The present and past chairs of Human Rights Watch (HRW) wrote to the New York Times this week, criticizing the founder of their organization, Robert L. Bernstein, for allegedly arguing that Israel should be judged by a different human-rights standard than the rest of the world.
This was, as Jeffrey Goldberg noted, a gross distortion of Bernstein’s views; Bernstein had written that HRW’s original mission was “to pry open closed societies” by supporting dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky. Open societies could correct themselves — through public debate, an adversarial press, an independent judiciary, a politically active academia, and multiple political parties — all especially evident in Israel and conspicuously absent in the “authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records” around it. Bernstein wrote that to ignore the distinction between open and closed societies is to be taken into a “moral equivalence game.”
No one has described the corruption of that game better than Sharansky himself, recounting in The Case for Democracy the respect he lost for Amnesty International (AI) after he read its annual report:
I immediately noticed that something was terribly wrong. There were pages and pages of material about human rights abuses in my new country Israel, and very little on the nondemocratic states that surrounded us. It appeared as though Israel was a bigger violator of human rights than Saudi Arabia, a country where there was no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, and no freedom of religion.
At the time, Sharansky offered what he thought was a constructive suggestion:
Why not divide the report into three sections: one for totalitarian regimes, one for authoritarian regimes, and one for democracies? Without those categories, Amnesty was creating a dangerous moral equivalence between countries where human rights are sometimes abused and countries where they are always abused.
His suggestion was rejected out of hand; AI would not “label” countries; it would not “support or oppose any political system”; it would concern itself only with the “impartial” protection of human rights. To which Sharansky responded: “How can a human rights organization be impartial about political systems that are inherently hostile to human rights?”
Israel is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but now the noxious fumes come from the “human rights organizations” themselves. If HRW were worthy of its name (and its history), it would elevate Gildad Shalit to the status it once gave Sharansky. It would use Shalit not simply to condemn holding a prisoner incommunicado but also to mobilize the moral authority of the free world against a terrorist regime that holds its entire population captive, that caused a war through relentless rockets fired on neighboring civilians, and that used its own civilians as human shields when the inevitable reaction finally came.
Bernstein’s important article demonstrates that HRW once understood the moral stakes involved between open and closed societies before it descended into the game of moral equivalence that has turned it into a part of the problem instead of the solution. It has reduced itself to writing to the Times to distort the argument its own founder now makes against it.