An Open Letter to an IDF Apologist at the BBC

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Ironic pic of Orwell at Big Brother Corp

After 10 years as a business reporter, Anthony Reuben is now the BBC News inaugural “Head of Statistics”. True to the spirit of 1984 he seems to take his role as being to remind people of such numerical truths as “2 + 2 = 5 fanatical Islamist terrorist Hamas militants”. In a report on what the statistics tell us about the recent fatalities in Gaza, he highlights the fact that a disproportionate number of young men are being killed. Another BBC report on Gaza casualties is quite shocking, but its impact is diminished by a link to Reuben’s article with the words “If the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate’, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women”

Someone else has already written an email to Reuben which is posted at the Media Lens message board. It covers some of the territory that I have, but I felt that I needed to add a few things in a missive of my own. I got a little bit carried away, but the result is heartfelt…

To Anthony Reuben,

I have to ask, just what sort of statistician are you? Surely one of the fundamental tenets in statistical thought is that correlation does not imply causation, yet without the implicit unsupported claim that a gender imbalance in fatalities indicates IDF discrimination, your article has no purpose.

When I write “no purpose” I really mean “no legitimate purpose”. It is a great propaganda point for Israel to use the deaths of “military aged males” to imply military legitimacy in their violence. Your work certainly goes a long way to helping the IDF promote its narrative. This means that you are helping them, and I hope you realise that you are therefore complicit in their actions.

Need I remind you that Srebrenica was primarily a massacre of “military-aged males” and that those who committed that genocidal act used the same excuse as the IDF? By itself that destroys the tacit premise of your article unless you also consider Srebrenica to be a legitimate military action. The fact is that it is normal that adult male civilians are targeted and murdered at far higher rates than women and children. There are a number of reasons why this is the case, including the psychology of those committing the murders. Military personnel find it easier to kill adult male civilians than others. Additionally, apologists such as yourself find it easier to muddy the waters over war crimes.

You breezily dismiss the issue of gender disparity in war casualties from other conflicts: “There has been some research suggesting that men in general are more likely to die in conflict than women, although no typical ratio is given.” With a flourish of misdirection, which seems to come naturally to the hack and the junk-merchant, you induce the reader to think that nothing of relevance is contained in the paper which you link to. You let people know that you have read it, but it really has nothing to illuminate the issue. However, the paper does establish that although there is a great deal of variation between conflicts, there is undeniable precedent for far greater numbers of male than female civilians being killed directly in conflicts. In other words, if you were half the statistician you claim, you would recognise that a disproportionate death rate amongst Gazan men is no evidence that more armed militants have been killed than Hamas claims, is not evidence that the IDF is practicing discrimination, and is not evidence that the IDF does not target civilians.

Moreover, the paper you cite is in itself too narrow in scope for the purposes of your article. There is relevant historical evidence which is denied by no one. Not one person who knows anything about the subject denies that there is a long standing practice of killing adult male civilians. It seems to be as old as human mass violence, and it is certainly as old as the phenomena we understand as war and genocide. It is a practice which falls under the category now given as “gendercide”. Like mass rape, the tactic of the mass killing of men is not merely aimed at the immediate victims, but is a genocidal tactic aimed at social cohesion. In a patriarchal society and/or one with high numbers of dependent children, the impact of killing a “military age male” – which is to say a “working age male” – is multiplied.

But perhaps the most important propaganda role you are playing is to access that moral and emotional numbness with which we have all been induced to view violence against young men. I have read many accounts of violence, and I will admit that the images that haunt me are those of violence against children. Yet I can also say that those who are close to the violent deaths of men do not view it with the equanimity that our public discourse accords the subject. These are human beings who love and are loved. They feel as much fear, pain, grief and guilt as anyone other human being in their last moments, whether they carry a gun or not. We project on to these dying men a sense that they are agents in their own deaths, as if war were some sort of shoot-out at high noon where every male carries a sixgun. The emphasis on “women and children” is an impulse of armchair humanitarianism by the insipid and the self-righteous.

Perhaps, to understand my point, you could watch and rewatch the video posted here of a young man being murdered by an Israeli sniper. Watch it and ask yourself, “what does my article say about this man’s death”? This is the death of a 20-29 year-old male, so if your article isn’t about this, then what on Earth is it about? I mean that seriously. Your holier-than-thou detached statistical conceits actually say nothing at all about the horrible death of this man except to suggest that somehow it doesn’t really count.

You are also making a big straw man out of the UN accusation of indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force. The real question is the systematic targeting of non-combatants. To date, Israel has targeted 7 UN schools being used as shelters. Fleeing civilians have also been targeted, as have rescue workers and UN personnel. This is based on 3rd party evidence and, quite frankly, only an idiot would give any credence to the IDF’s response to these accusations unless they were subject to cross-examination or were able to provide substantive evidence to back their claims.

