Human Rights Watch (and Amnesty International) on Goldstone Retraction

As I noted a few days ago, Justice Richard Goldstone wrote a Washington Post op-ed last week in which he states that contrary to the implications of his eponymous report, Israel did not deliberately target civilians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.

Human Rights Watch contributed heavily to the content of the Goldstone Report, and has been among the most ardent promoters of the Report. Kenneth Roth, HRW’s director, suggests that HRW has nothing to apologize for because “HRW promoted the Goldstone report’s recommendation for investigations, pushing both Hamas and Israel to investigate its own war crimes. We never endorsed the report’s finding of an Israeli policy to target civilians.”

I originally referenced lying in the title of this post, but that proved to be a distraction, because, as I noted, Roth’s statement isn’t quite a lie, but perhaps a dishonest obfuscation. Roth chose his words carefully, and I suppose it’s technically true that HRW never explicitly endorsed a Goldstone Report finding that Israel had a policy of targeting civilians (although, see below, on Oct. 1, 2009, Roth himself pretty much did).

But let’s review some of the statements [I read some, but not all, of HRW’s many reports on Cast Lead to find these] that HRW did make, and see whether a reasonable observer would conclude that HRW publicly and loudly agreed with the premise that Israel deliberately targeted civilians during Operation Cast Lead. I think the answer is obvious, and it’s yet another blow to HRW’s credibility, both because of its conflict with Goldstone’s current position, and because of Roth’s current misrepresentation of HRW’s views. (In none of the statements excerpted below did HRW provide any caveats to the effect that the incidents in question may have involved rogue soldiers or units, as opposed to being Israeli policy).

Let’s start with Mr. Roth himself, writing in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 25, 2009:

Israel could have conducted the war by targeting only combatants [editor: if Israel could have but didn’t target only combatants, doesn’t that mean she targeted noncombatants, i.e., civilians?] and taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians, as required by international humanitarian law. That is mandated even though Hamas often violated these rules, because violations by one side do not justify violations by the other.

Instead, as Human Rights Watch has shown through detailed, on-the-ground investigations, Israeli forces fired white phosphorous munitions indiscriminately over civilian areas, shot and killed Palestinian civilians waving white flags, attacked children playing on rooftops with precision missiles fired from aerial drones and needlessly destroyed civilian property.

[Update: Roth again, Dec. 29, 2009 : “Israel’s view that one prevails in asymmetric warfare by pummeling rather than protecting civilians is not only illegal but also counterproductive.”

And one more time, Oct. 1, 2009: “Richard Goldstone’s charge that Israel implemented a deliberate and systematic policy to inflict suffering on civilians in Gaza is not, as you said, the ‘central organising premise’ of his report. Rather it is the conclusion of the report arrived at after a serious examination of the evidence.”

Then there is Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East division, speaking in Saudi Arabia in May 2009: “Human Rights Watch provided the international community with evidence of Israel using white phosphorus and launching systematic destructive attacks on civilian targets.”

Whitson again, in a public presentation on July 9, 2009: Israel’s use of white phosphorous and heavy artillery in Gaza were “violations of the law that require you to distinguish between civilians and combatants, and to target only combatants.”]

You might object that the views of particular HRW officials don’t necessarily reflect official HRW positions, so let’s move on to various HRW reports, keeping in mind that Roth and Whiston’s views might color one’s understanding of any ambiguities.

HRW, April 23, 2009: “Human Rights Watch’s investigation into the fighting in Gaza concluded that Israeli forces were responsible for serious violations of the laws of war, including the use of heavy artillery and white phosphorus munitions in densely populated areas, the apparent targeting of people trying to convey their civilian status…”

HRW, Aug. 13 2009 [After discussing alleged “white flag” killings by Israeli soldiers]: “The Israel Defense Forces have for years permitted a pervasive culture of impunity regarding unlawful Palestinian deaths”

HRW, Sept. 16, 2009: “The 575-page report, released on September 15, 2009, documented serious violations of international humanitarian law by Israel, with some incidents amounting to war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including willful killings.”

HRW, November 3, 2009: “It also found that Israeli forces unlawfully used white phosphorous munitions and heavy artillery in densely populated areas, fired upon civilians holding white flags.”

HRW, April 11, 2010: “Between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009, Israel’s “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza killed several hundred Palestinian civilians and wounded many more, some during Israeli attacks that were indiscriminate, disproportionate or at times seemingly deliberate, in violation of the laws of war.”

HRW, Feb. 7, 2010: “Human Rights Watch documented 53 civilian deaths in 19 incidents in which Israeli forces appeared to have violated the laws of war. Six of these incidents involved the unlawful use of white phosphorus munitions; six were attacks by drone-launched missiles that killed civilians; and seven involved soldiers shooting civilians who were in groups holding white flags.”

HRW, Feb. 26, 2010: “Nor has [Israel] conducted credible investigations into military policies that may have contravened the laws of war or facilitated war crimes. These include the targeting of Hamas political institutions and Gaza police; the use of heavy artillery and white phosphorus munitions in populated areas; and the rules of engagement for aerial drone operators and ground forces.”

UPDATE: Amazingly, Amnesty International is similarly obfuscating its prior positions in the wake of Goldstone’s op-ed. Less than two weeks ago, Amnesty proclaimed re Operation Cast Lead: “Both sides violated international humanitarian law. Israeli forces killed civilians using precision weaponry, launched indiscriminate attacks which failed to distinguish legitimate military targets from civilians, and attacked civilian property and infrastructure.”

Today, however, Amnesty issued a press release claiming that “Amnesty International has not argued that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) targeted Palestinian civilians ‘as a matter of policy’, but rather that IDF rules of engagement and actions during the conflict failed to take sufficient precautions to minimize civilian casualties.” Forgive me if I find the accusations of launching indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets and killing civilians with precision weapons to be rather more serious than “failing to take sufficient precautions to minimize civilian casualties.” Indeed, it’s hard to read the earlier accusations as anything but a claim of deliberate policy.

This leads to the interesting question of why HRW and Amnesty aren’t sticking to their guns. Two answers suggest themselves: (a) having vested so much credibility in Goldstone personally, they need to claim that their views are consistent with his; and (b) they don’t want to be seen as criticizing Goldstone, for fear he will take offense and will issue additional statements that will harm their agenda.

FURTHER UPDATE: Just wanted to reiterate that the question I presented is not whether a generous interpretation of any of HRW’s statements listed above could lead to the conclusion that any individual statement didn’t necessarily accuse Israel of a deliberate policy of targeting civilians. Rather, the question is whether a reasonable observer, having read all of these statements and more, “would conclude that HRW publicly and loudly agreed with the premise that Israel deliberately targeted civilians during Operation Cast Lead.” Indeed, if all we are talking about is whether some rogue units or soldiers acted contrary to Israeli policy, and whether Israel could have achieved its military objectives with less damage to civilian infrastructure, it’s hard to see why HRW has devoted report after report to Operation Cast Lead, treating it as if it was the great human rights crime of the 21st century.