Analysis: Human Rights Watch is naive

By Martin Bright, September 18, 2009

The suspension of Human Rights Watch senior analyst Marc Garlasco is a devastating blow for the reputation of a group which stands or falls by the independence of its reporting on government abuses.

It is hard to imagine why anyone would wish to surround himself with the ephemera of fascism.

And yet, it is theoretically possible for an individual to be fascinated by Second World War military history and remain objective when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinan conflict (one of Mr Garlasco’s areas of expertise).

Indeed this was the original position taken by Human Rights Watch when Mr Garlasco’s peculiar hobby was first revealed last week.

Mr Garlasco’s expertise on air strikes would appear to be beyond question and a stream of military figures and academic experts have attested to his knowledge.

There is no reason to believe the HRW analyst is a Nazi sympathiser. We should probably take him at his word that his creepy obsession emerged from an interest in his grandfather, who was conscripted into the German army in Austria but never a party member.

What is beyond belief, however, is that Human Rights Watch thought it appropriate for a Nazi memorabilia collector to represent them as an expert analyst in the Middle East.

Mr Garlasco made no secret of his interests. Why did no one in HRW recognise that it might be a problem if it ever got out that their man hung out on military geek websites gushing that an SS jacket “makes my blood go cold it is so cool”?

Now that HRW has been forced to suspend Mr Garlasco, serious questions need to be asked about the organisation’s leadership.

At least last week’s position was consistent. Does it now stand by the statement that to imply that Mr Garlasco’s collection is evidence of Nazi sympathies is “an attempt to deflect attention from his deeply felt efforts to... minimise civilian suffering in wartime”?

Marc Garlasco was responsible for several important reports on alleged Israeli atrocities: an investigation into the Gaza beach incident in 2006 when a Palestinian family was blown up in disputed circumstances; its probe into the use of white phosphorus in Gaza this year; and a separate report investigating Israeli use of drones to deliver precision-guided warheads.

Binyamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that he is prepared to go on the offensive against human rights groups attacking Israel’s record. The idiotic complacency of Human Rights Watch has provided him with just what he needs.

Human rights organisations spend years building up their credibility and they must not only be independent, but perceived to be independent. The Garlasco incident has set back the cause of independent reporting of the conflict by years. That is unforgiveable.

Martin Bright is political editor of the JC

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010