But not only do you give unwarranted credence to IDF distortions, you are too lazy, stupid or evil to even check on the veracity of blatant lies. You quote an IDF spokesperson on the subject of Operation Cast Lead: “Hamas and Gaza-based organisations claimed that only 50 combatants were killed, admitting years later the number was between 600-700, a figure nearly identical to the figure claimed by the IDF.” This is a double lie. Firstly, I wouldn’t think it would be too much to expect a BBC reporter to look up what the BBC itself reported about claimed casualties after OCL: “Hamas has said 48 of its fighters were killed. The Popular Resistance Committee says 34 died and Islamic Jihad said it lost 38 men.” Hamas not claiming only 50 combatants killed, it is claiming that only 50 of its combatants were killed. Lie number two, just as easy to sort out by an internet search, is that Hamas or “Gaza-based organisations” have “admitted” to a figure of 600-700. No they haven’t. You are either wilfully being played for a fool, or you are deliberately deceiving your readers.

You also repeat that Israeli claim given exposure by your colleague back in 2009 – that “when militants are brought to hospitals, they are brought in civilian clothing, obscuring terrorist affiliations”. I love this one because you have to be a moron to believe it, but also at least a bit of a racist. There are really two options here, one is that when combat breaks out Gazan militants change into civvies on the rather Pythonesque logic that they will make the evil Zionists pay by seeking matyrdom in mufti [sic]. The other possibility is that these hate-filled fanatic terrorists are so rabid, so irrationally rational, so innately cunning and conniving, that when their comrades are wounded or killed their first response is to give them a change of clothing – presumably remembering to tear, incise and or burn the clothing so that it matches the flesh beneath. Hamas probably has special units of crack combat-tailors giving makeovers to the dead and dying. While they are working I imagine that the legions of Pallywood specialists are digitally altering stock footage and stills so that every rabid mass-murdering terrorist arrives at the morgue with pictures and video of their tender family life of caring for young children and sickly elders.

Your fatuous hypothesis is that the disproportionate fatalities of young males suggests that Israel is only accidentally killing civilians in the legitimate pursuit of “terrorists”, and that the IDF, in fact, is practicing discrimination. This is based on four things – ignorance, stupidity, self-satisfied arrogance and the blatant lies of an IDF spokesperson. By privileging statistical evidence as being of a higher order than mere anecdote you manage to suggest that the evidence of our eyes themselves is somehow suspect. This is vulgar scientism. The fact is that a single anecdote can sometimes destroy a statistical hypothesis. The different sorts of evidence provide different sorts of information, one is not inherently better at revealing an objective truth. Statistical methods are frequently abused to create distorted pictures. Statistics provided by belligerents about their own actions are more or less worthless anyway, but sometimes it is perfectly valid to dismiss a statistical account on the basis that it diverges far too much from the collected reliable anecdotes. For example, US figures on civilian deaths in the second assault on Fallujah are risible. Anyone who actually followed the eyewitness accounts of what was occurring at the time knows that these “statistics” are worthless. We know from accounts of US personnel that dead civilians were simply labelled “insurgents”. It is an old practice, perhaps best known from Indochina where it was referred to as the “mere gook rule”.

The “mere gook rule” was elucidated as being “if it’s Vietnamese and dead, then its VC”. The reasons for this were many and varied. People often cleave to the cliché vision of ambitious officers trying to outdo each other by claiming everything conceivable as a kill. Behind that, however, were far more important systemic causes. We do not talk about such things in polite society, but the fact is that the US war machine systematically targeted civilians on the basis that being in a certain location made you a legitimate target deserving of death. They overtly wanted to attack the civilian population in NLF controlled areas on the basis that they were VC “infrastructure”. But to do so they actually redefined them as being combatants. Hence William Westmoreland, that charming man, was able to confidently proclaim that no civilian had ever been killed in a free-fire zone, because he had defined free-fire zones as places where no people were civilians. So when William Calley described his reason for killing women as being because they had “about a thousand little VC” in them, he was actually just expressing official US doctrine.

I feel that I must point out here, in case there is any confusion, that contrary to what seems to be broadly taken as true at the BBC, powerful officials do not actually define reality. I know that this is hard for you to understand, but just because a US General says that the victims of bombing and shelling were all combatants, including the children, it does not make it true. There is a legal definition of “combatant” and international humanitarian law doesn’t actually rely on an honour system where the perpetrator owns up for any acts of naughtiness (and that includes Israel’s activities in Gaza). The Nuremburg Trials, for example, did not consist of a series of cleverly posed questions designed to trap German leaders into admitting that they had started a war and killed civilians. But while we are on that subject, it is always important to remember that every act of mass violence by the Germans was defined by them as an act of war against the “enemy” who were sometimes defined as being a “terrorist population”.

If a normal conscientious human being wrote an article about the gender and age characteristics of fatalities in Gaza, they might at least mention the very prominent fact that the US is now applying a gender and age specific version of the “mere gook rule”. Perhaps you have been sequestered under a rock for the last few years, but there has been significant mention in the news that the US automatically defines anyone killed in their targeted killings who is a military age male as being a “militant” until proven otherwise. “Militant” is such a great word as well because it gives people the impression of legitimacy, but it does not actually specify that the targets were combatants. A study of Israeli targeted killings some years ago found not only that they killed four times as many bystanders as targets, but also that 50% of the “militants” they targeted weren’t actually part of any armed activities. These militants were community organisers, political organisers and union organisers – you know, “infrastructure”.

