There is a respectful hush among the journalists. This is the launch of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) World Report 2013, and executive director Kenneth Roth is at the podium. “The media is key to what we do,” he tells the press.
The compliment is returned. Admiring questions bubble up from the floor. “Tell us about China,” asks one journalist. “What’s your view of the situation in Russia?” asks another.
All is serene at the high church of human rights. Except that it isn’t.
HRW founder Robert Bernstein wrote an article in the New York Times in 2009 accusing the organisation of turning Israel into a “pariah state” and producing far more condemnations of the Jewish state than the surrounding “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records”.
Mr Roth has never publicly responded to Mr Bernstein’s attack. Furthermore, HRW appears to have been mugged by the reality of the Arab Spring, switching its focus from Israel to the Arab countries since the revolutions broke out.
One would expect that HRW, advocate of transparent governance, would be eager to have its executive director respond to such accusations. It isn’t.
Once the HRW media department became aware that a JC journalist was looking to put tough and awkward questions to Mr Roth, press officers scrambled into censorship mode.
Firstly, the excuse. “You spent too much time with Nadim Houry (deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division) so you won’t get much time with Roth.”
Secondly, the interventions. At one point during the severely curtailed interview, the head of media cut in: “We have to finish this now. We have to get Kenneth to a parliamentary event.” The same officer then interrupted when Mr Roth was asked about accusations levelled at HRW four years ago: “This is the launch of the World Report 2013, not about 2009,” she said.
When he was left to answer questions, Mr Roth would not directly take on Mr Bernstein’s criticisms. Instead, he said: “His main complaint was that we shouldn’t report on Israel because it is a democracy.”
Mr Bernstein’s key point, however, was that HRW “should make a distinction between open and closed societies” —he did not advocate that Israel’s status as a democracy mean it should be ignored by rights watchdogs.
When pressed to explain why 2011 was the first year since 1995 that HRW did not produce a major report on Israel and the Palestinians, Mr Roth argued that “a major report usually relates to a major upsurge in abuse and in the case of Israel that tends to be related to armed conflict”. However, there was no conflict in many of the years between 1995 and 2011.
In one of the most embarrassing incidents for HRW, in 2009 it emerged that Marc Garlasco, a “senior military analyst” at the organisation and the author of highly critical reports on IDF conduct during Operation Cast Lead, was an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. Mr Roth refused to admit that the episode had damaged HRW, saying: “I would rather that Garlasco hadn’t had that crazy hobby.”
In 2009, Sarah Lee Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, went to Saudi Arabia to solicit donations from prominent members of society. According to an article in Arab News and highlighted by NGO Monitor, at the meeting Ms Whitson discussed “evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets”. Mr Roth argued that she “mentioned our work throughout the region, not just Israel, and did not solicit money to work on Israel.” He did not, however, make any comment on the language reportedly used by Ms Whitson.
This was less of an interview than an exercise in denial, obfuscation and plain old censorship.