Human Rights Watch (HRW) was founded in 1978 as “Helsinki Watch,” to monitor the Soviet Union’s compliance with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords. Among its founders were Bob Bernstein, CEO of Random House publishers; Jeri Laber, a writer and political activist; Aryeh Neier, the current President of the Open Society Institute, a former Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society in 1959; and Orville Schell, Dean of the University of California at Berkley graduate school of journalism and a leftwing journalist. In the 1980s, the organization developed a number of “Watch” committees, including Americas Watch, Asia Watch, and Africa Watch, which ultimately united under the umbrella of the U.S.-based HRW in 1988. Today HRW states that its “principle advocacy strategy is to shame offenders by generating press attention and to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on them by enlisting influential governments and institutions” on a wide array of issues.
Even as it documented abuses in the Soviet Union, HRW directed much of its censure in the 1980s at the United States. Particularly, the organization denounced the Reagan administration’s policy of combating Soviet expansionism in Latin America by aiding anti-Communist governments and opposition forces.
In a 1989 report, HRW stated the following:
“Under the Reagan administration, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was marked by constant hostility. This hostility yielded, among other things, an inordinate amount of publicity about human rights issues. Almost invariably, U.S. pronouncements on human rights exaggerated and distorted the real human rights violations of the Sandinista regime, and exculpated those of the U.S.-supported insurgents, known as the contras. In 1989, under the Bush administration, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua has experienced one major change, in that it appears that the contras have ceased to be regarded as a viable military and political option….
“This is an important change from a human rights perspective, because the contras were major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, including by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians, selectively murdering non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners…. To the extent that the contras have continued to operate … they have continued to commit these violations, and toward the end of 1989, abuses by the contras appeared to be on the increase. The Bush administration is responsible for these abuses, not only because the contras are, for all practical purposes, a U.S. force, but also because the Bush administration has continued to minimize and deny these violations, and has refused to investigate them seriously….
“In all other respects, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua under the Bush administration is no different than it was throughout the Reagan years. The peace process in Central America has taken hold in Nicaragua, albeit with difficulties, but largely because the Central American presidents who devised it have been able to overcome U.S. objections…. The Sandinista government has offered several concessions to the opposition, whose candidates are openly supported by the United States….
“The policy of keeping the contras alive, through so-called ‘humanitarian’ or non-lethal aid, sustains a force that has shown itself incapable of operating without consistently committing gross abuses in violation of the laws of war. The policy also has placed in jeopardy the holding of elections by encouraging contra attacks on the electoral process. Thus, while the Bush administration proclaims its support for human rights and free and fair elections in Nicaragua, it persists in sabotaging both.”
In her autobiography, The Courage of Strangers, Jeri Laber noted that “Americas Watch reports … were eagerly read in the United States by people who deplored the Reagan policies.” Aryeh Neier, who served as Executive Director of HRW for 12 years, would later write that Americas Watch (AW) could deflect charges of political bias against the Reagan administration’s policies because it was also critical of Communist regimes. Neier explained that thistactic “made it difficult for [the Reagan administration] to portray us as Soviet dupes.”
In stark contrast to AW’s roundly critical appraisal of American policies in Latin America and anti-Communist movements allied with the United States, was its comparatively indulgent assessment of Communist regimes in the region. In Nicaragua, AW routinely portrayed anti-Communist guerillas, the Contras, as the leading threat to human rights while giving short shrift to the abuses of the Communist Sandinista regime. Moreover, AW charged that the Reagan administration was unfairly maligning the Sandinistas.
Symptomatic of this preferential treatment of the Sandinistas was a 1985 AW report titled “Human Rights in Nicaragua: Reagan, Rhetoric and Reality.” While allowing that the Sandinistas had committed human rights abuses, the report reposed the greatest share of the blame on the Reagan administration, claiming that “U.S. officials have built and edifice of innuendo and exaggeration” about the Sandinista regime and were guilty of the “misuse of human rights data.” More favorable was the report’s view of the Sandinistas. Whereas other non-governmental organizations, backed by eyewitness reports from Nicaraguan exiles, had identified a widespread pattern of state-sponsored repression, murder and torture, AW’s report dismissed such concerns, averring that “[i]n Nicaragua, there is no systematic practice of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings …” Despite a government crackdown on political dissent, the AW report claimed that “debate on major social and political questions is robust.” Noting that “emergency legislation” had imposed censorship in the country, the AW report discounted its impact on free-speech rights. Overall, the report concluded, the “description of a totalitarian state bears no resemblance to Nicaragua in 1985.”
