The real service that the founding chairman of Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein, provided with his article in the New York Times deploring the turn that the organization he founded has taken against Israel came less with speaking out on that topic – his views had been widely known among those who follow these matters even before they were publicly expressed – than with smoking out the views of the organization’s leaders by eliciting from them a public response. That response came in the form of a letter to the editor in today’s Times from the organization’s current chairwoman, Jane Olson, and a past chairman, Jonathan Fanton, which included the stunning sentence, “After careful consideration, we and other members of our board stressed that democracies, too, commit serious abuses, with the United States’ ‘war on terrorism’ and Israel’s conduct in Gaza just the latest examples.”
This is a departure from Human Rights Watch’s stated policy that it does not take sides or make judgments about whether particular wars are right or wrong, the organization’s claim that it merely calls on both sides to observe international law in conducting wars. The sentence in the letter seems to be a claim not merely that there were some abuses committed as part of the war on terrorism – Abu Ghraib, for example, or waterboarding – but that the entire “war on terrorism” in and of itself was a “serious abuse.”
One wonders what, exactly, Human Rights Watch’s suggested response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would have been. Actually, one doesn’t have to wonder: the organization issued a statement with a plea that “the United States should remain committed to a criminal justice approach --investigation, arrest, trial and punishment, with all the guarantees of a fair trial that are central to any system of respect for human rights -- rather than executions or targeting noncombatants. Just as the ‘war’ on drugs or the mafia does not obviate basic criminal justice guarantees, so the war on the organization responsible for the September 11 attacks should not bypass the human-rights protection against assassination.”
Osama bin Laden, by this view, deserves not to be killed but instead to be read his Miranda rights like some shoplifter or mob bookie. By this view, too, not just a few incidents, but all of “Israel’s conduct in Gaza” – including, one wonders, its unilateral withdrawal of settlers therefrom? – deserve blanket condemnation. Actually, one doesn’t have to wonder about Gaza, either — even before Israel withdrew, Human Rights Watch issued a statement in October 2004 falsely claiming, “The Israeli government’s plan to remove troops and Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip would not end Israel’s occupation of the territory. As an occupying power, Israel will retain responsibility for the welfare of Gaza’s civilian population.”
Here at the New York Sun we are familiar with this pattern of eliciting, with criticism of Human Rights Watch, even more illuminating responses. Our favorite example was back in 2006, when the organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, responded to criticism of his group’s Israel coverage by sending us a letter accusing Judaism and its Bible of being examples of “primitive” morality. Messrs. Roth, Olson, and Fanton are posing as neutral human rights advocates, but what they really are is just another “peace” group with a left-wing agenda. Mr. Bernstein has done a great service – one of many in a long and distinguished career – by helping to expose that fact and given a real example of personal courage.