Human Rights Watch and its rights-watching peers have heard it all. They're quasi-terrorists with an anti-U.S. ax to grind or perhaps stealth fighters for global capitalists. They've been accused of being anti-Semitic, anti-Asian, and anti-African at one time or another. Since the human rights movement began in the early 1970s, the criticism has grown as fast as the stacks of reports, op-eds, and analysis that the organizations' analysts produce.
The Human Rights Hit Lists
By the numbers: who gets reported on most.
Six years ago, we decided it was time to systematically examine the accusations flying from all directions. After subjecting human rights organizations' work to a barrage of statistical tests, we found that everyone was right. Yes, the watchdogs have biases. But they might make those groups more effective at pushing the human rights cause. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, there's no denying it: There's a politics to human rights.
It was bound to happen. Despite the drive for neutrality that watchdogs strive for, they were playing in a political minefield. Just take reporting on Israel, which has been the source of consistent controversy from both sides. The debate turned especially nasty two weeks ago when one of Human Rights Watch's own -- Bob Bernstein, chair of the group's board from 1978 to 1998 -- lambasted his protégé in a New York Times op-ed for dwelling excessively on Israeli abuses. "Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict," he claimed.
Israel is a frequent flyer in this arena since its wars are both consistent and well covered by the global media. But many other countries partake in the human rights blame game. Take Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, criticized by many for its excesses while being revered by others for its socialism. Last year, prominent Latin American scholars castigated Human Rights Watch for contributing to U.S. anti-Chávez propaganda. Three years earlier, it was the United States itself that was upset; the Bush administration accused Amnesty International's report on Guantanamo of being written by "reprehensible" people who "hated America."
In response, the watchdogs say they call 'em as they see 'em, reporting as best they can on the misdeeds of democracies and authoritarians alike. Apologists who cry foul are being defensive and insular, refusing to acknowledge the seamy underside of their favored regimes. Fair point indeed.
To moderate the spat, we began assembling a mass of relevant data, including from every Human Rights Watch report listed in its publications catalog from 1980 to 2000, coupled with all digitally archived Amnesty International press releases from those same years. We also created new data on human rights by reading through the Economist and Newsweek, and we trolled through existing sources for quantitative indicators of government repression, political freedom, economic development, population size, U.S. aid received, and the like.