Human Rights Watch reports on its work

From: Carroll Bogert at Human Rights Watch
Sent: Thu Oct 22 19:28:22 2009
Subject: talking points on Bernstein op-ed

Dear Friends,

We’ve received a number of requests for talking points on Bob Bernstein’s New York Times op-ed. Here are ten quick ones:

1) Bob got three facts wrong in his piece:
*He’s wrong that we had no access to Gaza during the war; we had a consultant on the ground throughout the hostilities and a full research team there within three days after the fighting stopped
*He’s wrong that we “ignore” 350 million people in the Middle East; about 85% of our work on the region is devoted to them
*He’s wrong that we focused on closed societies when he was chairman of the board. In its first couple of years, Helsinki Watch compiled 10 short reports on the United States. In 1998, the year he stepped down, we worked on 30 closed societies and 47 open or partly open ones.
We’ve asked the New York Times for a correction on these three points.

2) The double standard that Bob proposes would be fatal for HRW’s credibility. If we only worked on closed societies, we would not be able to criticize Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. We would not work on police abuse in Brazil, or maternal mortality in India, or refugees in South Africa. Democratic governments also commit human rights abuses. Note that the U.S. State Department documents human rights conditions in 191 countries of the world, not just repressive societies. A double standard would be contrary not only to HRW’s principles, but to the very concept of human rights.

3) We’re not overly focused on Israel. Israel has fought two intense wars in the last three years, and we’ve carefully reported on both sides of them. But we currently work on seventeen countries in the Middle East and North Africa, and Israel accounts for about 15% of our published output on the region. The MENA division is one of 16 research programs at HRW and comprises only 5.5% of the total HRW budget. Israel is a tiny fraction of what we do.

4) We work extensively on abuses by Israel’s foes. One glance at the website will prove it. We’ve published six reports on the Palestinians and Hezbollah since 2006. The Israeli Foreign Ministry sometimes quotes from them! We’ve also published hundreds of press releases, letters, op-eds, reports etc on other Middle Eastern governments. We’ve done ten reports on Saudi Arabia in the last two years. No human rights group has done more extensive and more distinguished work on these issues than Human Rights Watch.

5) It’s dangerous to argue that if you face a terrorist threat, or wage a war of “self-defense,” you should be judged by another standard. That was the essence of the Bush/Cheney argument, too. The result was torture, secret prisons, and a massive loss of global credibility for the US. The conduct of all parties to a conflict, whether aggressor or defender, must be judged by the same laws of war. The Netanyahu government announced recently that it wants to renegotiate the Geneva Conventions. Remember when Alberto Gonzalez called them “quaint”? This spells big trouble, not only for civilians living under regimes that oppose Israel, but for Israel itself.

6) The Netanyahu government has launched a public campaign to “shoot the messenger.” Israeli human rights groups tell us they’ve never experienced such a hostile atmosphere. Government ministers have called the South African jurist Richard Goldstone an “anti-Semite” and an “obsequious Jew” because of his UN report on war crimes (by both sides) in Gaza and Israel. Under Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and its surrogates have ceaselessly attacked Human Rights Watch. But they never argue the facts. We’ve been called all sorts of names, but they have never seriously challenged any of our research conclusions.

7) Human Rights Watch is not “divided” over this issue. Bob repeatedly took his concerns to staff and board, who gave him a full hearing on many occasions. Most recently, in April 2009, the board of directors unanimously rejected Bob’s proposal to focus only on “closed” societies and not report on Israel.

8) We’re not rattled by this criticism. We get it all the time. The Netanyahu government has unleashed a particularly insistent effort to undermine our work, but governments never like our findings. We’re used to controversy and happy to answer any questions. But we don’t tolerate distortions of our record.

9) This is not about Bob Bernstein as a person. We absolutely reject his arguments and we know that he made factual mistakes in his piece. We are sorry, and we are sad, that he seems to have trouble applying to Israel the principles he’s done so much to champion.

10) Please use these points in talking with friends, supporters, donors, and other interested members of the public. If they want something in writing, you can refer them to the statement on our website: Please refer media queries to Carroll Bogert, 212-216-1244, or Emma Daly, 212-216-1835, If you’d like more detail on any of these ten points, don’t hesitate to get in touch.