Who Will Watch The Watchers?

by Jonathan Chait | April 27, 2010

Ben Birnbaum has a long, very carefully reported, and highly convincing article in TNR about Human Rights Watch and Israel. Last fall, the founder of Human Rights Watch resigned from the organization and charged it with anti-Israel bias.

Birnbaum's article is not a fulsome denunciation of HRW. It's a very balanced piece of narrative journalism that gives HRW its due, while still establishing two points beyond a doubt: First, the group has attracted people to its Middle East division who tend to be highly unsympathetic to Israel. Second, there are many people in the organization who believe that it subjects Israel to an unfair double standard which sometimes results in misleading criticism. For instance:

During the war, Garlasco had gotten a lot of attention for discussing Israel’s use of a chemical agent called white phosphorous. CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera ran segments featuring Garlasco explaining the dangers white phosphorous posed to civilians: On contact with skin, it could cause second- and third-degree burns; it could even burn down houses. Soon, news reports all around the world were repeating the story.
But Garlasco would later tell Apkon and others that he thought the white phosphorous controversy had been blown out of proportion. From his experience at the Pentagon, Garlasco knew that U.S. and British forces had used white phosphorous in Iraq and Afghanistan, and usually for the same purpose that the IDF used it in Gaza: as a smokescreen to obscure troop movements on the ground—a permissible use under international law. To be sure, Garlasco did not believe that the IDF had used white phosphorous properly in every instance. But he told multiple people that he thought HRW had placed too much emphasis on this issue—specifically telling one person that he had been pushed by HRW headquarters to focus on white phosphorous at the expense of topics he thought more deserving of attention because, he suspected, it was regarded as a headline-generating story. (HRW denies that it pushed Garlasco on the subject.) What’s more, while making legal judgments was not within Garlasco’s jurisdiction, he told Apkon that he did not think Israel’s use of white phosphorous amounted to a war crime. (In a subsequent report on white phosphorous, the first of six thus far on the Gaza war, HRW would say that evidence “indicates the commission of war crimes.”)
Beyond these disagreements, Garlasco had larger critiques of HRW. He thought that the organization had a habit of ignoring necessary context when covering war, he told Apkon; and he told multiple sources that he thought Whitson and others at MENA had far-left political views. As someone who didn’t have strong ideological commitments of his own on the Middle East, this bothered him. “When he reported on Georgia, his firm feeling was he could report whatever he wanted,” says one source close to Garlasco. “And, when he was talking to headquarters, the feeling was, let the chips fall where they may. He did not feel that way dealing with the Middle East division.” In addition, Garlasco alleged in conversations with multiple people that HRW officials in New York did not understand how fighting actually looked from the ground and that they had unrealistic expectations for how wars could be fought. To Garlasco, the reality of war was far more complicated. “He looks at that organization as one big attempt to outlaw warfare,” says the person close to Garlasco.

The question of Human Rights Watch and Israel has been a simmering controversy for years. This article is going to be considered the definitive exploration of this issue for a long time. Definitely take the time to read the whole thing.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/who-will-watch-the-watchers