Human Rights Watch under Scrutiny

By Williams, Ian | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1991 | Go to article overview

Human Rights Watch under Scrutiny


Williams, Ian, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Ironically, just four days before Syrian and Iraqi forces fired upon each other for the first time in Saudi Arabia, the two Arab countries had united to block an application by Human Rights Watch for consultative non-governmental organization (NGO) status with the United Nations.

NGOs accredited to the UN can propose agenda items and address meetings of the UN's Economic and Social Council and its subsidiary bodies. Accredited NGOs range from the International Center of Social Gerontology to organizations with more of a sting, like the International Federation of Beekeepers Associations.

But the human rights organizations always generate the most controversy at the biennial meetings. Indeed, there are signs that heavily criticized states manuevered for membership on the human rights accreditation committee in order to thwart their accusers.

This year's 19-strong committee includes Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Oman and Cuba as members, with Algeria, Syria and Tunisia as observers. It only takes one member to veto applications, and Cuba spearheaded the opposition to Human Rights Watch with a criticism that its complaints about the Tienanmen Square massacre were "irreverent."

Charges of Bias

Iraqi delegate Samir Al-Nima said he "had special evidence to prove that the organization served some interests in the United States." His charges that "the organization is racially and religiously biased," were backed by Syria, Libya and Sudan.

Founded by the Fund for Free Expression, Human Rights Watch began by monitoring the Helsinki Accords in 1978. It expanded its geographical base when it started Americas Watch in 1981 and Middle East Watch in 1989.

Citing its recent work to prove the accusations of bias are "ridiculous," HRW's Deputy Director Kenneth Roth said its annual report, issued in January, criticized the Bush administration, saying: "Worse than a case of hypocrisy, the conflict over Kuwait was a ruinous blow for US human rights policy, as the Bush administration cozied up to one tyrant after another in its single-minded pursuit of an anti-Iraq coalition."

Although in 1990, Middle East Watch published highly critical, book-length reports on Human Rights in Syria and Human Rights in Iraq, it also produced that year The Israeli Army and the Intifada: Policies that Contribute to the Killings. This year HRW is compiling a report on the detainees held by the Israeli-directed Southern Lebanese Army.

On the Gulf war, Roth points out, its reports had not been too flattering to any side. In May 1990, MEW had condemned the Kuwaiti government for widespread arrests of opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists. After Aug. 2, MEW discounted as exaggerated widely quoted reports from Amnesty International of Iraqi troops putting children out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital. On the other hand, HRW detailed and condemned many other brutal actions by the Iraqi occupation forces.

Roth pointed out that even Syria and Iraq felt constrained to agree that MEW had done good work "on certain countries" -- by which they presumably meant Israel -- but both had raised the issue of the religious and political leanings of its board and staff.

Roth asserted, however, "The organization is not predominately Jewish. The board of Middle East Watch has people from Palestine, Iran, Egypt and America. …

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