Guest post by Robert Bernstein, founding chairman emeritus of Human Rights Watch, cross-posted from the New York Times.
As the founder of Human Rights Watch, its active chairman for 20 years and now founding chairman emeritus, I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join a militant wingnut circle-jerk with a mealy-mouthed and disingenuous hissy fit of epic proportions.
HRW had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, but recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that suggest the Israelis have been acting like a bunch of belligerent, bullet-happy lunatics with a huge, throbbing collective hard-on for politically-motivated war.
At HRW, we have always recognised that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them - through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.
Of course, some open, democratic societies' faults and abuses can sometimes continue for more than forty years with total impunity, despite showing every sign of being tacit state policy. Such societies may vigorously debate whether state violence should go all the way up to eleven or merely to ten, with the small minority of dissenters being disregarded as traitors and fifth columnists. The press may be adversarial only over the voltage by which neighbouring cities should be zapped, and reform may restrict itself to the quadrennial election of increasingly insane gaggles of paranoid, gung-ho fucknut headbangers, but I think the lesson here is clear.
A democratic nation should be able conduct morally dubious, politically convenient bombing campaigns in heavily-populated areas, then orchestrate its own sham investigation and whitewash exoneration, without having to answer a lot of impertinent questions.
Israel is highly democratic, while the Arab and Iranian regimes are brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting no dissent at all. Ergo, organisations like HRW should so totally, like, cut the Israelis some slack every time they rev up their war machines to drop some seriously righteous whizzbang somewhere in the general vicinity of some terrorists.
At this point, I'd like readers to pretend that they are unaware that HRW prepares a very large number of reports about Iraq, Iran, Egypt etcetera, and to act as if it is in some way suspicious that a human rights organisation would report on massive aerial and artillery bombardments of an essentially incarcerated population.
Dodgy, isn't it?
Anyway, Hamas and Hezbollah are both racist, genocidal organisations, and as such HRW should be aware that this somehow exempts the Israelis from obeying international law in some vague manner that I won't deign to explain in this particular bout of waffling, diversionary boo-hoo.
HRW hasn't been able to verify its reports with the Israeli leadership, largely because the entire state apparatus spent the assault and its aftermath bluntly ordering every concerned organisation, neutral monitoring body and government to fuck off, and take their Geneva Conventions with them. Clearly, if the Israeli military had been committing war crimes, they would have said so by now.
More alarmingly, HRW have had to rely on untrustworthy eyewitness accounts, because the Israelis deliberately closed the battlefield to reporters and international observers. Never mind the fact that eyewitness reports can be biased and unreliable - reporting on a conflict without having been invited to do so is bad manners, and gatecrashing the party with a load of bothersome allegations is just plain rude.
And while we're on the subject of unreliable eyewitness reports, did I mention the fact that a British general was good enough to provide a glowing statement about how the Israelis take great care not to harm civilians while they're dropping several tons of high explosives on them?
This neat juxtaposition between hundreds of eyewitness reports, backed by supporting evidence and analysis, and a British general's offhand one-liner, should tell you everything you need to know about my concerns about HRW's reporting. That's unless you feel that the implication that the former is worthless and the latter obviously truthful is basically dishonest.
So, in conclusion, Human Rights Watch needs to return to its roots by directing all of its attention at the atrocities committed by unaccountable middle eastern tyrants, and essentially grant the Israelis carte blanche to use whatever weapons they like, wherever they like, whenever they like, without raising a whisper of complaint. If not, HRW leaves itself open to accusations of relativism.
That would devalue all of the good work this wonderful organisation does by giving the impression that it's only interested in certain rights violations by a very specific group of people, and we certainly couldn't have that.