October 27, 2009

Critics of Human Rights Watch's work on Israel raise three main points. First, they say we disproportionately focus on Israel, and neglect other countries in the Middle East. Second, they claim our research methodology is flawed - relying on witnesses with an agenda. Third, as recently expressed by our founding chairman Robert Bernstein, they argue that we should focus on "closed" countries such as China rather than "open" societies like Israel.

I reject all three claims.

Human Rights Watch currently works on seventeen countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iran, Egypt, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Israel accounts for about 15 percent of our published output on the region. The Middle East and North Africa division is one of 16 research programs at Human Rights Watch and receives 5 percent of our total budget. Israel is a small fraction of what we do.

Our war coverage in the region has documented violations by all sides. No international human rights organization has done more to highlight the war crimes of Hezbollah and Hamas, challenging their leaders and the Arab public to think critically about the unlawful conduct of these groups. Our Civilian Protection Initiative, launched five years ago, has sought the support of Arab civil society leaders to discredit terrorist attacks.

The research methodology employed in these wars is the same we use around the world: in-depth private interviews with multiple witnesses. We corroborate their accounts with field visits, ballistics evidence, medical records and other means. Unfortunately, since late 2008, the Israel Defense Forces have refused to meet with us or answer any of our detailed written questions.

The problem of witness intimidation is not new, and we take it into account.

Contrary to the claims of some critics, in Gaza we found there were Palestinians who would speak about violations by Hamas. Palestinian victims and witnesses of abuse were the primary source for a report we published on Hamas torture and executions - a report cited publicly by the Israeli government.

We apply the same international human rights standards to all countries, open and closed. We work extensively on China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, but we also investigate abuses in the American criminal justice system, police killings in India, "disappearances" in Sri Lanka, and migrants' rights in Europe. All governments, regardless of their political system, are obliged to uphold the same international norms.

At the heart of our critics' arguments lies the view that we should hold Israel to lower standards. There is no dispute that the country was founded on the ashes of genocide and is surrounded by hostile states and armed groups. But some believe that these circumstances give Israel's democratic government the right to take whatever steps it deems necessary to keep the country safe.

A country's conditions do not remove its obligations under international law, though. Whether a state is an aggressor or acting in self-defense, whether it faces a regular army or insurgents that commit abuses, the laws of war apply, imposing a duty to minimize civilian harm.

And being a democratic country prevents Israel from committing wartime abuses no more than it stopped the United States from torture and unlawful detentions at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

The serious Israeli abuses we documented also put the country at greater risk. By failing to hold those responsible to account, Israel increases anger and resentment among the Palestinian population and in the wider Arab world, and undercuts moderates who wish to pursue peace.

Our critics have every right to challenge the substance of our findings on Israel or any other country, though they rarely find errors. But if they want to challenge repressive regimes and combat armed groups that terrorize civilians, they will not serve that cause by trying to exempt Israel from human rights laws that are the best defense against such abuse. Nor does it help to attack those organizations that are working to uphold those laws around the world.

The writer is executive director of Human Rights Watch.