To recap, then: a military aged male is not necessarily a combatant, but they are frequently targeted as such. This is known as gendercide. Targeting civilians in this way is often accompanied with official semantic approaches which seek to legitimate the targeting of civilians, but by nature any repudiation of legal definitions is in itself a war crime constituted necessarily of the systematic targeting of civilians.

Given everything we see of IDF personnel murdering helpless civilians, what seem to be targeted attacks on medical and aid workers – including UN personnel – and what seem to be deliberate attacks on UN facilities being used as shelters by displaced people, only an Orwellian freak could possibly go along with the idea that the UNHRC’s accusation of indiscriminate use of force is the real issue. Nor is the systematic targeting of civilians even the worst crime on evidence here. Israel is quite blatantly committing genocide as it is defined in law in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (UNCG), and under the UN Charter it is guilty of criminal aggression. Genocide is considered an “aggravated crime against humanity” which parties to the UNCG are obliged to act to end, whilst aggression was defined at Nuremburg as the “supreme crime”.

I bet you think you know what the word “genocide” means. I bet that deep down in your guts you know that it was never meant to describe the way Israel treats Palestinians. You probably can’t exactly say what genocide means, but you understand its essence and you know that it is offensive and obscene to cheapen the memory of the dead by debasing the coinage with such politicised accusations. Save your indignant spluttering. The legal definition of genocide is quite clear and taking actions aimed at destroying “in whole or in part” the Palestinian people is genocide by definition. The expectation that genocide should always be manifested as a discreet orgy of violence is a vulgar misapprehension. Genocide is frequently a long process of sporadic, chronic violence in the midst of ongoing persecution. In fact, the slow nature of the Israeli genocide is what makes it so much less ambiguous or uncertain than most other genocides. The rhetoric, the strategic imperatives, the tactic, the doctrines and the policies in this case all align to make this an open-and-shut case with none of the usual difficult issues of intentionality. The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal not only found Israel guilty of the crime of genocide, but also found several named living Israeli officials guilty of genocide.

I know what you are thinking – you are thinking that the KLWCT is “political” and is motivated by “politics”. Let’s deconstruct that, shall we? In your twisted little world there is nothing “political” about the ICC which is an official body that just happens to spend almost all of its time prosecuting sub-Saharan African leaders who have angered the the US. Are these the worst war criminals in the world? No. Are they the worst war criminals in sub-Saharan Africa? No, not that either, certainly not on the basis of the numbers of victims killed. Apart from one token M-23 guy thrown to the dogs for the sake of appearances, the real crime of these people was that of defying Washington. The ICC, however, is “official”. In your grubby little corner of Oceania this means that it is not “political”. In the same idiom the US is an “honest broker” and John Kerry is a “credible authority”. In the real world, however, despite the involvement of Malaysian political figures, the KLWCT is constituted of independent scholarly and legal experts whose collective interest in the matter of Palestine is purely that of human beings who seek an end to injustice and suffering.

(Have you ever wondered about that? The way in which the pompous organs of the media reverse reality to say that the people who don’t have a vested interest are the suspect “political” voices, but the people who have immense power and money riding on the outcomes of events are considered at least respectable if not authoritative?)

The law may not be perfect, but often the fact that it is a codified standard which can be applied equally to each party is highly illuminating. Admittedly, by the time it reaches a court, international law is generally a selective disproportionate application of what amounts to victor’s justice. But we can independently examine issues in a legal light to get a good view of ethical dimensions of a situation. The question is this, in this instance who is the aggressor and who has the right of self-defence?

Israel claims the right of self-defence but what does Article 51 of the UN Charter actually authorise? “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Well, the UNSC has indeed been apprised of this situation and has passed resolutions to restore international peace and security, but Israel will not comply with those resolutions. In order to claim the right of self-defence Israel would first have to relinquish all occupied territories, among other things. And that is a normal established understanding. An occupying force does not have a right to self-defence. Nor is it permissible to blockade a country and then “defend” against their armed resistance to that blockade. If these things were not true then you would have a situation where both sides can claim self-defence with each supposedly defending against the other’s defence.

I know that it is heretical to even think such thoughts, but what if we spent as much time talking about Palestinian rights to self-defence as we do about the non-existent Israeli right to self-defence? When you actually apply international law, Palestinians have every right to use the arms that are available to them in resistance. They are the ones subject to occupation. Israel and its allies have used the statelessness of Palestinians to obfuscate their right to self-defence, but in law you cannot deny rights to individuals on the basis of statelessness which means that they have “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” until such time as the UNSC restores peace.

That brings me to something that I find almost as upsetting as seeing the bodies of children killed by “the most moral army in the world”. Those who take up arms against Israel are not legally or morally deserving of death. Most of them will have lost loved ones to Israeli violence. Every one of them suffers under the illegal oppression of the occupation. Deciding to fight back with arms is not some irrational fanatical decision. Yet in our media these men are treated as violent irrational ciphers in a way which both draws on and perpetuates a racist conception of Arab men. Nobody ever puts a human face on these fighters. They are tarred with the brush of Islamism, with its heavy freight of misogynistic savagery, but many of them aren’t even Islamists and those that are have not committed the sort of atrocities which Westerners claim come naturally to Islamists. We should at least remember who is and who isn’t killing babies here – that is not too much to ask is it? It is the IDF who are committing atrocities, and those who take up arms against them have the legal right to do so. They also have the right to life. They don’t enjoy dying, as the British used to claim about Arab tribesmen. They don’t eagerly seek martyrdom. Like isn’t “cheap” to them, as Westmoreland said of “Asiatics”. Those tropes are the worst kind of vicious racism. These fighters are human beings, and their deaths are legally and morally acts of murder.

