Human Rights Watch: War Crimes for Dummies [updated]

As predictable as night follows day, Human Rights Watch (HRW) will come up with accusations against Israel as soon as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) do what they are supposed to do: defend Israel’s citizens.

So there is no reason to be surprised that HRW is now claiming that “Israeli army attacks on journalists and media facilities in the Gaza Strip during last month’s military operation violated the laws of war.”

Rejecting Israel’s explanations for these specific attacks, HRW Mideast director Sarah Leah Whitson reportedly quipped “Just because Israel says a journalist was a fighter or a TV station was a command center does not make it so.”

The legal adviser of the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor, Anne Herzberg, had a great response to Whitson: “Just because HRW claims something is a war crime does not make it so.”

But it is arguably also very instructive to see when HRW does NOT claim that war crimes have been committed:

 “Human Rights Watch has conducted a thorough investigation of civilian deaths … On the basis of this investigation, Human Rights Watch has found that there were ninety separate incidents involving civilian deaths … Some 500 … civilians are known to have died in these incidents. … nine incidents were a result of attacks on non-military targets that Human Rights Watch believes were illegitimate. … Thirty-three incidents occurred as a result of attacks on targets in densely populated urban areas … the use of cluster bombs was a decisive factor in civilian deaths in at least three incidents. … In its investigation Human Rights Watch has found no evidence of war crimes.”

When some 500 civilians die, when non-military targets are attacked and cluster bombs are used and yet, the conclusion is that there is “no evidence of war crimes,” you can be sure of one thing: Israel wasn’t involved. Indeed, the quote here is from a HRW report on NATO’s bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Incidentally, the NATO campaign also included a strike on the headquarters of Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), killing sixteen people and leaving many trapped for days in the damaged building.  In this case, HRW was content to assert that this was an “inappropriate” target because “[the] risks involved to the civilian population in undertaking this urban attack grossly outweigh any perceived military benefit.”

It is important to remember that this NATO campaign was officially justified as a humanitarian intervention designed to protect the Kosovo Albanians from Serbian aggression. Yet, in the course of this campaign, civilian infrastructure was deliberately targeted and destroyed; cluster bombs were used, causing the death of an estimated 90-150 civilians; and, according to the report cited above, “inventory shortages and cost considerations” led to the replacement of precision-guided weapons with “dumb” bombs.

As the report on the NATO campaign illustrates, there is no simple and straightforward definition of what constitutes a war crime. But at HRW, a very simple and straightforward definition is emerging: whenever the IDF is involved, it must be a war crime.

* * *

This post was first published at The Algemeiner.


In the meantime, HRW has gotten around to condemning the rockets launched from Gaza into Israel as “unlawful.” As rightly noted in an excellent post on Harry’s Place, this condemnation was discreetly published on Christmas Eve, when it wouldn’t attract too much attention – though the fact that it was published would still allow HRW to claim impartiality. But as also pointed out at Harry’s Place, it is of course utterly ridiculous that HRW pretends that Hamas might be in any way interested in upholding international law:

“There is an element of dark comedy in the following rather odd statement [by HRW]:

‘As the ruling authority in Gaza, Hamas has an obligation to stop unlawful attacks and punish those responsible.’

The notion that Hamas might stop such attacks… is laughable. They glory in them, and revel in the supposed cowardice of Jewish civilians running for shelter. […] they’ve boasted of their success in terrorising Jews.”

While HRW is apparently not willing to fully acknowledge that Hamas doesn’t commit war crimes by mistake, but that targeting Israeli civilians is their deliberate modus operandi, HRW did at least acknowledge that some of the rockets launched from Gaza – often from populated civilian areas – have fallen short and caused casualties among Gaza’s civilian population.

As widely noted, the body of one boy killed in such an incident was then used by Palestinians in Gaza for a widely distributed media story meant to blame Israel for the death.

4 responses to “Human Rights Watch: War Crimes for Dummies [updated]

  1. What you post from HRW regarding Serbia is very telling. It is to be noted that 1999 is before the tenure of pro-Arab Sarah Leah Whitson as Middle East director of HRW. You might take a look at this article by David Bernstein: . Bernstein is a fairly prominent law professor. Here is his bio: .

    From the article:

    What the official bio doesn’t tell you is that Whitson was an active member of the New York chapter of the American-Arab Antidiscrimination Committee. She had served on the Steering Committee (source: ADC Times, Apr 30, 2002). When HRW hired her, she was serving a two-year term on the new Board of Directors, which replaced the Steering Committee (Source: ADC Times, Jan. 31, 2004).

    The ADC styles itself as a civil rights organization, but like the Jewish organizations on which it is modeled, it also involves itself in Middle East issues, specifically by supporting the Arab and Palestinian cause against Israel. Local chapters are often more active on foreign policy issues than is the national organization.

    And indeed, the New York chapter generally, and Whitson personally, were active in pro-Palestinian politics. The April 30, 2002, ADC Times. published at the height of the Second Intifada, with buses and restaurants being blown up regularly in Israel, reports:

    The crisis in Palestine was the main focus of the New York Chapter’s work over the past two months. This work culminated on April 29 with a meeting for representatives of the ADC with the United Nations Secretary General [Kofi Annan] set up by members of the NY Chapter [and see this press release, noting Whitson’s attendance]. ADC Chapter President Nick Khoury and Steering Committee member Sarah Leah Whitson helped organize this meeting…. ADC NY members’ activism to raise awareness of the situation of Palestinians has taken many forms. On March 30, we chartered a bus to DC so that members could participate in the Land Day Rally at Freedom Plaza. [The New York chapter also held a local rally]…. On April 14, ADC NY organized a silent vigil outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral to draw attention to the fact that Palestinian Christians are also suffering under Israeli occupation….

    The Jan. 31, 2004 ADC Times , which noted Whitson’s election to the Board of Trustees, reported that the New York chapter “continued our Palestine activism over the summer.”

    So, she wears her views on her sleeve and pushes her organization towards her viewpoint. A far better organization, if you are actually interested in human rights is Advancing Human Rights, which has this website: . Advancing Human Rights’ director, Robert Bernstein, is a real human rights advocate, not the new fangled variety with a political agenda which only sees evil in Israel and wears rose colored glasses for all others.

  2. Absolutely spot on, Nathan — and you’re of course very right to mention Advancing Human Rights, which Bernstein founded after famously dissociating himself from HRW, which he had helped to found.

  3. Anonymous pro-Israel blogger Elder of Ziyon, who first picked up on the story, took issue with the assertion. “This is, of course, a sickening implication. There were contacts before World War II as Zionists tried to save Jews from Germany; for example, the Ha’avara Agreement. Abbas is however trying to spin it as if Zionists and Nazis were cooperating in genocide, which puts him beneath contempt.” rabbi dr. bernhard rosenberg

  4. Pingback: The UN and HRW’s list of shame | The Warped Mirror

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