Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kenneth Roth

Does Human Rights Watch Make Up Its Numbers?

I wrote here yesterday regarding Human Rights Watch’s tendency to substitute polemic for research, and to force analysis through a political lens. At issue were questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Rabaa Square in August 2013, when military forces broke up a sit-in of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad Morsi, a Brotherhood acolyte and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president before his ouster the month before. Make no mistake: hundreds of protestors died and, according to the Egyptian government, dozens of police as well.

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I wrote here yesterday regarding Human Rights Watch’s tendency to substitute polemic for research, and to force analysis through a political lens. At issue were questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths in Rabaa Square in August 2013, when military forces broke up a sit-in of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamad Morsi, a Brotherhood acolyte and Egypt’s first democratically-elected president before his ouster the month before. Make no mistake: hundreds of protestors died and, according to the Egyptian government, dozens of police as well.

Enter Human Rights Watch, and its publicity-seeking executive director, Ken Roth. Human Rights Watch launched an investigation into the massacre, as it should have, although from Roth’s tweets and public statements, it seems that he had already drawn his conclusions before the investigation had even begun. Nevertheless, despite his outrage, Roth’s initial tweets were somewhat restrained. For example, shortly after the massacre, he tweeted, “‘Democracy’ is not shooting people in the name of #Egypt majority. It requires operating within the limits of rights.”

After the Egyptian government denied Roth entry into Egypt on the first anniversary of the killings, he magically raised the casualties that Human Rights Watch attributed to the Egyptian government, declaring on Facebook, “I went to Cairo to present Egypt’s leaders with evidence that police slaughtered 1,000 people at Rabaa Square. They wouldn’t even let me out of the airport.” If Human Rights Watch is a serious organization, it should confirm those killed with visits to the morgue, interviews with the families, and confirmation with state records and visits to graves. It shouldn’t, with a magic wand and in a fit of pique, imply that the numbers are chosen arbitrarily depending on the mood of the analyst.

Initially, Human Rights Watch documented “at least 377 [deaths], significantly higher than the latest Rab’a death toll of 288 announced by the Health Ministry.” With time, that number grew. In its final report, Human Rights Watch put the death toll they could confirm at 817. That’s bad enough (and the Egyptian government, for what it’s worth, places the death toll in the 600-person range). But Roth’s Facebook post on the Human Rights Watch page seems to simply inflate the numbers by 25 percent. Raising the death toll in a fit of anger out of the disrespect a researcher feels at the hands of a foreign government does nothing but diminish the legitimacy of Human Rights Watch’s research.

Roth is fond of analogies as well but, again, with these he plays fast and loose. On August 13, 2014, he tweets, “Tiananmen in 1989, Andijan in 2005, and now #Egypt’s Rab’a in 2013–large-scale massacres that demand justice.” That’s true. Again, however, Roth’s bombast seemed to get the better of him, perhaps because his relatively dispassionate tweet didn’t get him the media coverage he hoped. Hence, just 17 days later, he tweeted, “17 NGOs press UN rights council to address #Egypt: bigger protester massacre than Tiananmen, mass arrests & torture.” So was Rabaa a bigger massacre than Tiananmen? Well, for this, it pays simply to look at old reports by Human Rights Watch from the days when it prioritized human-rights research and reporting above polemic. As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square approached this past spring, Human Rights Watch released this, carefully sidestepping the question of deaths on that horrible day because Human Rights Watch doesn’t know how many hundreds died. On the 20th anniversary, Human Rights Watch mentioned “untold numbers” killed. In 2010, however, Human Rights Watch suggested 2,000 had been killed in and around Tiananmen. Perhaps my math is wrong, but I thought 2,000 was larger than 1,000 (or 817 or 377).

The point of this is not to diminish the horror of what transpired in Rabaa Square, nor the culpability of Egyptian forces who may have used unnecessary force (or the Muslim Brotherhood activists who apparently fired from within crowds in order to kill security forces and bring more casualties to some of the innocents in the square when government forces returned fire). Rather, it’s to point out that while human-rights advocacy is extremely important and, along with independent journalism, plays an important role in civil society, so flagrantly massaging numbers to support the politics or press release of the day is the hallmark of an organization gone bad, and simply enables governments across the globe to dismiss all Human Rights Watch work as unprofessional and politically biased.