Surely this doesn’t mean that Hamas can just fire thousands of rockets into Israel killing civilians, does it? Well, actually it does. Killing civilians is illegal, but the responsibility and culpability belongs with Israel’s leadership under the current circumstances. At Nuremburg it was adjudicated that Russian partisans could not be criminally responsible for atrocities carried out because they were in turn responding to the war crimes of the aggressor. Some argue that this Nuremburg precedent seems to give carte blanche to members of any attacked group. Perhaps jus in bello law must be equally applied to all parties no matter what, as a principle of equality under the law. But even if you take that position, was Kenneth Roth of HRW right to assiduously condemn Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire when he recently discussed war crimes in Gaza? No. Roth is just being a scumbag. He is either acting as a propaganda agent to deliberately build a false equivalence, or he cares more about pandering and sounding “credible” than he cares for truth and justice.

Let me put this into some sort of perspective. It is, quite frankly ridiculous and wildly disproportionate to even suggest that we need to take steps over the supposed illegality of using insufficiently discriminating arms by factions in a besieged population when the harm to civilians is so much less that that caused to the civilians of the besieged population. Gaza’s rockets and mortars have killed 28 civilians in the last 13 years. [And don’t give me any crap about the wondrous “Iron Dome” – it didn’t even exist for most of that time and Theodor Postol has calculated that it does not work. It is a horrendously expensive PR ploy to maintain the deception that there is some sort of parity between Israeli and Palestinian violence.] Not only would it be a de facto abrogation of the Palestinian right to self-defence to restrict the weapons allowed to those that can only reach the enemy when the enemy chooses to come within range. Moreover, it is another point of law that you cannot accuse someone of a crime when you are also guilty of that crime. If Palestinian rockets and mortars are illegal then so are Israeli rockets and mortars – which kill more people. They share exactly the same properties of being inherently indiscriminate, as do air and ground artillery munitions. There is no qualitative difference between these inaccurate primitive rockets and any other explosives used around civilian populations except that they are a lot less deadly than most. This twisted and sick idea shared between Israel an the US that they can effectively exculpate themselves by saying – “yes, we kill more civilians, but we do it more accurately” is appalling.

The point is, though, not to say that Israel can’t accuse militants in Gaza of war crimes, but to say that none of us can. How can we, in countries that have shelled and bombed and killed so many, accuse Palestinian militants of anything? How could anyone from the US claim that Palestinian munitions are insufficiently precise and discriminating when their own government uses depleted uranium, cluster munitions, napalm, fuel-air bombs, white phosphorous, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. The very idea that any Westerner can level war crimes accusations at an desperately poor and ill-armed besieged people for using the only primitive weapons with which they can reach their attacker is sickening and obscene.

I don’t like the rocket attacks. I don’t think Israeli civilians deserve death. But as Osama Hamdan pointed out, when they stop firing rockets, it doesn’t stop Israel from killing and blockading their people. How long do you sit doing nothing while people are killed and while the land, the little strip of a prison, gets ever closer to becoming irreversibly uninhabitable. (There is the Zionist genocidal intent – a realist’s Eretz Israel with a non-citizen Palestinian helots living in controlled West Bank enclaves, while Gaza is a post-apocalyptic pile of polluted rubble.)

If you have actually read this far, you might be marshalling answers with your little weasel brain. Please don’t bother. To put it politely, this letter is in the spirit of a condemnatory open letter. To put it more honestly, I don’t care what a toxic freak like you has to say in his defence. For forty years the dissident voices of our society have taken on this crippling notion that we should “engage” people in “dialogue”, as if our goal is to show people like you the error of your ways. But even engaging someone like you is to give validity to your insane world-view. What sort of callous freak actually goes out of their way to throw condemnations of IDF actions in Gaza into question? Do you wake up in the morning and think, “I know what the world needs, it needs more geeky smug reasons for not having to feel compassion and the desire to end suffering”?

So, frankly, I don’t care what you have to say for yourself. I just want you to know that you are hated. A person half a world away, who is very well educated about the issues involved, hates you for the simple reason that you are the enemy of humanity and your work promotes the suffering of innocents.

All the best for you and your hack friends in your future self-congratulatory endeavours,

Kieran Kelly

 

Why Blocking the Revolving Door Won’t Fix Human Rights Watch

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A recent open letter decrying the links between Human Rights Watch (HRW) Western powers was signed by two Nobel peace laureates and over 100 scholars. Belén Fernández wrote an outline of the problem – the “revolving door” which surely has a corrupting effect. However well-meaning most HRW employees are, and no matter how much of HRW’s work is well-meaning, the organisation is tainted and it is not independent. The same is true of Amnesty International(AI). However, preventing the continuation of relations between these organisations and the US State Department will not fix the greatest problems. It is a necessary but woefully insufficient measure. In order to become functioning independent human rights organisations both AI and HRW must actively oppose imperial power. They must reject all actions which facilitate attacks by powerful states on those less powerful. If they do not do that they are doomed to remain tools of empire, promoting interventions that do more harm than decades of good work can undo.
Selective AmplificationAs the US unleashed its military might on Viet Nam, it also unleashed charities. USAID provided funds for many and the US extended a paternal possessive wing over all. Helping the less fortunate, after all, is what the US is all about. By their own account that is why the US had troops in the country – to help those too weak to defend themselves. And USAID was part of the strategic approach in Viet Nam, and it remains so today. (NGOs were told by Andrew Natsios in 2003 that they were “an arm of the US government” and he threatened to rip up USAID contracts of any NGO that failed to act as such.)