Human Rights Watch purports to be “strictly non-partisan” in orientation and maintains that it “does not favor any political force.” In practice, HRW has often operated as a partisan organization, dressing up its decidedly leftwing political preferences in the language of human rights.
In the United States, HRW regularly interjects itself into domestic political disputes in support of left-liberal positions. For example, the organization maintains that “equitable access to safe abortion services is first and foremost a human right.” HRW also has sided against traditionalist opponents of gay marriage. Said HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth in 2003: “It is discriminatory to refuse to recognize marriages on the basis of sexual orientation.” The following year, HRW was a signatory to an amicus brief to the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, urging it to affirm the legality of same-sex marriage.
HRW is an opponent, “in all circumstances,” of the death penalty. In defense of this position, HRW claims that capital punishment is incompatible with “human rights” because it is “a form of punishment that is unique in its barbarity and finality.” Consistent with this absolutist stance, HRW condemned the December 31, 2006 execution of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, calling his death sentence “indefensible.” Richard Dicker, Director of HRW’s International Justice Program, stated that the “test of a government’s commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders,” adding, “History will judge these actions harshly.”
With recourse to the rhetoric of human rights, HRW also opposes all enforcement of American immigration laws. In 2005, the organization urged Congress to oppose the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act,” which provided for a number of measures to strengthen border security. Referring to illegal immigrants as “undocumented workers,” HRW has defended the “right” of illegals to organize unions and has condemned employers who “threaten to call immigration authorities if workers seek to organize or make claims for labor law protection.” HRW has also called on the U.S. government to enact legislation conferring the rights of full citizenship to individuals “regardless of their immigration status,” and “prohibiting any inquiry into … immigration status.”
Human Rights Watch is a vocal supporter of institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC). A 1998 HRW report, titled “The Danger of Indulging Great Power Arrogance on Human Rights,” took issue with America’s refusal to cede authority to the ICC. Scolding the United States for exhibiting “great power arrogance toward international human rights institutions,” the report declared: “If the U.S. government persists in its current attitude toward international human rights law, the international community should simply leave the United States behind.”
While professing neutrality in matters of war and peace, HRW has been a staunch foe of the American-led war on terror. The organization was a signatory to a November 1, 2001 document characterizing the 9/11 attacks as a legal matter to be addressed by criminal-justice procedures rather than military means. Ascribing the hijackers’ motives to alleged social injustices against which they were protesting, this document explained that “security and justice are mutually reinforcing goals that ultimately depend upon the promotion of all human rights for all people,” and called on the United States “to promote fundamental rights around the world.” Similarly, in 2002 HRW claimed that the United States and its coalition allies “have substituted expediency for the firm commitment to human rights that alone can defeat the rationale of terrorism.” Moreover, HRW warned that “the coalition risks reinforcing the logic of terrorism unless human rights are given a far more central role.” That is, unless coalition forces followed HRW’s distinctive definition of human rights, they were only reinforcing the “view that anything goes in the name of a cause.”
HRW endorsed the Civil Liberties Restoration Act of 2004, which was designed to roll back, in the name of protecting civil liberties, vital national-security policies that had been adopted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
With regard to the military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, HRW has consistently judged the actions of coalition forces to be contrary to human rights. Several HRW reports have alleged an “excessive use of force by U.S. troops,” even as the organization has conceded that it has only incomplete information about the facts on the ground in Iraq. In one such instance, when Americans battled insurgent forces in the city of Fallujah in April of 2004, the organization reported that it was “deeply concerned about the consistent reports we are getting about women, children and unarmed civilians being killed” by American forces. At the same time, HRW admitted that it had no clear knowledge “whether any crimes have been committed” by the military.
