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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“If that’s their methodology when dealing with us, when dealing with Israel, then how can I trust their methodology on anything else?” said Gerald Steinberg, executive director of NGO Monitor, an advocacy group that is highly critical of HRW. “For 10 years they had almost no serious reporting on Syria,” Steinberg said. “I think we would be in no different position if Human Rights Watch didn’t exist in terms of the knowledge” of rights abuses in Syria.

Founded in 1978, HRW originally focused, in large part, on the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe. As it has expanded its purview to include the Middle East and other regions, its critics have come to include HRW co-founder Robert Bernstein. In 2009, Bernstein, a prominent publisher, publicly split with the group, saying it had focused too much energy on criticizing Israel.

Now, the ongoing civil war in Syria has brought it bitter rebuttals from the Syrian regime. The government has allowed very few journalists to enter the country legally — a stance adopted by many countries engaged in conflict with populations under their rule, including Israel during the Gaza hostilities of 2008 to 2009. A handful of Western journalists, including Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, were fatal casualties of their reporting on the Syrian conflict.Newspaper articles about Syria are often bylined from Beirut and Abu Dhabi. That’s not kept HRW from issuing scores of reports since the uprising began last spring.

In recent months, the organization’s output has included reports on the use of illegal cluster bombs by government forces, reports on torture at government detention facilities and reports on summary executions by the Syrian army and pro-government militias.

The helicopter footage hasn’t yet resulted in a report, but it soon could. The video, shot on a cell phone, is grainy and vague. There’s a door gun, a quick view of light-brown countryside, then two men with crew cuts smoking. A long canister lies between them. One man seems to light a fuse on the canister with the end of his cigarette, then quickly shoves it out the side door of the helicopter. The soldiers watch it fall toward a town below.


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