One of the more active sideshows of our time is the tangle of new organizations devoted to uncovering and broadcasting what they see as “the truth.” Now that the Internet has radically simplified the work and lowered the cost of getting such messages out, it seems a wonder that there’s room in cyberspace for all the information that each day brings.
But there’s the rub: It’s not the quantity that’s the problem, it’s the nature of what passes for “information.” How are we to distinguish between information and noise? How can we tell when an organization’s ideological agenda colors its presentation?
What brings this to mind just now is an unfolding assault on Human Rights Watch, which is widely regarded and respected, along with Amnesty International USA, as the premier human rights agency in the United States. Its reports are carefully researched and, often to the embarrassment of governments, widely reported.
So, for example, its recent 53-page report on the “rendition” of some 60 alleged Islamist terrorists, sent to Egypt where (contrary to our president’s bland assessment) even our State Department indicates they are virtually certain to be tortured. Other Human Rights Watch reports in recent weeks have focused on Darfur; on America’s treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, and on the state of human rights in Peru, in Nepal, in Iraq and in Vietnam.
These reports, frequently of conditions that would otherwise pass unnoticed, are produced by a staff of nearly 200 people in 15 offices around the world with an annual budget just short of $22 million.
It comes as no surprise that Human Rights Watch also speaks out on Israel, often (though not always) critically. Enter NGO Monitor, an organization that believes that the best way to defend Israel is to condemn anyone who criticizes it.
NGO Monitor operates out of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs/Institute for Contemporary Affairs. Its editor is Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and its stated purpose is “to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated anti-Israel agendas.”
It is in that context that it has paid special attention to Human Rights Watch, offering on its Web site more reports on Human Rights Watch than on any other of the 75 NGOs it seeks to “out.” It holds that Human Rights Watch exploits “the rhetoric of universal human rights to promote narrow political and ideological preferences,” thereby falling squarely within the explicit scope of NGO Monitor’s interest.
I cannot here review all of what NGO Monitor claims as evidence for its harsh view that Human Rights Watch acts “in concert with [the] international demonization of Israel.” But here are two items that provide an indication of the “narrow political and ideological preferences” of NGO Monitor itself:
On April 18, NGO Monitor issued a “draft report on Human Rights Watch” which claims that an “objective quantitative analysis” shows that Human Rights Watch places an “extreme emphasis on critical assessments of Israel.” I have reviewed the draft document and checked its central claim against the actual documents Human Rights Watch has produced regarding Israel since the year 2000. The discrepancy between NGO Monitor’s claims and Human Rights Watch’s record is massive.
Human Rights Watch has in fact devoted more attention to each of five other nations in the region — Iraq, Sudan, Egypt, Turkey and Iran — than to Israel. I called this to Steinberg’s attention on May 3, and he responded that NGO Monitor would “examine and respond” to the discrepancies. Since then, I have received 27 emails from Steinberg; not one has in any way responded to this matter. Yet the draft report remains online, unamended.
On June 30, Israel’s Supreme Court issued a much-publicized ruling on the “separation fence.” The heart of the ruling was that “the route which the military commander established for the security fence… injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way, while violating their rights under humanitarian international law” and that the fence must therefore be relocated.
But if you were to read the NGO Monitor’s summary of the ruling, you would never know this. You would, instead, read all the court’s reasons for declaring that Israel has the right to build a fence to protect its citizens — and none of the language that explains the court’s view that the location of the fence is an unacceptable “infringement on the local inhabitants’ rights and interests.”
Now NGO Monitor is on a public campaign to establish a mechanism, as Steinberg puts it, “to watch the watchers” — that is, to provide external controls over the actions of NGOs in general and of Human Rights Watch in particular. It also urges that NGO hiring and other practices be “transparent.”
Here, again, my repeated requests for an explanation of just how hiring practices might be rendered transparent, and why board oversight and donor response are inadequate as safeguards, have gone unanswered.
Human Rights Watch is not beyond criticism; no NGO is. And all NGOs — NGO Monitor not less than Human Rights Watch — have an agenda. It is entirely appropriate for outsiders to enquire, to judge whether an NGO’s claimed agenda is honestly stated and honestly pursued.
NGO Monitor is not exempt from the kind of scrutiny it proposes for Human Rights Watch and others; its claim that Human Rights Watch “promotes narrow political and ideological preferences” while its own hands are clean and its motives pure is vacuous.
Let it, as it wishes, “watch the watcher” — but let it, in turn, be watched.
Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).