The people of South Viet Nam needed charitable assistance. Many were orphaned, dispossessed, injured, diseased or impoverished. Yet many charity workers, singly or en masse, came to the conclusion that they could not, in conscience, continue rendering aid. The charities were doing the same work as that of the US military civic action programs. They weren’t winning the hearts and minds of Vietnamese, as much as they were providing public relations cover for the destruction being wrought by the full weight of US military might.

The problem is that by structural reflex a power as dominant as the US automatically co-opts all that can be co-opted. The vast majority of massacres by US troops – such as those documented by Nick Turse – were not reported by journalists. The vast majority of villages destroyed were not reported. But it almost seemed that every time a Westerner dug a well there were 30 cameras pointed at him. It was inevitable. The US government had the capability of promoting coverage of the one and suppressing coverage of the other.

There is a persistent myth that bold journalists spearheaded the growing opposition to the war in Indochina by fearless reporting, There is also a journalistic myth that reporting is shaped by “news values” which, for better or worse, are responsive to audience interests – “if it bleeds it leads” “man bites dog”. This is utterly wrong on both counts. Most reporting from the field in Viet Nam was coverage of those things that the US military arranged to be covered including huge amounts of coverage of civic action programs. Far from being sensational, these stories were as dull as dirty dishwater and just as good at obscuring the ugly truth that lay beneath.

There is the same inevitable selectivity with regard to the actions of human rights NGOs. Even without the corruption which has occurred in AI and HRW, the US will always be able to amplify any accusations levelled against its enemies and targets, while it also wields a great amount of power to deflect and diffuse criticism aimed at itself.

 

 

Promoting Slaughter

In October 1990 AI gave crucial support to the fraudulent claim that Iraqi personnel had murdered premature babies by removing them from incubators. They would later retract that support, but less than three weeks after the incubator lies Amnesty released a report on atrocities carried out by Iraqis in Kuwait. The report contained unconfirmed as well as independently verified reports of atrocities. Atrocities were definitely taking place, but why dramatise the report with unconfirmed allegations? Amnesty’s answer: to “raise awareness”? But, the entire world was already watching. Saddam Hussein was the most vilified person on the planet. George Bush had labelled him as worse than Hitler.

No one should underestimate AI’s impact in this instance. People were wary of US warmongering, but atrocity propaganda is a very powerful tool. It is one of the ironies of human existence that people are mobilised to commit atrocities by stories, true or false, of the atrocities of the targeted enemy. AI helped unleash a quarter century of insecurity, fear, death and grief on the Iraqi people. With those actions alone AI destroyed its value to humanity – taking all of the hard work of dedicated and sometimes brave and self-sacrificing individuals and converting that into a form of capital to be spent by murderous warmongers.

 

 

An Army of Straw Men “Marching in Lockstep”

Democracy Now! hosted a lively and enlightening debate between Keane Bhatt and Reed Brody of HRW.

I’m normally one to doubt the assumed goodwill of various people. I find it silly to say that “nobody doubts” or “nobody can doubt” the good intentions of people doing bad things. With any politician or bureaucrat there is always considerable grounds to doubt good intentions. Not only does power corrupt, but so does prestige and money. In our dysfunctional world, anyone who does achieve success should be viewed with the greatest suspicion. Orthodox thinking is far more ubiquitous now than, say, the mid-20th century in the West. It is very rare for anyone to achieve recognition without “drinking the Kool-aid”, which is often the elixir of self-satisfaction.

In the case of Reed Brody I am willing to concede, that he seems to be the genuine article – a humanitarian famed for taking on US-backed dictators. I don’t know how he has failed to notice the toxic nature of HRW, but I suspect that the nature of his responses to Bhatt provide some insight.

Keane Bhatt raised serious issues about HRW. Some of the issues were disputed. Brody rejected the characterisation of HRW as having a “revolving door”. But he also repeatedly said that Bhatt was wrong because HRW did not “march in lockstep” with the US State Department. This was one of a number of “straw man” arguments. Bhatt never claimed that HRW did “march in lockstep”, so Brody is creating a straw man to knock down in order to create the impression, for himself as much as for other people, that he has demolished one of Bhatt’s arguments.

Brody insisted that Bhatt and other critics of HRW were motivated by support for the Venezuelan government. This fallacy is called the “appeal to motive”. It isn’t just a tricky debater’s ploy, in fact in debates such as this one it tends to fail. It indicates the natural thought processes of Brody and others in that sort of position. Presumably Brody already knows that HRW are the good guys, so when serious accusations are levelled at HRW his mind does not focus on the validity of the arguments. He simply wants to know why people are attacking HRW. Once he has found what he thinks is the best answer, he must naturally believe that once he explains it to others they will all, like him, feel that the puzzle is resolved.

