Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein said recent reports issued by the group he headed for 20 years are "helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state."
In an editorial published by The New York Times on Tuesday, Bernstein said that while the Middle East is populated by authoritarian regimes "with appalling human rights records," 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."
"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," he wrote, adding, "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."
"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," he said.
'Difficult to make definitive judgments on war crimes'
Bernstein, who headed Human Rights Watch from 1978 t0 1998, said that as opposed to Israel, the Arab and Iranian regimes rule over some 350 million people, and "most remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent."
According to him, Human Rights Watch has "lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields."
"They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve. Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism," Bernstein wrote.
Referring to the allegations that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza during its December-January war with Hamas, he wrote, "How does Human Rights Watch know that these laws (of war) have been violated? In Gaza and elsewhere where there is no access to the battlefield or to the military and political leaders who make strategic decisions, it is extremely difficult to make definitive judgments about war crimes.
"Reporting often relies on witnesses whose stories cannot be verified and who may testify for political advantage or because they fear retaliation from their own rulers," he said in the op-ed.