A former insider explains how Human Rights Watch panders to the Israel lobby

Scott Long has written an excellent exposé of the scurrilous smear campaign against Egyptian human rights defender Mona Seif by the Zionist organization UN Watch and its director Hillel Neuer, “a former corporate lawyer and lobbyist for Israel” (I wrote about the UN Watch smear campaign against Seif here yesterday).

While the whole post is well worth reading, Long includes a fascinating passage on how Human Rights Watch (HRW), where he was director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program until 2010, panders to the Israel lobby which attacks it constantly.

Those of us who observe HRW’s work have long known that it deals with Israel by a different, much softer standard than it applies to any other country.

Long’s account indicates that HRW observes a sort of fake balance in which it must artificially generate criticism of Palestinians just in order to offset criticism of Israel’s much greater and more frequent human rights abuses and crimes:

Human Rights Watch, where I worked for many years, strains all its muscles to be completely objective on Israel/Palestine — an effort that has never gotten it a scintilla of credit from the militant pro-Israel side. Its releases on Israel and Palestine are the only ones in the entire organization that are routinely edited by the executive director himself. An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states. A mathematical approach to objectivity may help accountants detect embezzlement or captains keep ships afloat, but that kind of balance looks ridiculous in the political world, where the incessant fluidity of action disrupts the illusions of double-entry bookkeeping. (The call for an “embargo on arms” to “all sides” is an excellent example of “objectivity” that benefits one side much more than the other. As often noted during the Yugoslav civil war — when extremely well-meaning people urged that unarmed Bosnians and the Serbian army both go cold turkey on acquiring arms — a cutoff will matter much more to those who have only scant resources than to those flush with weaponry. If you want to stop that kind of fighting, an embargo alone won’t do it. It’s like the majestic equality of the law as Anatole France described it, forbidding both rich and poor to sleep under bridges.)

Whatever you think of the neighboring conflict, Egyptian activists are undoubtedly reasonable when they ask what a similar “objectivity” would have looked like in their 20-year struggle with Mubarak. Should each documented act of torture by State Security have been followed by a search for some malfeasance by human rights organizations? Do the immense power of a state and the vulnerability of a people’s movement carry the same responsibilities? At what point do you acknowledge (as Human Rights Watch did in Egypt) that, though both sides may do wrong, one side’s demand is right and the other’s is wrong?

An excellent question indeed.




Bias through "balance". The American media plays this game all day, too. When this is happening directly with the executive director, it's pretty obvious what they are doing and what their goal is.


I really admire the knowladge and layout of all arguments put forward by yourself. I constantly find myself nodding at my screen in agreement, I only wish if this knowladge was much far spread.


Scott Long pinpoints something I had long since noticed, i.e. the painstaking "objectivity" of HRW on Israel/Palestinians, which is anything but objective, and which in my case at least leads me to doubt all of their reporting. If you have such a blind spot (read bias) on one issue, how believable are you on any issue?


Er, did you do the math and confirm his claim that "An informal arithmetic dictates that every presser or report criticizing Israel has to be accompanied by another criticizing the Palestine Authority or Hamas — or, if that isn’t possible (the PA barely retains enough authority to violate anybody’s rights) at least one of the surrounding Arab states." I really don't think there is any close balance.


Bravo to the comments re: Scott Long's writing.
I must join the group that sensed and questioned the " objectivity" of HRW.

Now the truth has come to light.

HRW is following the same path as NPR (National Propaganda Radio).


I think the BBC acts the same way with Israel - bias through balance - even during Israeli attacks on Gaza where the aggressor is obvious and the mavi manara incident. Though it's supposed to be balanced on everything, it's pro- government bias is obvious in foreign policy while it tries to play the dissident Irrelevent domestic issues.


Canadian media critic Barrie Zwicker has noted the media 'myth of symmetry' -- that every story or controversy has just two sides, and they are equal and opposite. In practice, of course, this mainly applies to stories that mainstream media is forced to cover but doesn't like, such as criticism of Israel.

The upshot is that media do not seek truth, just balance (at least when the truth is unpleasant for them).


Why have you banned the notion that repeating imperialist propaganda about Yugoslavia is OK while debunking another example of imperialist propaganda about Palestine? HRW and its Zionism is but a part of much bigger picture of so-called "human rights" sham for imperialist crimes - be it NATO dirty role in Yugoslavia or NRW whitewashing of Zionist crimes.

One should be very careful not to be a victim of brainwashing about official foes of imperialism and Zionism.

Ali Abunimah

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.