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Reporting war

By Jeremy Sharon - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2006

During 2006, about 850-900 people have been killed in Sri Lanka, including a large number of civilians. This surge in violence is part of the ongoing ethnic civil war, waged since 1983 between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil minority, in which over 65,000 people have been killed. In a two-week period in June over 110 civilians were killed in land-mine attacks in the country. Just one attack on June 15 claimed the lives of 64 civilians and injured over 80. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has issued a total of four statements specifically addressing the current violence in Sri Lanka this year and failed to even comment on the June incidents.

As a result of Israel’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon approximately 950 people have died. HRW has published 24 reports, statements and advocacy letters recently condemning Israeli actions, more than five times its output for the hostilities in Sri Lanka during 2006.

HRW’s rhetoric regarding Israel is also far shriller and accusatory then over human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. For example, in a press statement of May 2005, HRW criticised a spate of political killings and abductions by the Tamil Tigers (the principal Tamil military group) of Tamil civilians. However, rhetoric such as “violations of international humanitarian law” is absent from the statement.


During the current fighting in Lebanon however, HRW has accused Israel of “war crimes” an “indiscriminate bombing campaign”, deliberately attacking civilians and numerous other allegations, direct or insinuated, that Israel has violated basic tenets of international humanitarian law. For example, on July 31 Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s Emergencies Director said regarding Lebanese civilian deaths that “Israeli behaviour in southern Lebanon suggests a deliberate policy” and “current Israeli actions are not only wrong, but ... also war crimes”.

The phenomenon of HRW ignoring some of the most appalling human rights abuses is not just confined to Sri Lanka but includes many other human rights black holes around the world. In February 2004, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla army which has been fighting the Ugandan government for the past 19 years, massacred over 300 people in an IDP camp, now referred to as the Barlonyo Massacre. Human Rights Watch did not release even one statement specific to this atrocity nor did it write advocacy letters to the US Secretary of State protesting the butchery which occurred there. Indeed, it was over a year and a half before the massacre was finally mentioned in an official HRW report, noted in passing in a study on violence in the region.

In contrast, HRW has, in just three weeks, managed to draw up a 50-page report entitled “Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon” accusing Israel of multifarious crimes. It is, from the outset, based on a false premise. The report states “since the start of the conflict, Israeli forces have consistently launched artillery and air attacks with limited or dubious military gain but excessive civilian cost”.

The basis for HRW's claim that it has the military expertise needed to determine the strategic and tactical value of the military targets struck by Israel is perplexing, bearing in mind that its stated areas of competence are supposedly human rights and international law. Moreover, how is it possible for HRW to gainsay the Israeli military without access to its classified intelligence?

HRW states that much of its evidence is based on eyewitness testimony, another reason to doubt the validity of its conclusion. The people that HRW is interviewing in south Lebanon are Shia‘a Muslims, the very constituency Hezbollah represents. The Times of London reported on August 2 that Shi‘a villagers have been asking to join Hezbollah and fight.

How evidence based on the claims of south Lebanese residents can be considered reliable enough for HRW to charge that “in some cases ... Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians” is extremely puzzling. Even the report’s author seems to appreciate this problem as demonstrated by the claim that “villagers interviewed privately ... stated credibly and consistently that Hezbollah was not present in their homes.” HRW has to specifically reassure us that these reports are “credible”.


NGO Monitor has documented that over the past three years HRW has consistently focused a disproportionate amount of its resources on Israel in comparison to other Middle East countries, many with poor human rights records. Terms such as “violation of international humanitarian law” and “serious human rights abuses” are applied with abandon to Israeli actions and with great caution to the abuses of Israel’s neighbours.

The reason for HRW’s disproportionate scrutiny of Israel in its ongoing counter-terrorist wars is unclear. However, it is obvious that this extreme attention is severely hampering the organisation’s ability to highlight numerous and more serious human rights abuses in other parts of the globe. This is amply demonstrated by its poor record on Sri Lanka, to name just one region. The organisation’s righteous anger over civilian deaths in Lebanon would have greater integrity if its fixation with Israel was not so overwhelming.

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About the Author

Jeremy Sharon received his BA in History from the University of Leeds and gained a Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He has worked as a Research Assistant at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and was the Senior Researcher at NGO Monitor. He is currently serving in the IDF.

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