Human Rights Watch in Service to the War Party: Including A Review of “Weighing the Evidence: Lessons from the Slobodan Milosevic Trial” (Human Rights Watch, December, 2006)

Part 1: Introduction: The Role and Biases of Human Rights Watch 


Human Rights Watch (HRW) came into existence in 1978 as the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee.  Early documents affirmed that its purpose was to "monitor domestic and international compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act."[1] But though a private U.S.-based organization whose vice chairman once stated "You can’t complain about other countries unless you put your own house in order,"[2] its main focus was on Moscow.  Thus its literature also affirmed that founding the Committee "was intended as a gesture of moral support for the activities of the beleaguered Helsinki monitors in the Soviet bloc," and its early work was well geared to advance the U.S. government’s policy of weakening the Soviet Union and loosening its ties to Eastern Europe.[3]  While the organization has broadened its horizons and grown enormously since its $400,000 seed money from the Ford Foundation, it has never sloughed off its close link to the Western establishment, as evidenced by its leadership’s affiliations,[4] its funding,[5] and its role over the years.  Because of its institutional commitment to human rights and its broad purview, however, HRW has done a great deal of valuable work, as for example in helping to document the character and effects of the Reagan era wars across Central America, where its Americas Watch reports on the U.S. support for the Nicaragua Contras, the Salvadoran army and death squads, and Guatemalan state terror were eye-opening and led to intense hostility on the part of the Reaganites and Wall Street Journal editors.[6]


But despite these and countless other constructive efforts, the organization has at critical times and in critical theaters thrown its support behind the U.S. government’s agenda, sometimes even serving as a virtual public relations arm of the foreign policy establishment.  Since the early 1990s this tendency has been especially marked in the organization’s focus on and treatment of some of the major contests in which the U.S. government itself has been engaged: perhaps none more clearly than Iraq and the Balkans.  Here, its deep bias is well-illustrated in a March 2002 op-ed by HRW’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, published in the Wall Street Journal under the title "Indict Saddam."[7] The first thing to note about this commentary is its timing. It was published at a time when the United States and Britain were clearly planning an assault on Iraq with a "shock and awe" bombing campaign and ground invasion in violation of  the UN Charter. But Roth doesn’t warn against launching an unprovoked war: though wars of aggression had been judged by the Nuremberg Tribunal to be the "supreme international crime" that "contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."[8] On the contrary, Roth’s focus was on Saddam’s crimes, and provided a valuable public relations gift to U.S. and British leaders, diverting attention from and putting an apologetic gloss on their prospective supreme international crime.


Three years earlier, when the NATO powers had begun the bombing of Yugoslavia on March 24, 1999, HRW said nothing critical about that action; as we shall see, it focused mainly on the crimes of the target country then under attack.  In a 1998 commentary for the International Herald Tribune, Fred Abrahams, an HRW researcher whose major focus has been Kosovo, urged regime-change for Yugoslavia, either through President Slobodan Milosevic’s indictment or a U.S. war to affect the same outcome.  "At what point will the Clinton administration decide that they have seen enough?" Abrahams asked.  "[T]he international community’s failure to punish Milosevic for crimes in Croatia and Bosnia sent the message that he would be allowed to get away with such crimes again.  It is now obvious that the man who started these conflicts cannot be trusted to stop them."[9] This line also served the United States and other NATO powers well, and both cases show a clear adaptation of HRW definitions of human rights and choice of worthy victims to the needs of the Western powers and institutions that nurture the organization.  (In Part 3, we deal with the mind-boggling misrepresentation of history in Abrahams’ statement about Milosevic’s unwillingness to stop these wars: in fact, Milosevic signed-on to every major peace proposal 1992-1995, whereas Abrahams’ favorite state regularly sabotaged them.) 


Roth’s "Indict Saddam" starts as follows: "The Bush administration’s frustration with a decade of porous sanctions against Iraq has led to active consideration of military action. Yet one alternative has yet to be seriously tried: indicting Saddam Hussein for his many atrocities, particularly the 1988 genocide against Iraqi Kurds." This clearly implies that the sanctions imposed on Iraq were ineffective ("porous") and that the administration’s alleged frustration on that account was real and well grounded, establishment claims that were false and misleading and that an unbiased analyst might have had some doubts about at the time. We may note also the lack of concern with the "active consideration of military action."


