Attacking Human Rights Watch

In the New York Review of Books, Aryeh Neier looks at the assault on Human Rights Watch in the wake of the recent Israel-Lebanon war.

The principal claim of bias against Human Rights Watch was that it failed to fin Israel blameless for the Leb-anese civilian deaths it caused in view of Hezbollah’ practice of mixing with the civilian population and placing its rocket launchers i populated areas. This is the basis for Alan Dershowitz’s charge that “Human Right Watch cooks the books.” Yet the fact that Hezbollah fighters mingled with the civilia population in some places does not mean that all attacks on civilians were justified. I that were the case, it might also be argued that attacks on Israeli cafés and buses ar justified because Israeli soldiers patronize cafés and ride buses. Such a stance woul clearly be monstrous. Each attack must be justified by the presence of specific militar targets and by specific consideration of the incidental harm to civilians in the vicinity Inevitably, of course, in a war setting, mistakes will be made. Hence it is important t engage in systematic monitoring such as that conducted by Human Rights Watch t assess patterns and practices.

Alan Dershowitz claims that “Human Rights Watch ignored credible news sources” which pointed out Hezbollah’s practice of mingling with civilians. His article in The Jerusalem Post cites eight press accounts to prove his point. In response, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, wrote:

Dershowitz cites numerous articles to knock down a straw man. Human Rights Watch never denied, in the words of our report, that sometimes Hizbollah “store[s] weapons in or near civilian homes and [its] fighters placed rocket launchers within populated areas.” Indeed, we called these Hizbollah abuses “serious violations of the laws of war because they violate the duty to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties.” Our point was that there was no evidence of such Hizbollah presence for some two dozen cases, representing a third of Lebanese civilian deaths at the time, that Human Rights Watch field investigators examined in depth.

Ms. Whitson did not go on to point out, as she might have, that closely examined, the eight press accounts cited by Dershowitz prove less than he suggests. Two of them refer to quotations in Canadian publications from a retired Canadian military officer, General Lewis MacKenzie, who was apparently nowhere near Lebanon when the conflict took place but speculated about Hezbollah’s practices. As Dershowitz may not have known but should have found out before citing the general twice, this is characteristic of MacKenzie.