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." 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," its main focus was on
But despite these and countless other constructive efforts, the organization has at critical times and in critical theaters thrown its support behind the
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
Roth’s "Indict Saddam" st
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. 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." 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," and Roth and HRW looked the other way. HRW never produced a major report on the sanctions. It never called attention to
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." Roth asserts that bringing Saddam to justice for his treatment of the Kurds ran into difficulties because
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. 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." Subsequently, Garlasco admitted to not having read the report when he offered his initial assessment about it to the press. 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. 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;  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…."
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
HRW’s professed neutrality is disingenuous for yet another reason: The organization has never applied it to the armed conflicts within the former
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. 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
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, 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.
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. 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, 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
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." 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." In fact, the RDC has found documentable totals of war-related deaths on all sides to be in the area of 100,000. 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
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. 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.
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. 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
In sum, HRW has done a great deal of valuable work on human rights, enough to frequently arouse the ire of
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