Human Rights Watch To Increase Focus on Terrorism

By Marc Perelman

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.
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Human Rights Watch announced that it is creating a new senior position to handle terrorism issues, leading one right-leaning Israeli watchdog to take credit for the move.

The Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor issued a statement last week giving credit for the move to its own reports, which alleged an anti-Israel bias on the part of Human Rights Watch. In its statement, NGO Monitor said that Human Rights Watch had taken “an important step in the right direction” and asserted that by creating the new post the organization was acknowledging its “failure to date to consider the human rights impact of terror attacks in Israel, the U.S., and elsewhere.”

The claims were rejected by Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. Roth said that his organization’s decision to create the position of terrorism/counterterrorism project director was a result of a budget increase and would not alter the group’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which has angered Israel and many of its supporters.

“We already have a researcher dealing with the issue and the new position won’t change anything,” Roth told the Forward, before taking aim at the head of NGO Monitor, Gerald Steinberg, director of the program on conflict management at Bar Ilan University. In reference to Steinberg and NGO Monitor’s recent boasting, Roth said: “Such a claim can only be made by a man who looks at the world through a mirror.”

Steinberg, Roth added, “hates us because we are one of the only international human rights organizations working in the area.”

Steinberg stood by his claim that Human Rights Watch was changing its approach to terror as a result of external pressure.

NGO Monitor is run by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, which is headed by Dore Gold, an informal adviser to Prime Minister Sharon.

Despite his feelings about NGO Monitor, Roth acknowledged that some of the recurring criticism of his organization from Jewish groups was constructive. Still, he added, often the real issue is that “some people can’t stand criticism of Israel at all.”

In recent years, Human Rights Watch has earned some rare praise from Jewish organizations for denouncing suicide bombings as crimes against humanity.

Roth said that the organization’s criticism of Israel had caused one major Jewish donor to cut funding, but said that the loss had been more than balanced out by a surge in contributions, especially in the last year, including large ones from Jewish donors.

Roth said the group’s budget has jumped from around $22 million to $28 million over the last year, allowing a build-up of its terrorism staff, including the hiring of an Arabic speaker based in Cairo and the upgrading of its Arabic Web site to spread its human-rights message to Arab countries.

“We have been adding positions across the board and we have been building up our terrorism staff,” Roth said. “This is a way for us to consolidate those efforts and have a more senior person provide strategic guidance.”

At the same time, the organization has also focused on policies adopted by governments in the name of cracking down on terrorism.

“Dealing with terrorism is a huge issue for us since 9-11 because it directly impacts the values we defend,” he said. “Counterterrorism has become a new excuse for human rights abuses and we will pull no punches against any government, be it Russia, the United States or Israel.”

In addition to its campaign against Human Rights Watch, NGO Monitor also took aim earlier this year at the left-leaning New Israel Fund. At issue was the New Israel Fund’s decision to grant a law scholarship to Shamai Leibowitz, an critic of Israeli occupation who had advocated the transformation of Israel into a bi-national state. In particular, NGO Monitor attacked the New Israel Fund after Leibowitz, the grandson of the liberal Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, spoke out in favor of “selective sanctions” against Israel, including divestment.

After complaints from donors and board members, New Israel Fund officials said the group would review its grant policy. The organization said the matter was still under review.

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