Analysis: This is a lethal blow to Human Rights Watch

By Martin Bright, October 22, 2009

The intervention from Robert L Bernstein in the debate over the credibility of Human Rights Watch is beyond devastating.

Mr Bernstein founded the organisation and was its chair in the two decades from 1978 to 1998, during which time HRW built itself into one of the most respected monitors of state abuse in the world. His op-ed piece in the New York Times accuses the present leadership of losing its way over the issue of Israel.

But far more seriously, it accuses his successors of betraying the founding principles on which Mr Bernstein and others built the organisation.

In particular he points to the distinction HRW once made between democratic and undemocratic worlds; closed and open societies. Put like this it seems an obvious point to make. But it sometimes takes someone of Robert Bernstein’s authority and experience to cut through the cant of a debate like this.

The key paragraph in the piece is this: “The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”

This is not to say that Israel (or any other democratic country) is beyond condemnation. It is quite possible to argue that Robert Bernstein’s purist stance on the distinction between closed and open societies is out of step in the age of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

But it is hard not to draw the conclusion that Human Rights Watch’s claims to independence are now in tatters.

Human Rights Watch has already been seriously damaged by the revelation that Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst used by the organisation to investigate Israel, was a collector of Nazi memorabilia.

It is difficult to see where Human Rights Watch can go from here. Its credibility is now shot.

This is no small matter. Human rights organisations are not there to act as a comfort blanket for the conscience of liberal bleeding hearts. They perform an essential function in uncovering abuse and representing the voiceless.

It is no one’s interest to have a vacuum where Human Rights Watch used to be.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010