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Human Rights Watch Under Fire

There has been some controversy this week over Human Rights Watch and both its reporting on Israel and its fundraising efforts more generally.

The story originated with David Bernstein writing in the Wall Street Journal, but Jeffrey Goldberg‘s article is the most reasonable and informative, and also contains a detailed exchange of emails between Goldberg and Ken Roth, HRW’s executive director, so readers are free to make up their own minds.  The story essentially boils down to the allegation of Goldberg’s that:

[T]he director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization’s investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel’s “supporters,” who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.

In other words, it is alleged that the organisation plays up the fact that it pays particular attention to Israel, knowing that this is likely to be viewed positively in the Arab world and more pertinently by Arab financial donors.

Human Rights Watch and its coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict has been the subject of posts by me in the past, when I pointed out that the organisation had too eagerly pursued a certain line of argument without adequate basis in law or clear evidence. This is in fact a common theme with most NGOs vis-a-vis Israel. However, I do not believe that either this, or the recent controversy concerning Saudi Arabia, is an indication of anti-Israel bias within HRW.

Rather, I believe that HRW is a victim of the untrustworthy nature of media reporting on the Israel/Palestine issue, which is all too frequently exaggerated, bombastic, and inaccurate. (An example was the hysterical character of the reporting on the Jabalya school incident of January this year, which largely accused Israel of having shelled a UNRWA-run school, killing 40 civilians – a story which later turned out to be untrue, put down to a ‘clerical error’ on the part of the UN [see update at bottom of linked BBC report].) Journalists writing on the conflict tend to focus their attention on stories which they believe make the best copy, rather than what is actually taking place, and this also affects Human Rights Watch – so that when for example it reported that Israel used white phosphorus in the recent fighting in Gaza, it recieved a great deal of media attention in the West, whereas when it stated that it is:

[I]mpressed with the IDF’s system of checks and balances concerning its artillery fire in the Gaza Strip and unlike Hamas which specifically targeted civilians in its rocket attacks, the Israelis [invest] a great amount of resources and efforts not to harm innocent civilians

No Western media outlets appeared to notice and only Israeli newspapers picked up the story.

This case is similar. A cursory search quickly brings up a vast list of reports indicating Human Rights Watch’s record of speaking out on human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. Yet these reports are rarely if ever referred to in the Western media. However, the organisation’s statements on Israel frequently appear. It is this, rather than any institutional bias, which leads to the appearance of unfairness on the part of HRW in its reporting on Palestine.


  1. David McGrogan suggests that HRW and other NGOs do not deliberately target Israel or use double standards, but rather blames “the untrustworthy nature of media reporting on the Israel/Palestine issue, which is all too frequently exaggerated, bombastic, and inaccurate. “ But systematic examination of the record shows that the influence and the untrustworthy reporting goes the other way – from HRW to the media. There are numerous examples. In the 2006 Lebanon war’s infamous Qana incident, HRW reported over 50 “civilian deaths” for which it condemned Israel, and the media copied this without independent fact checking, as highlighted by a Harvard study. This was a false report (the ICRC reported 28 bodies, of which some were probably Hezbollah – nobody outside Lebanon knows, certainly not HRW “researchers”). Similarly, if you read the the recent HRW reports on the Gaza war re alleged use of WP and drones, you will find that they are examples of targeting Israel and making the case with a combination of pure speculation and Palestinian “eyewitness” testimony. Re agenda bias, NGO Monitor’s systematic studies show HRW’s major reports and PR campaigns are focused on Israel, and criticism of the Saudis is “fire and forget”. It is painful to admit, but the evidence shows that HRW, in particular, does target Israel.

  2. David McGrogan David McGrogan Post author | 28 July 2009

    Thanks for the comment, Mr. Steinberg. I believe that incidents like the misreporting of the Qana attack occur because HRW tends to rely on eyewitness testimony which is itself biased against Israel, coming as it does from a hostile civilian populace. This is therefore not so much evidence of a bias within HRW as it is evidence of sloppy reporting. Which is itself of course a bad thing.
    I think a line of distinction has to be drawn between focusing attention on Israel and being biased against it. HRW clearly does focus a great deal of attention on Israel/Palestine because it is such a famous and contentious issue. But does this mean it is institutionally predisposed against the Jewish state? I’m not convinced.
    I’d be interested to read those studies if you would be willing to provide links.

  3. On the question of HRW’s bias on the Arab-Israeli conflict, I share your emphasis on careful and systematic analysis of the evidence, particularly for NGO publications on asymmetric conflict. This is the NGO Monitor’s main research objective.
    Such analysis shows that the 2006 Qana incident is one of many examples in which HRW selected and publicized misleading or false “evidence”. Here is the sequence of events and the sources, showing the internal contradictions and absence of any systematic methodology:
    On July 30, (during the second week of Hezbollah rocket attacks and Israeli responses), HRW issued a major press release (copied without question and headlined in media around the world (1)) labeling an Israel Air Force strike at Qana a few hours earlier as “indiscriminate” and a “war crime”, and quoting eyewitnesses (“survivors”) in this region dominated by Hezbollah, who claimed that “at least 54 civilians have been killed.”(2) This was also the “official” number stated by a Lebanese Government source. A Red Cross statement at the time put the death toll at 28(3) and the Los Angeles Times quoted HRW researcher Lucy Mair as acknowledging that: “The Lebanese Red Cross had reported early on that it had removed 28 bodies from the rubble…‘The original 54 number actually came from the fact that one of the survivors was saying, ‘We were 63 people from two families camped out in the basement.’ They identified only nine living people, and immediately people started doing the subtraction.”(4) In its press release, HRW amplified this claim, rather than admitting that there was insufficient information at the time, or using the more reliable lower estimate. In other words, an HRW official admitted that her organization’s highly influential press release has used casualty claims that were much higher than more reliable estimates.
    Furthermore, when this NGO belatedly acknowledged the lower casualty figure, and tacitly admitted that its reliance on unverifiable claims had greatly inflated the reports, HRW officials repeated the allegations of “war crimes” and continued to deny the presence of Hezbollah forces (rockets, fighters, etc.) in the area. In contrast, the evidence indicates that the 28 reported deaths may well have included Hezbollah fighters, and the HRW press statement acknowledged that “IDF claims of Hezbollah rocket fire from the Qana area are correct”. Thus, HRW media condemnations and rhetoric of “war crimes” were unjustified, but as a direct result of HRW campaigning on the basis of these false allegations, Israeli officials declared a 48 hour halt in air strikes that allowed Hezbollah to regroup, and probably prolonged the war and increased casualties.
    And this pattern of speculation and greatly inflated claims used consistently by HRW to condemn Israel, has been repeated many times, including the 2004 Razing Rafah publication, and the recent multiple condemnations of Israeli actions in the Gaza conflict. See the pseudo-research report on the IDF use of drones and allegations of “indiscriminate” killing of civilians (6 highly problematic incidents), mixing irrelevant technical data (GPS coordinates and detailed specs of missiles that may not have been used) with discredited eyewitness claims.
    1. Marvin Kalb and Carol Saivetz, “The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media As A Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict”, Research Paper Series, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, February 2007. p. 10
    2. Human Rights Watch News Release, “Israel/Lebanon: Israel responsible for Qana attack:, (29/07/06), available at:
    3. International Committee of the Red Cross, Press Release, (30/7/06),
    4. Kim Murphy, “Warfare in the Middle East: Officials Say 28 Die in Qana not 54,” The Los Angeles Times, (4/8/06)

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