This is why delegitimisation is such an important tool. Those convinced of their own benevolence can only explain profound criticism by saying that the source itself is tainted. This is true of any White House or State Dept. spokesperson who knows that the US is a force for good in the world, but it is also true of any NGO or alternative media that have proven their goodness by criticising the US and Israel. The people who attack them are crackpots, malcontents and ideological zealots. Any substance in their criticisms is merely the substance of blemishes on the surface of the radiant sphere that describes the whole.

 

The Straw Giant

Brody’s most powerful counter to Bhatt’s claims, on the surface at least, was his invitation to everyone to visit the HRW website: “I think anyone who is familiar with our work, anyone who takes the time to look at our website, would see, first of all, that we routinely criticize the U.S. government.” It is true. Brody is trying to show us that glowing orb he sees as the truth – the real HRW which boldly takes on the crimes of the US and Israel. Once you embrace the underlying assumption of fundamental benevolence then you will see things the way that Brody and his colleagues see things. Collections of people like this are known as “reference groups”.

“Reference groups” share values and share assumptions. The problem with such groups is not that the assumptions are necessarily invalid, but rather that their validity is never tested. No one inside the group can originate challenges to assumption that they themselves hold, and when someone outside the group challenges them, they respond with the sort of delegitimising thought processes described above. Reference groups help to cause what is known as “groupthink” and also what is known as “confirmation bias”, when people focus on and give greater weight to evidence that fits preconceived conclusions.

There are two major problems with adopting the Brody’s view. One is that, even viewing HRW in isolation, it cannot explain the substance of those accusations of bias. These are real issues, and simply saying that HRW is often critical of the US doesn’t address the substance. The second is that, as mentioned, if HRW does not actively guard against co-optation, the nature of our society will ensure that any even-handed approach will become distorted in transmission to the public.

In the final analysis, the HRW website and the internal view of its activists and employees is another straw man. It is an impressive straw man – compelling and seemingly substantive. But it is not the internal functioning of HRW which is the final measure of its nature, and it is not the front it presents to those engaged enough to seek it out. HRW’s true nature is how it functions in our society.

 

Where There’s Smoke…

Humanity is complex, and its institutions equally so. But if you ascribe an essence to something there is a severe limit on how much of its character you can ascribe to asymptomatic products of human complexity. In other words, Human Rights Watch cannot be “independent” if it has any ties with regimes which commit human rights abuses. As Fernández writes:

“Javier Solana, for example, was NATO secretary general during the 1999 assault on Yugoslavia, an event HRW itself described as entailing “violations of international humanitarian law.” Solana is now on the group’s Board of Directors.”

So by HRW’s own lights, there is prima facie evidence that Solana is a war criminal – yet he is appointed to their board of directors. That is not a aberrant little matter that has no bearing on the otherwise independent nature of HRW, it is actually all the proof that is needed that HRW is not independent at all. Let’s not be stupid about this – if HRW’s employees and activists actually were independent of thought and action they would never have allowed someone suspected of war crimes to be appointed to their board.

If HRW workers were truly independent, they would not tolerate their bosses saying that there is “a legitimate place” for extraordinary renditions. If HRW workers were really independent they would revolt against executive director Kenneth Roth tweeting his support for military intervention in Syria.

Brody objected strongly to concept of HRW having a “revolving door” with the US government, but that is another straw man. “Revolving door” is a subjective usage. It is great for drawing attention to the issue, but easy for someone like Brody to dismiss. But you don’t need a “revolving door” to be compromised. Brody tried to talk down the numbers, but after the debate Bhatt tweeted showing an email from one of two HRW employees to join Samantha Power’s team.

This isn’t just about Washington D.C. political actors either. Along with even further ties to US government Bhatt has also revealed:

“To be sure, not all of the organization’s leadership has been so involved in dubious political activities. Many HRW board members are simply investment bankers, like board co-chairs Joel Motley of Public Capital Advisors, LLC, and Hassan Elmasry, of Independent Franchise Partners, LLP. HRW Vice Chair John Studzinski is a senior managing director at The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm founded by Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire who has passionately sought to eviscerate Social Security and Medicare. And although Julien J. Studley, the Vice Chair of the Americas advisory committee, once served in the U.S. Army’s psychological warfare unit, he is now just another wealthy real-estate tycoon in New York.”

 

Magnified Bias

People defend HRW on the basis of the undoubted good work they do, but that is beside the point. An academic engaged in human rights issues, such as Stephen Zunes here, may be in a situation any irregularities or biases seem of minor importance compared to their invaluable documentation of crimes by numerous regimes. However, as Bhatt points out: “documentation is different from advocacy and operationalizing that research.”

HRW, like AI, is biased in favour of Western interests. Here, for example, you can see some of the criticisms levelled at HRW over its disproportionate and inaccurate condemnation of human rights abuses in Venezuela. It is bad enough that HRW tried to create a sense of equivalence in human rights abuses and political repression between Venezuela and Colombia, but you would have to be very stupid indeed to be blind to the potential of such a report to be used for ill-purposes. Just like the AI report on Kuwait under Iraqi population, such a report his a negative impact out of all proportion with its significance. In private and public diplomacy this is ammunition for US interventionists.

