Human Rights Dodge

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group, released its annual World Report this week, and it makes for a grim read. Reviewing conditions in 58 countries around the globe, the 558-page report is a litany of dictatorships that torture dissenters, use rape and mutilation as political strategies and murder their own citizens by the thousands. In some cases the organization’s monitors and reporters risked their lives simply reporting back to their New York headquarters on the dreadful events taking place far from the eyes of the world media in places like Burma and Liberia.

Sadly, too much of what they report will be ignored. The organization, in publishing the report, chose to lead its account of world conditions with a startling warning about human rights abuses in, of all places, America. “Global support for the war on terrorism is diminishing partly because the United States too often neglects human rights in its conduct of the war,” the organization oddly declared. The reference, it seems, is to abuses such as the detention of enemy combatants in Guantanamo, roundups of illegal immigrants in California and American willingness to work with repressive regimes in places like Pakistan. That, the report says, breeds “smoldering resentment.”

In fact, statements like that breed ridicule. America is not the world’s leading abuser.

To be sure, America is only one of the 58 countries subjected to scrutiny. The report also details “negative developments” such as continuing warfare in various places “from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” And it has some good news, such as “the formal end to wars” in such places as Sudan.

Those who wade through the text will learn that the “negative developments” in Congo include continuing warfare between government troops and “ever-splintering” rebel groups, “with belligerents” — on both sides, the report dryly notes — “killing, raping and otherwise injuring thousands of civilians.”

As for those “positive trends” in the Sudan, they include a serious reduction in the government’s unfortunate habit of using helicopter gunships to bombard camps distributing food to starving refugees. There were also fledgling efforts, though largely ineffective, to draw attention to such practices as slavery, female genital mutilation and the stoning of women on adultery charges. None of these, however, was serious enough to bump American abuses off the front page.

And then there’s Israel. Its misdeeds, acknowledged to be responses to a campaign of mass murder by Palestinian suicide bombers, come in for the report’s most detailed description. The Israel section, at 2,600 words, is twice the length of most other countries’. Victims — the Palestinian ones, at least — are mentioned by name, their stories and emotions recounted in novelistic detail. Where abuses in Congo and Burma are dry litanies of massacre and mass torture, Israeli abuses come alive.

Let it be clear: The events Human Rights Watch reports are largely true, and ought to arouse the conscience of the world. America should not be incarcerating students capriciously. Israel should not be using Palestinian men as human shields when it hunts for terrorists, as its own Supreme Court ruled this year — though that ruling somehow didn’t make the list of “positive developments.” Israel, it seems, is no Sudan.

To arouse the conscience, however, Human Rights Watch must speak with a sense of proportion. The indiscriminate lumping of Israeli or American overreactions with Congolese atrocities simply convinces the public in Israel and America that the report is not worth reading. And that is a pity. The story should be told — properly.

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