That was quite an op-ed by its former head yesterday in the NYT. Robert Bernstein argued that violations of human rights were worse in closed than in open societies and that it was therefore important to focus on abuses in the former rather than the latter. That takes us back to the old moral equivalence debate. And Bernstein is obviously right that repression in countries surrounding Israel is exponentially worse than anything in the Jewish democracy. The question is whether that should lead us to ignore abuses by Israel or the US, for example, because overall, their records are far better. I don't see why we should. In some ways, because these abuses are more capable of being reversed in democratic societies, it makes pragmatic sense to include them, as long as the larger context is maintained. And that leads to Bernstein's clincher:
The region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.
That was indeed striking to me. So I went to the HRW website, which has a list of its reports on various human rights questions over the last few years. Go check it out for yourself.
I guess "written" and "condemnations" is a vague formulation, so Bernstein may be referring to something beyond these reports. And violations of "international law" may be affected by Israel's many wars beyond its borders, compared say, with Egypt's or Jordan's. But in the Israel and Occupied Territories section, I counted several reports on both Israeli and Palestinian abuses. Here are a few Bernstein may have missed in the last two years alone:
Hezbollah’s Rocket Attacks on Israel in the 2006 War
Palestinian Rocket Attacks on Israel and Israeli Artillery Shelling in the Gaza Strip
Violence against Palestinian Women and Girls
The Perilous Situation of Palestinians in Iraq
Palestinian Abuses in Gaza and the West Bank
Hamas Political Violence in Gaza
Harm to Civilians from Palestinian Armed Groups’ Rocket Attacks
The Egypt section is as long as that devoted to Israel and Palestine; the Iran section seems to me in need of urgent updating. But although it's obvious that Israel's very openness can lead to more scrutiny than of more repressive societies, I don't see an Israel obsession or an obvious anti-Israel bias on the website. What trikes me is the really diverse groups of countries. Recent publications are striking in the range of their topics - from abuses of various kinds in countries as varied as Burundi, India, Nepal and Saudi Arabia.
What I do see is a refusal to grant democracies any leeway on these matters. I think that's a healthy thing. What's unhealthy is obsessing on Israel out of proportion to its offenses, and using the democratic nature of the West to somehow excuse its own violations of international law. After Gaza and Gitmo, that is unhealthier than ever.