Every time HRW condemns an enemy of the West, they themselves put greater energy into “awareness”; Western bureaucrats and politicians suddenly decide that they are, in this instance, an authoritative and independent voice; and, most of all, the media really report it. And when I write “really report” I mean that it enters the echo-chamber of the real media agenda. It is said that US media have perfected the art of lying “by only telling the truth once”. Something reported a dozen pages in to the NYT is simply not part of reality for the vast majority of people. If you want to understand what HRW is really about watch mainstream news and current affairs programming.

We who read the sort of articles you get on this website, such as the one you are reading now, form a minority reference group consisting of people who know a lot more detail about political events than most members of the public. We should not forget, however, that even watching the television news regularly is more than most people manage. Media analyst Andrew Tyndall, who compiles reports on network news broadcasts, points out in an interview with Danny Schechter that network news broadcasts have far greater viewer numbers than cable news – about 5 times as many. So the really real HRW, in practice, isn’t even what you would get from CNN, but rather that which is on the nightly news broadcasts.

 

“You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train”

Bhatt points out the double standard of HRW advocacy: “Let’s take the case of drone strikes in Yemen, for example. What Human Rights Watch is advocating is not for the immediate cessation of drone strikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians around the world. What they’re asking for is greater transparency on the legal rationale for continuation of those drone strikes. So, the idea that the United States can treat the entire planet as a legitimate battlefield is simply unquestioned.” In contrast we have seen Roth’s call for intervention in Syria, but even if this were not the case there is an unavoidable pitfall in criticising enemies of the West.

The fact is that when HRW condemns an enemy of the West, their own advocacy in terms of solutions is only part of the picture. By highlighting that there is a problem HRW effectively arms those in political power who seek to create a casus belli – a pretext for deadly intervention. They should also recognise that when the US seeks to intervene as a matter of course they will create disinformation through covert agencies which will inevitably target groups like HRW in just the same way that they target media outlets in order to propagate the disinformation.

Equally, any concession to the sensibilities of US leaders, any extra softness such as that displayed over the use of deadly drone programme, effectively means that HRW is acting as an agent in a “limited hangout” action. By soft-selling the criminality of US actions, they actually become part of a discourse which normalises those crimes, making them seem legitimately disputed actions rather than unambiguous crimes. The lack of urgency signals a lesser moral weighting while also allowing acclimatisation among a public who become like the proverbial boiling frogs.

Reforming groups like HRW is much more complicated than simply enacting rules about employing people who have previously worked in governments implicated in human rights abuses. Here is my three-step programme:

 

1) Disembed: Clearly HRW cannot legitimately hire people who have worked in policy related functions at the US government. It is sickening that they should think even one such person is acceptable. That goes equally for putting the former Secretary General of NATO on the board of directors. They should also have a ban on those from high-level military, police or intelligence backgrounds. These are the sort of organisations usually implicated in human rights abuses, and it should be as clear as day that they do not belong working in human rights organisations. They should also be wary of hiring those who have worked at low-levels in such organisations because they will be inclined to identify with potential human rights abusers and because their insider perspective will often be privileged as being “expertise”.

Reed Brody proudly embraces the idea that there is a “revolving door” between HRW and the United Nations secretariat. Given that much of the UN bureaucracy is devoted to ostensible human rights functions it may be hard to avoid interpenetration, but it is hardly something to tout as a source of credibility. Under a UN flag, millions of civilian casualties were caused in the bombing of Korea. Under a UN flag, an estimated 1 million Iraqis died due to genocidal sanctions, and in Haiti blue-helmeted troops have provided support for death squads and massacres. In addition, the UN is inevitably a corrupting hierarchy in which even those with the best intentions must become careerists in order to acquire the power and influence to effect positive change. This sort of relationship makes a hollow mockery of the notion of “independence”. Power structures such as that of the UN corrupt because they disproportionately favour those who are not burdened with unbending principles and thus tend to empower the self-deluding and the sociopathically dishonest.

Disembedding will require more than mere hiring policy changes, it will require a psychological negation of embeddedness. The rank and file of HRW will have to utterly reject the close identification of their superiors with those who wield state power.

It can be done. In 2012 people were naming Amnesty a “shill” or the “propaganda arm” of NATO or as an “imperialist tool”. Consternation has particularly been fueled by Amnesty USA’s crucial support for NATO’s ongoing occupation of Afghanistan. Ann Wright and Colleen Rowley wrote of “announcements posted online as well as billboard advertisements on Chicago bus stops, telling “NATO: Keep the Progress Going!’” The CEO of AIUSA at the time was Suzanne Nossel – former employee of HRW, the US State Department, the UN and the Wall Street Journal. If those aren’t insider credits enough, she is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Do you think that that qualifies her as part of the US political elite? I do. But AI members expressed their displeasure and Nossel resigned soon after. A small victory perhaps, but a sign that change is possible.

 

2. Say No to “Humanitarian Intervention”: In the debate on Democracy Now! Reed Brody cited R2P: “You know, the countries of the world, in 2005, all the countries at the General Assembly, agreed that there were certain circumstances that invoked what they called the right to protect, when it may be necessary for the international community even to use force. And that’s the lesson of Srebrenica. It’s the lesson of Rwanda.”

