Human Rights Watch Shifts Focus to Syria

Shifting From Israel, Groups Become Key Information Source

Broken City: The streets of the northern city of Aleppo have been decimated by battles between government troops and rebel fighters.
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Broken City: The streets of the northern city of Aleppo have been decimated by battles between government troops and rebel fighters.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 06, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
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On October 27, someone posted a shaky YouTube video of a group of camouflaged men dropping a makeshift bomb out of a helicopter in the general direction of a Syrian town.

It looked like an indiscriminate attack on a civilian target — a likely violation of the laws of war. But the video didn’t identify the village, making the incident impossible to verify.

That’s where the U.S.-based international human rights organization Human Rights Watch came in. Within days the group’s experts believed they had figured out exactly where the bomb hit and dispatched sources to search for survivors of the attack.

For HRW, the yearlong rebellion and brutal repression in Syria have meant a marked shift in its allocation of resources. Long accused of focusing disproportionately on Israel in its Middle East work, the group has been reporting intensively on Syria amid notoriously difficult conditions. In doing so, HRW has emerged as a key source of information about the bloody realities of the civil war there.

Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, says that the focus on Syria has meant an accompanying relative shift away from Israel and Palestinian territories.

“Since Israel was involved in a war in Lebanon and a war in Gaza, of course it got a lot of attention,” Whitson said. As the group’s area manager, Whitson says, she now struggles to keep the work that the organization continues to do outside Syria from getting buried. Before the uprising, Syria “was such a moribund place, we couldn’t generate news…. The reality is, for us to report we needed to be documenting active measures of repression or active measures of abuse.”

If the group is expecting acknowledgement of its even-handedness from pro-Israel critics now, it could be left waiting.


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