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Looking For Your Keys Where the Light’s Better

The founder of Human Rights Watch, Robert Bernstein, has watched as his organization has lost its focus and come unmoored (to mix metaphors), and has written a piece in the NY Times about what he sees as the principal reason.

AS the founder of Human Rights Watch, its active chairman for 20 years and now founding chairman emeritus, I must do something that I never anticipated: I must publicly join the group’s critics. Human Rights Watch had as its original mission to pry open closed societies, advocate basic freedoms and support dissenters. But recently it has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.

That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.

When I stepped aside in 1998, Human Rights Watch was active in 70 countries, most of them closed societies. Now the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies.

He goes on to describe the disparity he sees in general among human rights organizations in the Middle East.

Israel, with a population of 7.4 million, is home to at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world — many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Meanwhile, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent. The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.

You remember that old joke about the drunk who lost his keys at night, and is looking for them under a lamppost?  The passer-by offering assistance is told that the keys were lost farther down the block, but, explains the drunk, “the light’s better here.”

Instead of doing the hard work of looking for human rights abuses where they’re not allowed to look, the most open and free of the countries in the Middle East is targeted instead.  Bernstein also notes that HRW doesn’t even seem to understand, anymore, the difference between wrongs committed in self-defense and those perpetrated intentionally.”  No one’s saying Israel is perfect, but HRW and similar organizations are making it sound like Israel is the region’s worst offender.

Likely it isn’t, but that’s no longer the point, apparently.  These groups are going down the path of least resistance, which suggests that human rights aren’t really the top priority anymore.  Pick your reason; more publicity, perhaps leading to more money, or maybe even some anti-Semitism.

But actual human rights seem to have slipped from the top spot.  They’re looking where the light’s better, not noticing that the country that they’re complaining most about is the one keeping the light on.  It’s time to take a flashlight to where the keys actually are, if you want to find something more useful.

Doug Payton blogs at Considerettes.

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