Thursday, July 23, 2009

Could Cooperating With NGOs Mitigate the Bias Problem?

In the wake of the story about Human Rights Watch (HRW) using its sparring with Israel as a reason for Saudis to get out their cheque-books and donate to the organization (see HRW's response to these allegations here) came this unusually titled article in the Jerusalem Post: Diplomacy: Israel vs. Human Rights Watch.

The title of the article is interesting because the article itself doesn't really talk much about diplomacy. Instead it focuses on how Israel will be taking NGOs to task on their reporting about Israel, how NGO Monitor is highly critical of NGOs like HRW and how HRW is now defending itself against criticisms from Israel and NGO Monitor.

One argument presented by the Israeli government is that to be more fair, HRW should distinguish, when reporting, between democracies and all other states in order to ensure that criticisms are seen in the proper context...the erroneous actions of well intentioned democracies versus the intentional violations of totalitarians with no regard for human rights. On this point, however, HRW needs to be considered correct in their reply. The HRW position is that nobody gets a pass, human rights are universal and they must be respected by all. A democratic state should be treated no differently than a dictatorship when facing scrutiny on human rights. This being said, however, the Israeli governments point of viewing supposed violations of human rights in their proper context is important. It is quite a different thing to attack civilians because you don't like their religion, skin color, politics, etc. than it is to kill civilians when attacking an enemy in their midst. In these generic examples a difference is to be drawn between the targets of the attack. Whether a democracy is the perpetrator of one or the other is irrelevant.

Unfortunately for HRW, parts of the article has their spokesperson come off sounding somewhat exasperated in her response to claims against HRW. The article quotes an HRW spokesperson responding to criticism with rhetorical questions and by suggesting that her critics merely make blanket accusations but cannot really prove anything HRW has actually said is wrong. The irony here, however, is that the HRW spokesperson does not actually address the many critiques of her organization on the NGO monitor website and instead categorically denies any charges of HRW's fallibility--in other words, exactly what she points at her critics for doing.

The NGO monitor website is itself somewhat exasperated in its critiques of HRW in some places, but does point to actual instances where HRW seems to have made errors in its reporting, errors that do not seem to be officially acknowledged. The NGO monitor website also has reports applying statistical methodology to demonstrate HRW's bias against Israel. Some of this does, however, seem somewhat dubious. For example, the report shows, as bias, the disproportionate attention HRW placed on Israel versus other states in the region. It's true, this could be an indication of bias, but it could also be evidence that maybe there are more violations, or allegations of violations coming from Israel than other countries in the region.

The point, however, is that the number of reports against Israel would probably be smaller is Israel would be more cooperative with the organizations in question. If Israel could provide researchers with information and the Israeli perspective of the incidents in question, then perhaps there could be better understanding of the Israeli position reflected in the reports that are otherwise doing damage to Israel's reputation. There is precedent for this in the "Gaza beach" case where cooperation with HRW lead one of their experts to reverse his original position that Israel had targeted civilians. More such cooperation could in the future, avoid the erroneous report in the first place.


Steve Lieblich said...

If someone is working against you, then I suggest that there are the following strategies available (in priority order):

1 try to convince them they're wrong

2 (if they're so far-gone as to be unconvincible) undermine their influence on others

Regretfully, several major NGOs have reached the point of qualifying for strategy 2 ...

Charlie H. Ettinson said...


Thanks for the comment.

Generally, I agree with you that when someone is so far gone, there's really not much point in reasoning with them.

I'm just not sure how much has really been tried by Israel with some of these NGOs. My udnerstanding is that the policy has generally been non-cooperation, in which case, it is reasonable to imagine that the Israeli view would not be reflected.

I think the "Gaza Beach" incident that I linked to shows the fallability of these NGOs and to a degree, their willingness (or that of their staff) to admit error. I think there needs to be more of that.

If and when an approach like the above fails, then, absolutley, at least on this issue, there must be an effort to ensure that false reporting does not become re-reported as fact.

NGO Monitor said...

You wrote that HRW admitted error on the 2006 Gaza beach incident. Marc Garlasco certainly got that one wrong, but I have not seen any HRW correction or apology. The closest is a paraphrase -- not even a quote-- from Garlasco in the Jerusalem Post after he met an Israeli military official (an example of Israeli attempts at cooperation). Had Garlasco used even half the resources to publicize the correction as he used when he gave credibility to the false Palestinian allegations, Israeli officials might have been willing to meet HRW officials again.