Given the inconsistencies and exaggerations to which Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth appears prone, the Egyptian government would be within its rights to dismiss the Human Rights Watch report as inherently flawed. Let us hope that other organizations do a better job of shining light on an incident which so many wish would remain in the dark, because until that job is done credibly and professionally, many will get away with murder. And let us also hope that if Human Rights Watch is to salvage its reputation, it will start to pay heed to the consistency of numbers espoused by its staff.

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Should Human Rights Watch Be Trusted?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) likes to consider itself the authority on human rights and adherence to international law. Unfortunately, in recent years it has weathered a number of scandals and prioritized its own subjective worldview above any objective standard for measuring human rights. Five years ago, for example, HRW spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use the money to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations,” never mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) likes to consider itself the authority on human rights and adherence to international law. Unfortunately, in recent years it has weathered a number of scandals and prioritized its own subjective worldview above any objective standard for measuring human rights. Five years ago, for example, HRW spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use the money to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations,” never mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

Its founding chairman took to the pages of the New York Times to castigate the organization he created for prioritizing politics over mission. Iraqis of all stripes tend to despise HRW because HRW’s leadership refused to provide evidence and documentation about Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds for the trial of Saddam unless Iraqis agreed to forgo capital punishment. Blackmail and imperialism are both unbecoming for an NGO.

In this month’s COMMENTARY, Jonathan Foreman chronicles “The Twitter Hypocrisy of Kenneth Roth,” the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who throughout the recent Gaza violence put politics and polemics above both fact and devotion to the international humanitarian law he and HRW claim to uphold. During the conflict, Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, highlighted Roth’s tweets which suggested Roth was even willing to cast aside the Geneva Conventions in order to support and advance the Hamas narrative.

Roth, however, appears not only a partisan in terms of his animus toward Israel, but also with regard to his embrace more broadly of political Islam. Because Roth wears his politics and polemics on his sleeve, and has seemed long ago to embrace detached neutrality when conducting research for HRW reports, the Egyptian government recently denied Roth entry into Egypt, where Roth hoped to unveil HRW’s report on the deaths of hundreds in a Cairo clash last summer.

Egypt acted correctly. Human Rights Watch may believe it wears the mantle of legitimacy in human-rights research and can be both a credible judge and jury, but that ship sailed years ago. The Egyptian government was able to quickly point out a number of well-documented factual errors. HRW, for example, claimed security forces did not provide adequate warning, but television footage showed warnings issued by loudspeaker and broadcast on television. HRW said 85,000 people were in the protest camp at the time the Egyptian police sought to disperse the crowds, but it is doubtful whether the Rabaa Square could accommodate that number. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government had timed the operation for hours when camp numbers were suppressed. And while HRW claimed there had been no investigation, former President Adly Mansour did order an inquiry; whether that inquiry is credible remains to be seen but, as Bahrain showed with the Bassiouni Commission, it would be silly to dismiss indigenous attempts at investigation and justice; in fact, encouraging countries to investigate themselves should be the paramount goal, one that trumps the jet-setting, headline-seeking culture that now infuses some of HRW’s top leadership.

Almost immediately after his return from Cairo, Roth started addressing his allegations against the Egyptian government in the most polemical ways. He took to the airwaves with Amy Goodman, an unabashedly partisan anchor, to accuse Egypt of engaging in a massacre worse than Tiananmen. Never mind that in Tiananmen, only one side was doing the shooting and one side was doing the dying, whereas in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting. Here he is making the same accusations in an op-ed in an Australian paper. Roth’s prolific tweets from mid-August grow increasingly polemical and unprofessional. Letting Roth into Egypt would be akin to hiring a kleptomaniac as the night guard in a jewelry shop.

Now, make no mistake. I mourn the loss of life in Rabaa a year ago, although I am not so certain that the situation was as black and white as Roth finds it politically convenient to claim. Nor do I see the Muslim Brotherhood as having been committed to democracy. President Mohamad Morsi made that clear when he sought to take dictatorial power.

Admittedly, I shed no tears over Morsi’s ouster, and while I also consider the current NGO law difficult to justify, the Egyptian government—and every other government, for that matter—is entirely justified denying Roth and HRW researchers access until such a time as HRW upholds professional standards to separate polemic and politics from more serious assessment, investigation, and analysis. I have also known—and sat down with—many HRW researchers over the years and many are hard-working, professional, and committed to human-rights work. Unfortunately, HRW’s leadership seems to subordinate such concerns to their own personal agendas, eroding the credibility of the entire organization. Rather, if the truth will be known, it is essential that professional journalists do the job (and be allowed to do their job) rather than partisans claiming privilege under the cloak of an organization coasting on its former reputation.