You should not trust anyone who is a professional human rights worker when they cite R2P and cannot even get the name right. “R2P” stands for “Responsibility to Protect”. Brody’s mistake, however, is perfectly symptomatic. For Western interventionists it is seen as a “right”, and indeed their discourse would have people believe that “R2P” was some sort of international enabling act. The way R2P is discussed creates an impression that if human rights abuses have been detected, the US or NATO can simply decide for themselves if they feel like abrogating the sovereignty of another country and using whatever force they claim to be necessary – as if they had never harmed people while claiming to be acting for their own good in the past.

This idea of R2P that is widely propounded in the public discourse is a complete distortion. The UN measure from 2005 is a norm which must be in compliance with international law. More specifically, it does not in any way supersede the UN Charter and licence any action outside of the normal framework for legal intervention. That means that, given that immediate self-defence is not an issue, no military action can be taken under R2P without UN Security Council authorisation.

On the subject of distortions and nonsense – I may not be an expert on Rwanda, but I have written on the subject and I know that people are hideously misled by the popular narrative. Not only was the US instrumental in creating the conditions which spiralled into a bloodbath, but the US also blocked others who wished to intervene to prevent the genocide. Even if they could not have foreseen the full extent of the horror that was to unfold, the US intervened recklessly without concern for innocent victims and now it has the gall to say that the resultant genocide shows that it should intervene more often. Brody citing Rwanda and Srebrenica is a facile cliché and it is manipulative. These events are simply meant to symbolise savage-horrors-that-the-West-should-have-prevented, provoking emotion without thought.

 

3. Do No Harm!: For organisations like HRW to ever become functional promoters of human rights they must actively ensure that none of their actions cause serious harm to people. That means that they cannot side with the powerful against the weak. People working in HRW must be alert to the actions of their leadership and be prepared to resist any distortions of emphasis liable to lead to co-optation by Western interventionists.

Reed Brody is quite right about one thing, the HRW website is full of criticisms of the US and its clients in poorer states. Anything that suggests that such a rampant human rights abuser has a role in preventing human rights abuses by weaker regimes must be viewed with suspicion.

When you consider the US role in human rights abuses in Chile, Indonesia, Argentina, Guatemala, Iran, South Africa and so forth; and then you add its interventions in Grenada, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere; and then you add its wars in Indochina, Iraq and Afghanistan; you quickly see that the US is in a league of its own as a human rights abuser. Moreover, if you also consider that it played a crucial aggravating role in Rwanda and Cambodia and even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, you begin to wonder about the schizophrenic nature of the discourse of human rights altogether. Every time a State Department official criticises human rights abuses in a poor unstable or destabilised country, or any other country, it should bring howls of condemnation for its hypocrisy. Even Iran has more authority to talk about human rights than the US and we would never let them condemn others without, quite rightly, including references to their own failings.

The US is a ruthless global hegemon. It is a prolific human rights abuser because of its global reach, but by the same token its global power is a function of an interventionism which is inevitably contrary to the human rights of those in targeted states. Even though other regimes share responsibility for some of its crimes, and others are guilty of their own, it has no real competition for title of greatest human rights abuser. This is an ever-present reality and unavoidably pertinent context of global human rights concerns. HRW must rid itself of the cognitive dissonance that it promotes by seemingly forgetting this whenever there is evidence that an enemy of the West has committed human rights abuses. It cannot ever, ever be seen to be in agreement with the US whatever the circumstances and should always make references to the human rights abuses of the US when the US government is a topic of discussion.

HRW must concentrate its efforts on the human rights abuses of the most powerful states, starting with the US. It must also exercise the greatest vigilance over intelligence claiming condemnable acts by weak and insecure states, especially where those states are governed by regimes considered inimical by the West.

Above all, HRW must reconcile itself to the limitations of its role. It is self-evidently seductive to take evidence of wrongdoing to powerful actors to get them to take robust immediate action. That way you might really feel that you are making a real difference. But people killed by hellfire missiles are just as dead as those killed by barrel bombs and anyone who acts to legitimise the former killings by condemning the latter is an accomplice in the crime.

HRW can record human rights abuses and raise awareness among populations who can oppose the actions of their own governments and render solidarity and support to victims and dissidents in other countries. At the same time, however, HRW must actively reject providing even tacit support for state actions outside of the framework of the UN Charter and must be extremely discriminating when supporting state intervention under the Charter. [Under the letter of the law the sanctions imposed on Iraq were according to the UN Charter, but they were also one of the most appalling and deadly criminal acts of our times and contravened the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and parts of International Humanitarian Law such as the prohibition on collective punishment in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.]

HRW must do more than simply reject the careerism of those who move in powerful circles, it must become an active and consistent opponent of empire. To be independent it must always, and at every opportunity, overtly reject working with Western state power. People within HRW must search within themselves. They must look at the greater picture of violence and suffering in the world and ask where the ultimate sources are. They must protest collaboration and demand change. If necessary, they must become like the IVS volunteers in Viet Nam who chose to stop doing good in order to stop promoting far greater harm.