But equally important, Roth ignores the devastating sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United States and Britain via the UN for over a decade, which prevented the repair of Iraq’s sanitation facilities, water purification and agricultural irrigation systems, all of which had been deliberately destroyed in the 1991 bombing war.[10]  Through their power to magnify hardship, malnutrition, and disease,  this form of  economic and political warfare "may well have been a necessary cause of the deaths of more people in Iraq than have been slain by all so-called weapons of mass destruction throughout history," John and Karl Mueller write in their aptly titled "Sanctions of Mass Destruction."[11]  This would seem to constitute first-order war criminality, and with a million fatalities should be worth great attention from a human rights group.  But as Madeleine Albright once told CBS TV’s 60 Minutes, the price of half-a-million Iraqi children’s deaths was "worth it,"[12] and Roth and HRW looked the other way.  HRW never produced a major report on the sanctions.  It never called attention to U.S. and British responsibility for this death-dealing policy.  And though HRW did point out that the deliberate starvation of civilian populations is a war crime, it never suggested that U.S. and U.K. officials were guilty of these war crimes.  And of course it never called for any tribunals to try the responsible parties.[13]


Also of interest is the fact that in this same Wall Street Journal commentary, Roth describes in detail Saddam Hussein’s crimes against the Kurds, which he repeatedly calls "genocide," whereas the number of Iraqis killed by Western sanctions were between five and ten times the number of  Kurds killed by Baghdad forces, but don’t get mentioned, let alone described as victims of "genocide."[14]  Roth asserts that bringing Saddam to justice for his treatment of the Kurds ran into difficulties because France and Russia each had "extensive business interests" in Iraq, and China was worried about comparisons with  their treatment of Tibetans. Nowhere does Roth mention the U.S. business dealings with Saddam, loans to his regime, supplying it with helicopters, intelligence and chemical weapons, and the Reagan administration’s protection of Saddam from Security Council actions.  Instead, paralleling HRW’s condemnation and delegitimization of Belgrade during 1998-1999, by this stage in early 2002, it was the condemnation and delegitimization of the Iraqi regime that had become of paramount importance to Roth.  Although he noted that bringing indictments against Saddam "would not guarantee his ouster," Roth added that they "would certainly help build consensus that he is unfit to govern, and thus that something must be done to end his rule."


The word "genocide"  has also never been applied by Roth or HRW to the enormous death toll caused by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, 2003-2007, although the numbers of civilians that have died as a consequence of that UN Charter violation now exceed the Kurd "genocide" attributed to Saddam by a multiple that may have reached six or more.[15]  But HRW has shown little interest in these totals, and when the British medical journal Lancet published an estimate of some 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths for the first 18 months following the March 2003 invasion, HRW senior military analyst (and former Pentagon intelligence analyst) Marc E. Garlasco quickly dismissed the findings as "inflated" and the methods used as "prone to inflation due to overcounting."[16]  Subsequently, Garlasco admitted to not having read the report when he offered his initial assessment about it to the press.[17]  Roth and HRW have shown no qualms over using the word "genocide" frequently in reference to Serb conduct in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in Kosovo, although there also the number of victims falls far short of the numbers in Iraq, whether from the "sanctions of mass destruction" or the invasion-occupation of 2003-2007.[18] Once again, this word usage is well geared to the support of U.S. and NATO policy.


In all these cases the HRW focus has been on methods of fighting and their impact on civilians. As noted, this bypasses any possible challenge to cross-border attacks that constitute the "supreme international crime," which HRW takes as a given (with exceptions as described below).  It  may be argued, however, that if a war itself is illegal, then any military or civilian killings that follow from this crime cannot be defended on grounds that they are the unavoidable consequence of war; [19] but this is not the philosophy of HRW, which ignores that basic illegality.  Instead, HRW has repeatedly stated that it "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…."[20]


But this is a disingenuous evasion on multiple grounds.  The decision to go to war is the one that assures there will be both military and civilian casualties, as was stressed by the Nuremberg Tribunal in explaining its own focus on the "supreme international crime," and for that reason alone an unbiased human rights organization would not ignore it.  Given that HRW’s own state is the one that has been carrying out serial wars in violation of the UN Charter, the exclusion of this primary cause of  human rights violations in itself compromises any neutrality the organization may claim to observe.


What is more, there is evidence that HRW leaders have been pleased with these aggressions. We will show later that it urged them on in the case of the Balkans wars, and Roth’s piece "Indict Saddam" was a form of public relations support for the prospective attack on Iraq.  Roth even celebrates the breakdown of international law against aggression, allegedly in the interest of  "human rights."  He stated that "We will remember 1999 as the year in which sovereignty gave way in places where crimes against humanity were being committed."[21]  Of course, it is the U.S. and British leadership which determines when "crimes against humanity" are committed, but Roth has faith that these leaders are the proper deciders and that the sacrifice of a basic principle of international law is thus justified. This is an only slightly veiled defense of  recent U.S. aggressions, and so the alleged refusal by HRW to make judgments about decisions to go to war is in fact a form of apologetics for aggressive war.