Let us also hope that General Sisi can rectify Egypt’s myriad financial problems and overcome the pressures of those in the military who might be more comfortable with the old crony capitalist system rather than one which puts both Egypt’s economic stability and the Egyptian peoples’ opportunity on firmer ground. Let us also hope that the West will not cease its pressure on Sisi to implement substantial reforms, all the while providing the Egyptian government the means to counter a real al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat within Egypt’s borders. The two goals need not be mutually exclusive. One-thing is certain, however: true human-rights advocacy should mean more than the political polemic and individual self-aggrandizement which some in HRW now seem to embrace.

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Mearsheimer Makes a List

John Mearsheimer gave a speech at the Palestine Center in Washington yesterday and called Israel an apartheid state that has practiced ethnic cleansing and will likely practice it in the future. For Mearsheimer, this is standard practice. But he added a new twist: he separated American Jews into three categories: “Righteous Jews,” “New Afrikaners,” and a middle group of Jews who aren’t quite sure whether they’re righteous or ethnic cleansers. These are Mearsheimer’s Righteous Jews:

To give you a better sense of what I mean when I use the term righteous Jews, let me give you some names of people and organizations that I would put in this category. The list would include Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, MJ Rosenberg, Sara Roy, and Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss fame, just to name a few. I would also include many of the individuals associated with J Street and everyone associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as distinguished international figures such as Judge Richard Goldstone. Furthermore, I would apply the label to the many American Jews who work for different human rights organizations, such as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch.

And then there are America’s Afrikaner Jews, who are not just apologists for apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but are actually a fifth column. Note that he goes beyond the normal “dual loyalty” trope and says that these American Jews are “blindly loyal” only to Israel:

These are individuals who will back Israel no matter what it does, because they have blind loyalty to the Jewish state. … I would classify most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations as new Afrikaners. That list would include Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, just to name some of the more prominent ones. I would also include businessmen like Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman as well as media personalities like Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Martin Peretz of the New Republic. It would be easy to add more names to this list.

I believe Mearsheimer left out a category: “Anti-Semites and Jew-Baiters.” I will leave it to you who to add to that list.

UPDATE: David Bernstein adds his thoughts over at Volokh.

John Mearsheimer gave a speech at the Palestine Center in Washington yesterday and called Israel an apartheid state that has practiced ethnic cleansing and will likely practice it in the future. For Mearsheimer, this is standard practice. But he added a new twist: he separated American Jews into three categories: “Righteous Jews,” “New Afrikaners,” and a middle group of Jews who aren’t quite sure whether they’re righteous or ethnic cleansers. These are Mearsheimer’s Righteous Jews:

To give you a better sense of what I mean when I use the term righteous Jews, let me give you some names of people and organizations that I would put in this category. The list would include Noam Chomsky, Roger Cohen, Richard Falk, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Tony Karon, Naomi Klein, MJ Rosenberg, Sara Roy, and Philip Weiss of Mondoweiss fame, just to name a few. I would also include many of the individuals associated with J Street and everyone associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, as well as distinguished international figures such as Judge Richard Goldstone. Furthermore, I would apply the label to the many American Jews who work for different human rights organizations, such as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch.

And then there are America’s Afrikaner Jews, who are not just apologists for apartheid and ethnic cleansing, but are actually a fifth column. Note that he goes beyond the normal “dual loyalty” trope and says that these American Jews are “blindly loyal” only to Israel:

These are individuals who will back Israel no matter what it does, because they have blind loyalty to the Jewish state. … I would classify most of the individuals who head the Israel lobby’s major organizations as new Afrikaners. That list would include Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, just to name some of the more prominent ones. I would also include businessmen like Sheldon Adelson, Lester Crown, and Mortimer Zuckerman as well as media personalities like Fred Hiatt and Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, and Martin Peretz of the New Republic. It would be easy to add more names to this list.

I believe Mearsheimer left out a category: “Anti-Semites and Jew-Baiters.” I will leave it to you who to add to that list.

UPDATE: David Bernstein adds his thoughts over at Volokh.

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