Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The NGO Duel

Last week, Israeli media sources reported on the latest Amnesty International annual reports with headlines such as "Amnesty: Israel war brought Gaza to brink of disaster," "Amnesty: Israel responsible for truce collapse," and "Amnesty: Israel repeatedly breached rules of war in Gaza."

The articles each make more or less the same point, that Amnesty International, the Human Right's NGO, has blamed Israel for one transgression or another, pays at best, mere lip-service to transgressions against Israel, ignores all context for Israeli actions and are highly biased. The articles also point to a report released by the NGO "watchdog" appropriately named "NGO Monitor" which scrutinized and criticized the Amnesty reports.

An example of bias in the Amnesty reports cited by the articles is that the latest violence in Gaza was the result of Israel violating a ceasefire that had been in place. Amnesty notes that the violation came when Israel killed Hamas "militants" in November, 2008. It ignores, say the articles, the reason the Hamas militants were killed. A little digging answers that question. The Israeli raid was in response to intelligence gathered by Israel that indicated that Hamas had dug a tunnel into Israel for the purpose of kidnapping Israeli soldiers.

The Amnesty reports are in two parts. The first part, deals with Israel's human rights record while the second examines the Palestinian one. The Israeli report deals almost exclusively with Israeli actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians. At the end, there is only one paragraph dealing with the question of "hot returns" a subject treated on this blog many weeks ago. The report focuses mostly on the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the impact it has on the Gazan economy, the tragic stories of several Gazans who were blocked from leaving the strip for medical treatment as well as issues relating to Palestinians in Israeli jails, settlements and other related issues.

The Palestinian report focuses on problems in the Palestinian territories including Hamas vs. Fatah violence, torture, limitations on the freedom of expression and arbitrary arrest and detention.

The "NGO Monitor" report which came out highly critical of the Amnesty reports, lists several general reasons why the Amnesty reports were biased, including the use of particularly dramatic, or inflammatory language when referring to Israel. It refutes some of the claims made by Amnesty, and suggests that Amnesty made its claims based on inaccurate or incomplete information. The report also points out the lack of context in the Amnesty reports which, for example, suggest that smuggling tunnels into the Gaza strip are only used for food and goods but ignores their use for arms smuggling. It also presents a statistical analysis of Amnesty International's work in the middle east and, through it's own methodology, determines that of all the countries in the region, only Iran can be considered a worse human rights violator than Israel is. The report suggests that Amnesty's biased reporting is driven by ideology and a desire for media attention, and that this damages Amnesty's credibility.

Reading through the Amnesty reports, it is certainly possible to see where one may find bias or lack of context. Take for example this sentence in the Amnesty report on Israel : "Many killings of Palestinian civilians in the first half of the year and during the December military offensive were in response to indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks launched by Palestinian armed groups from the Gaza Strip against nearby Israeli towns and villages and against Israeli army positions along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip." While in the context of the death of Palestinian civilians this may be true, the wording is inaccurate. As worded, the report seems to imply that as a result of Hamas terrorism, Israel set out to kill Palestinian civilians. A more neutral wording may read something like "In its response to rocket and mortar attacks launched by Palestinian armed groups from the Gaza Strip against nearby Israeli towns and villages and against Israeli army positions along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip Israel struck back at the perpetrators of such attacks. In the course of these responses, sometimes Palestinian civilians in the vicinity of the targeted perpetrators were killed. This is what accounts for many of the deaths of Palestinian civilians in the first half of the year and during the December violence." This rewording reflects that civilians were not Israel's targets.

The point of all this is to say that it is reports such as these, filed by Amnesty International that chip away at the respect many Israelis have for such organizations and their ability to criticize without bias. It's unreasonable to expect that Amnesty not criticize Israel--or any other country for that matter--at all in order to appear fair. No country is perfect and there are human rights abuses of varying severity in all places. If NGO Monitor's methodology is to believed, however, it is a misrepresentation to say that Israel is the second worst human rights violator in the middle east, a region that includes the likes of Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Syria none of whom are even democratic.

Groups like Amnesty International are important. They need to be able to speak truth to power, to call attention to the rights of ordinary people who otherwise have no voice and to advocate for change, for a better world and, when confict must occur, for that conflict to be as "humane" as possible, if there is such a thing as a humane conflict. To do this, however, Amnesty and NGOs like it, need to be respected as unbiased, unimpassioned observers, able to see the forest, and the trees. Reports such as this latest Amnesty one which do not provide factual context for events not even directly related to individual or collective human rights (such as the inaccurate reporting on the November 2008 attack on the kidnapping tunnel) damage Amnesty's image of impartiality and weaken their ability to have their voice hearkened to on matters where they have justly identified real concerns. For its image to be restored, Amnesty must convince Israelis that it is an unbiased observer, an argument it can only make by providing context for actions it condemns which took place in a highly complex, protracted conflict.

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