HRW’s professed neutrality is disingenuous for yet another reason: The organization has never applied it to the armed conflicts within the former Yugoslavia. There, HRW has treated the conflicts and their impact upon civilian populations as the direct consequences of cross-border aggression, and has held the ethnic Serb leadership in Belgrade to be uniquely responsible for them.  The entire first half of HRW’s Weighing the Evidence is devoted to a summary of the Office of the Prosecutor’s evidence that Belgrade provided financial, material, and personnel support to ethnic Serb combatants in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina: treating this support as clear-cut violations of the international law against aggression: "[H]ow Belgrade orchestrated the vicious wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo," as Weighing the Evidence author Sara Darehshori put it.[22]  HRW has never done the same in other theaters of armed conflict where it maintains an interest: say, documenting how Washington’s financial and material support "orchestrates" Israel’s 40-year-old military occupation of the Palestinian Territories or Israel’s cross-border attacks into Lebanon; and as already noted, U.S. crimes of aggression are treated with "neutrality." But HRW-style neutrality disappears when it is dealing with U.S. targets such as Serbia, where HRW widens its human rights concerns beyond mere methods of combat to include "who started it" and the "accumulated evil of the whole."


In a closely related double standard: and point of illogic: throughout their coverage of  the Balkans conflicts, and in close accord with the position of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY or Tribunal), Roth and HRW demanded that the villains (Serbs) must be brought to justice if a true peace is to prevail.[23]  This was allegedly required to help deter future villainy and because the victims need the consolation of  justice. But this principle should clearly apply to villains who commit the "supreme international crime," and it was precisely such villains who were tried at Nuremberg. Wouldn’t we want "justice" brought to aggressors to teach potential aggressors that such behavior doesn’t pay?  And isn’t such justice necessary to bring peace of mind to the victims of aggression so that true peace can prevail?  The point doesn’t arise for Roth and HRW, who not only are completely oblivious to this double standard, but in their Balkans efforts have worked closely with the perpetrators of  the supreme crime in allegedly  bringing justice to the lesser criminals. Here again it is clear that Roth and HRW are not neutral, but, having internalized the perspectives of the Western powers, they serve aggression when carried out under the right auspices.


HRW not only overlooks the rule of law as regards aggression, it has never addressed the massive abuses of  the judicial process in the politicized work of the ICTY,[24] apparently because it is serving the same cause as HRW. In another illustration of its cavalier attitude toward legality, HRW boasts that it "helped pressure the Yugoslav government to turn Milosevic and his cohorts over to the tribunal," in complete disregard of the fact that this was done by a kidnapping and in straightforward violation of the Yugoslav constitution and rulings of  Yugoslav courts.[25]  


Among other forms of bias, HRW accepts the NATO-friendly view that civilian deaths from high-tech warfare such as in aerial bombings and missile strikes are not prima facie "deliberate" as are face-to-face and low-tech killings of civilians.  HRW holds that while the former may involve war crimes if not carried out carefully, the latter are war crimes per se.  But this distinction is invalid, as bombs dropped from on high on or near civilian facilities are extremely likely to kill and injure civilians, even if the individuals killed were not specifically targeted; and this known high probability makes those killings deliberate for all intents and purposes.[26]  Suicide bombers also sometimes target military personnel and do not always just attack civilians.  Given that the actual civilian casualty totals of hi-tech bombings and other weaponry are usually far greater than those of suicide bombers and other face-to-face killings,[27] this HRW bias places the protection of U.S. and NATO methods of warfare ahead of human rights.

Another form of bias is the HRW tendency to offer low counts of U.S. and NATO victims, and high counts for victims of U.S. and NATO targets.  A study by Marc Herold reveals a pattern in which HRW "reports figures which are about one-third those of other reputable sources."  Herold points out that in the case of  the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, HRW estimated 500 civilian deaths in Serbia, whereas other credible sources ran to 1,200-1,500 (and the Serbian official estimate was 1,800); and for Afghanistan, HRW estimated that at least 1,000 civilians were killed whereas Herold’s own studies yielded a total between 3,000-4,000.  Herold also shows that in the specific case of a U.S. massacre at Chowkar-Karez in Afghanistan, HRW’s thinly based estimate of 25-35 dead was markedly below the figure of  90 reported in the media of Britain, India, Qatar and Egypt.[28] 

