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Why Do Human Rights Groups Punish Access?

Human-rights groups are an important component of civil society, even if the best-known groups—Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, Human Rights First, and various United Nations offshoots—corrupt their mission by conflating human rights with politics.

As corrosive a trend among human-rights organizations is their punishment of access. Simply put, the more open a society is to its critics, and the more access it grants outside observers, however tendentious they might be, the more human-rights organizations condemn them relative to societies which engage in large-scale abuse but slam the door to outside observers.

Much has been written about the disproportionate opprobrium reserved for Israel. Back in 2011, Alana Goodman observed:

In 2010, HRW published 51 documents on “Israel and the Occupied Territories,” more than on any other country in the Middle East. Compare that to the organization’s research on some of the most notorious human rights abusers — it published only 44 documents on Iran, 34 on Egypt, and 33 on Saudi Arabia.

Not much has changed. So far in 2013, HRW has issued 14 press releases condemning Israel for various policies or abuses, and six press releases condemning the Palestinian Authority or Hamas leadership in Gaza. All five commentaries HRW published bashed Israel, or called on other countries to take a harsher line toward the Jewish state.

Compare that with Jordan (nine press releases, and four commentaries, three of which called for more acceptance of Syrian refugees); Lebanon (nine press releases and two commentaries, both of which focused on Syrian refugees); or Qatar (two press releases and five commentaries). True, there was more focus on Egypt and Syria this past year, but comparing countries with coups and civil wars to the region’s only democracy underscores the point. So too does the fact that criticism of Saudi Arabia has increased as that kingdom has granted human-rights groups more access.

Israel is not the only country penalized by the access it grants outsiders. King Muhammad VI has steadily liberalized Morocco since taking the throne in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hassan II. Since that time, HRW has issued four reports critical of Algerian human-rights abuses (and a fifth critical of Algerian cooperation with the United States), while it has issued three times that number criticizing Morocco. Make no mistake: Algeria has a far worse human-rights record, with a downward trajectory while Morocco has acknowledged past abuses and worked—quite successfully in most cases—to overcome them.

Nor is it just the Middle East where this pattern exists. In the past five years, HRW has issued four reports about Colombia where human rights have steadily improved, but only two about Venezuela, where Venezuela’s socialist leaders have pushed human rights into the gutter. Likewise, over the past five years, HRW has issued one report about Belarus but five about Georgia.

The U.S. State Department is guilty of the same pattern when it writes its annual human-rights reports. Here, there is no better example than the discrepancy in how the State Department treats Morocco, a loyal and increasingly progressive U.S. ally, and the Polisario Front, an autocratic Cold War throwback which imprisons not only Sahrawi tribal members in refugee camps in the Western province of Tindouf, but also Mauritanians and Algerians it has captured in order to swell refugee numbers. The Algerian government and Polisario both have a policy of refusing to allow residents to return home to Morocco, which has welcomed anyone who wants to come (there are very limited family visits, but usually Polisario holds family members hostage to ensure that men and women return to their spouses and children rather than remain in Morocco). While historically, the U.S. Embassy in Rabat handled the Polisario camps, in recent years the U.S. Embassy in Algiers has taken over the responsibility. Herein lays the problem: The U.S. Embassy in Algiers is either unable to visit the camps, or unwilling to antagonize the Algerian government with which it must work for fear of making an issue of the camps. The end result is that the State Department annual human-rights report is hypercritical of Morocco, effectively punishing it for its openness, while giving the Polisario Front effectively a clean pass by omission.

That the lesson governments might take from the practices of both human-rights organizations and the State Department is that the way to a clean bill of health is to restrict access is unfortunate. Human-rights officials might enjoy hanging out more in Casablanca, Rabat, Tel Aviv, Tbilisi, and Bogota rather than spending their time being harassed by police and security services in Minsk, Gaza, Caracas, Algiers or Tindouf, but they are doing themselves and their organizations a disservice by taking the easy way out. Fortunately, countries like Israel, Morocco, Colombia, and Georgia seem committed to doing the right thing regardless of how their critics treat them. Still, that the pattern of punishing access exists is undeniable and should provide pause for the human-rights organizations, for the existence of such a pattern corrupts the end result and gives countries reason to dismiss all reporting as arbitrary and not based on set standards.