Connected with its criticism of the war effort, Human Rights Watch has routinely condemned American interrogation and detention policies. Among other objections, HRW claims that a form of coercive interrogation known as “waterboarding” constitutes “torture.”
A leading opponent of military commissions created by the United States to try detainees suspected of terrorist activities, Human Rights Watch has criticized the U.S. for not granting the “fundamental right” of habeas corpus to those prisoners. In addition, HRW has denounced the American detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a violation of international law.
HRW also directs a disproportionate share of its criticism at Israel. Following an April 2002 counterterrorism operation by the Israeli military in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin, the organization issued a report charging that “IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] military attacks were indiscriminate,” and that “Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes.” Contrary to HRW’s charges, which echoed Palestinian propaganda, a United Nations report later exonerated the Israeli forces.
HRW released an equally one-sided attack in August of 2006, amid Israel’s war with Hezbollah terrorists in southern Lebanon. Titled “Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” this report repeated many of the same charges that the organization had leveled against Israel during the Jenin controversy. Among other claims, the document asserted that Israel was guilty of “consistently failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians,” and that “the extent of the pattern and the seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission of war crimes.”
Human Rights Watch has denounced Israel’s construction of an anti-terrorism security barrier in the West Bank as a violation of Palestinians’ human rights. Joe Stork, the acting Director of HRW’s Middle East and Africa Division, claims that the barrier “seriously impedes Palestinian access to essentials of civilian life, such as work, education and medical care.”
In September 2007 HRW issued a report (titled “No Easy Answers”) asserting that many state laws which target convicted sex offenders violate the rights of people who pose a minimal risk to others, and calling for the repeal of laws that restrict ex-offenders from living near schools, parks and other designated facilities. “Residency restrictions solve nothing,” said Sarah Tofte, the HRW report’s principal author. “They simply make it nearly impossible for former offenders to put their lives back together.”
Stating that recidivism rates are lower than claimed by tough-on-crime politicians, the report also opposed laws requiring the registration of convicted sex offenders and the creation of online, publicly accessible registries listing the names of such individuals. The report further contended that while state laws aim chiefly to protect children from sexual abuse by strangers, most abuse is actually committed by family members and trusted authority figures.
In May 2009, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division director Sarah Leah Whitson went to Saudi Arabia to raise funds for the expressly stated purpose of helping HRW counter “pro-Israel pressure groups.”
In September 2010, billionaire philanthropist George Soros — founder of the Open Society Institute — announced that he would give $100 million to HRW. This donation would permit the organization to add 120 new staffers to its existing 300-strong payroll.
In November 2020, HRW issued a submission to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy, Prof. Joseph Cannataci, expressing concern about “the importance of privacy for children with respect to their sexual and reproductive health and rights, physical and emotional well-being in school, safety in the online space, and the protection of their information online.” HRW called for children to have “access to confidential adolescent-responsive and non-discriminatory reproductive and sexual health information and services, available both on and off-line, including… safe abortion services.” It also urged governments to ensure that “children have access to confidential medical counsel and assistance without parental consent, including for reproductive health services.” Indeed, the document specifically called for “confidential access for adolescent girls to legal abortions.” As the Post Millennial reported:
“If implemented, this submission by Human Rights Watch would allow for children to have legal rights to bypass parental consent to access with absolute privacy: abortions, hormone injections for the purpose of gender transition and/or puberty blockers, complete privacy rights in accessing online and offline information on any subject and to any materials (this means inside their classrooms, schools, at doctors offices, extra curricular activities, etc.), access to explicit information contained within Comprehensive Sexuality Education, male children using female bathrooms and change rooms, as well as medical provisions tailored for full access to minors with zero parent assistance or knowledge. It also classifies, amongst other issues, abortion, as a child’s ‘right.'”
HRW has received funding from many foundations, including the Ahmanson Foundation; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Columbia Foundation; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the Ford Foundation; the JEHT Foundation; the J.M. Kaplan Fund; the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the Joyce Foundation; the Nathan Cummings Foundation; the Open Society Institute; the Righteous Persons Foundation; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; the Rockefeller Foundation; the Scherman Foundation; and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.