On the other side of the ledger, Richard Dicker, the director of HRW’s International Justice Program (IJP) and a consultant on Weighing the Evidence, asserted that "hundreds of thousands killed and millions [were] forced from their homes in the four wars [Milosevic] lost while asserting Serbian nationalism."[29] Dicker’s inflated rhetoric was not meant to be exact; nor did it need to be, and his "hundreds of thousands" killed has been drastically deflated by establishment sources, but without explicit acknowledgement by Dicker or HRW.  In dealing with Serbia’s exquisitely demonized "strongman," this human rights lawyer knew that just about any charge could be made to stick, whether at the ICTY or before the court of public opinion.  In a more subtle display of numbers-bias, HRW’s World Report 2007 says that in February 2006, staff at the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center (RDC) "were threatened through an anonymous phone call and warned to stop their analysis on war-related deaths."  The motive was the "center’s downward revision of the number of wartime casualties," which HRW stresses "has drawn criticism from Bosnian Muslims, the war’s principal victims."[30]  In fact, the RDC has found documentable totals of war-related deaths on all sides to be in the area of 100,000.[31]  Thus HRW’s use of the phrase "downward revision" mischaracterizes the RDC’s work, as it understates the dramatic reduction by one-half to two-thirds of the much higher estimates of 200,000 to 300,000 that have been in circulation since late 1992, while HRW never once gives the specific number in the revised estimate that shows Dicker to have been guilty of inflation (and raises questions about HRW’s massive attention to an alleged "genocide" in Bosnia). 

Another revealing form of bias has been HRW’s regular denial that the United States commits war crimes. Writing in late 2002, Kenneth Roth stated that "In recent wars, U.S. forces have made mistakes and even violated humanitarian law but have not committed war crimes."[32] He admitted that the use of cluster bombs where substantial civilian casualties are "foreseeable" might be deemed by some court to be a war crime, but he himself declared that none were committed: a remarkable claim given that Roth and HRW have hardly examined all uses of cluster bombs and determined that in each of those cases civilian deaths were not "foreseeable."  This is the language of crude apologetics. Furthermore, there is the matter of  the use of depleted uranium, a civilian-deadly weapon regularly employed by his country, which Roth ignores.


Michael Mandel has pointed out that during the war against Yugoslavia, "NATO convicted itself out of its own mouth," its leaders repeatedly acknowledging the goal of breaking civilian morale, and targeting bridges, schools, factories, livestock, crops, power grids, media centers, religious buildings, including early Christian  and medieval churches,  chemical plants, and fertilizer factories.[33] Only a U.S.-war apologist  could claim that this objective and these targets did not point to intentionality as well as reveal war crimes.  Amnesty International had no trouble finding and naming plenty of war crimes.[34]


There are other forms of bias in HRW’s work, such as an underplaying of really major crimes and a false even-handedness in cases where the preferred side does vastly more deadly and destructive things, as in case of Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, or the United States in Iraq, with the massive use of cluster bombs, the almost complete destruction of sizable cities like Fallujah, hospital bombings, and the use of  phosphorus bombs as well as depleted uranium. Roth did castigate the Israelis for their July 30 airstrikes on the Lebanese village of Qana, saying and writing that the "IDF effectively turned southern Lebanon into a free-fire zone," and for its use of cluster bombs.[35]  But HRW’s treatment of Israel or the United States in Iraq has never come near the passionate intensity shown by their on-the-ground investigations and search for witnesses, their acceptance of contestable evidence, and their furious condemnations of Serb behavior in Bosnia and Kosovo and calls for punishment. 


And in contrast with their treatment of the Serbs, when dealing with Israel and the United States, HRW has gone to great pains to provide "balance" in even-handedly condemning Hezbollah, the Gaza Palestinians and Hamas, and the Iraqi resistance.  In the case of Hezbollah and Israel, HRW even compared their missile attacks in terms that were unfavorable to Hezbollah, whose missiles HRW alleges deliberately targeted civilians, whereas Israel simply was not careful enough. HRW ignored the fact of a major "supreme international crime," the volume of bombings and ordnance deployed, and the number of casualties, and it imputed an intent to Hezbollah fighters for which HRW had no supportive evidence.[36]  This parallels the apologetics in the HRW contrast between unintended civilian casualties from high level bombing versus the "deliberate" killing of civilians in close-quarters combat. 


In sum, HRW has done a great deal of valuable work on human rights, enough to frequently arouse the ire of U.S. and U.S. client state officials and their intellectual and media supporters.  But like the Christian missionaries of earlier empires, HRW has also performed yeoman service in the advancement of U.S. foreign policy. Hans Köchler says that "Human rights have become an instrument of  power politics in an environment in which no checks and balances exist to restrain the arbitrary use of power." And in his view, "In the war against Yugoslavia in 1999, NATO acted as the ‘Holy Alliance’ of our times, trying to justify with moral principles a campaign of war that was in complete contradiction  to the UN Charter and to international law in general."[37] HRW has been a servant of this new Holy Alliance.


In the beginning, as the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee, it did this by helping to publicize Soviet wrongdoing in Western capitals.  Later, and during the current and the last decade in particular, it has made three principal contributions to U.S. policy interests.  First and most notably, HRW has refused to challenge U.S. wars and interventions as such, taking them as givens and dealing only with second-order

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