime and apologists for Netanyahu regarding evidence gathered by investigators–including some individuals I know personally and can vouch for their integrity–which they claimed were manufactured due to these groups’ alleged “anti-Western” or “pro-Western” bias.


One needn’t be an Assad apologist to raise valid, troubling questions about HRW’s scholarship in Syria. HRW’s “vector analysis” of the Ghouta sarin attacks strongly implied that the origin of the missiles was the “well-known military base of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade” (http://j.mp/1kjzgEp).

This contention was seriously undermined by military scientists MIT and Tesla Labs, who showed that the missiles had a likely range of 3KM or less, not a 9KM range necessary for HRW’s 104th brigade theory (http://j.mp/1fHZBI5). Robert Parry discussed some of this here: http://j.mp/1fjDT2y

HRW may have made an honest error, but it made no correction or update in light of the report, and earlier on, its leadership showed really grave errors of judgment in implicitly endorsing a missile strike (I cited Roth’s tweet, “If Obama decides to strike Syria, will he settle for symbolism or do something that will help protect civilians?” in the NACLA piece.) The question of whether the leadership’s priorities have an influence on HRW’s investigations is a legitimate one.

Incidentally, a number of people (myself included) have been working to get HRW to correct a clear factual error that appeared in the New York Review of Books on Venezuela. They have resisted all of our efforts so far:http://j.mp/1fjH0HU


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