Why Are the United States and Israel at the Top of Human Rights Hit Lists?

We ran the numbers and it's true: the watchdogs have their politics. But that might just be a good thing.

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.

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.

Our first result was simple, but fascinating. We listed each organization's top 10 "hit list" of countries reported on for the 1990s. Human Rights Watch's most written on countries were, in descending order, the United States, Turkey, Indonesia, China, Russia, India, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Sudan, Israel, and Burma. Amnesty's hit list from 1991 to 2000 was similar, including the United States, Israel, Indonesia, Turkey, China, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Britain, India, Russia, Rwanda, and Burundi (there were 11 countries because of one tie). Size seemed to matter, since large countries such as China, the United States, and India received more scrutiny than others. Policy relevance and newsworthiness also counted for something, pushing Turkey, a key NATO ally, to center stage.

Yet these lists were also notable for the countries they did not include. When we used data on poverty, repression, and conflict to identify some of the worst places on earth, we found that few of these countries were covered much by either Amnesty or Human Rights Watch.

At first, this seemed puzzling; why would the watchdogs neglect authoritarians? We asked both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty, and received similar replies. In some cases, staffers said, access to human rights victims in authoritarian countries was impossible, since the country's borders were sealed or the repression was too harsh (think North Korea or Uzbekistan). In other instances, neglected countries were simply too small, poor, or unnewsworthy to inspire much media interest. With few journalists urgently demanding information about Niger, it made little sense to invest substantial reporting and advocacy resources there.

The watchdogs can and do seek to stimulate demand for information on the forgotten crises, but this is an expensive and high risk endeavor, not to be done lightly or too frequently. It's easier to sell people what they already want than to try create new demand, and businesses that do too much of the latter will quickly run into trouble.

Intrigued by these preliminary findings, we subjected the 1986-2000 Amnesty data to a barrage of statistical tests. (Since Human Rights Watch's early archival procedures seemed spotty, we did not include their data in our models.)

Amnesty's coverage, we found, was driven by multiple factors, but contrary to the dark rumors swirling through the blogosphere, we discovered no master variable at work. Most importantly, we found that the level of actual violations mattered. Statistically speaking, Amnesty reported more heavily on countries with greater levels of abuse. Size also mattered, but not as expected. Although population didn't impact reporting much, bigger economies did receive more coverage, either because they carried more weight in global politics and economic affairs, or because their abundant social infrastructure produced more accounts of abuse. Finally, we found that countries already covered by the media also received more Amnesty attention. Although we did not perform the same statistical tests on the Human Rights Watch data, this pattern seems to hold there, too.

What does all this mean? First, human rights groups are partly true to their mission, since they report more on countries with more human rights problems. That's a relief. Wealth and its byproducts -- global influence and information -- are also crucial. Thus, abuses in countries with more telephones, computers, and educated people receive more watchdog attention. That makes sense since even human rights researchers are only human.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also seek visibility and impact, however, and this gives them clear incentives to report more on the most pressing issues of the day. Like any advocacy organization concerned with real-world effects, the watchdogs feel compelled to respond to media interest. Supply rises with demand; the more journalists who ask about a country, the more information watchdogs will supply.

This feedback loop makes it seem as if the media and watchdogs are piling on a smaller number of countries, creating the whipping boy effect that can easily come across to the defenders of Israel, Venezuela, or the United States as simply unjust.

Yet this, for better or for worse, is the way the news game is played. The media report on issues or countries it thinks readers care about, and advocacy groups of all stripes respond in kind, creating the virtuous (or vicious) cycles that drive public attention.

Whether this is this a good or a bad thing depends on your ethic of moral engagement. If you believe in Quixotic struggles and think watchdogs should swim valiantly against the tide, you'll castigate Human Rights Watch and Amnesty for investing more resources, time, and energy on countries already in the news. "What about Niger?" you'll ask. And if you're young and rebellious, you might even mutter something nasty about corporate sellouts under your breath.

The Kantian imperative, in other words, obliges moral actors to do what is right, consequences and efficacy be damned.

But if you believe an advocacy group's highest purpose is to make a difference, you'll support the strategy of focusing on targets of opportunity. You'll also think that investing scarce activist resources in low-interest struggles should be done sparingly, lest the few watchdogs we have go bankrupt in pursuit of lost causes.



Unsettling Questions

Hillary Clinton's retreat from the previous US demand for a settlement freeze leaves the administration's strategy for Israeli-Palestinian peace in limbo.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped from the frying pan into the fire this weekend, when she sparked a controversy regarding U.S. policy toward Israeli settlements right after some tough days of public and private diplomacy in Pakistan. But was the controversy as serious as it seemed? And what does it means for the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts? Here, a fact check on some settlement myths and misconceptions.  

1. What is the significance of Clinton's linguistic acrobatics? 

Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night in Jerusalem, the secretary seemed unequivocally to line up with the Israeli leader in relation to the ongoing dispute over the settlements. Clinton described Israel's offer of a policy of settlement "restraint" (i.e., not freeze) as "unprecedented." Prime Minister Netanyahu looked pleased as punch as Clinton placed the dead cat firmly at the Palestinians' door.

By the time Clinton landed in Morocco for bilateral and regional meetings that included Arab leaders, it was clear that these statements had stirred quite an uproar and were being interpreted as a recalibration of U.S. policy towards Israeli settlements, or even a capitulation. In Cairo, in June, the president had been unequivocal, declaring "it is time for these settlements to stop."  A week earlier, Clinton herself had explained the call for a stop to settlements as not being open to interpretation -- "not some settlements ... not natural growth."

Monday, Clinton rushed to correct the impression of a policy shift, delivering remarks with the Moroccan foreign minister at her side in which she described Israel's restraint policy as falling "far short" of America's position or preference. She also reiterated America's 40-year opposition to Israeli settlement policy and rejection of "the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" -- all things that she had failed to mention at the presser in Jerusalem. The Obama team's image of credibility and competence had taken a serious hit.  The Arab League's Secretary General, Amr Moussa, went on record to say "failure is in the atmosphere ... all of us are deeply disappointed" and that "we're not impressed".

In a sense, Clinton's prevarications aren't hard to understand. Since September's U.N. General Assembly tri-lateral meeting, the administration has been trying to extricate itself from Netanyahu's blunt refusal to meet the U.S. demand for a settlement freeze.  The Obama team chose not to escalate in the face of this rejectionism from its ally in Jerusalem. The U.S. message to both sides became: "Good Israeli progress on the settlements -- we expect more, but in the meantime, let's re-launch negotiations." Clinton was in effect reiterating that message with greater force during this trip -- and perhaps venting frustration at the Palestinians' lack of enthusiasm for this formula. However, that does not change the bottom line: The United States created an expectation for a settlement freeze, did not meet it, and is now paying a price of diminished standing in the region. 

2. Was Clinton right in describing the Israeli concessions as "unprecedented"? 

One of the more criticized aspects of Clinton's remarks was her repetition of Israel's policy of "restraint" toward settlement growth as "unprecedented" -- suggesting that the U.S. condoned that policy. Technically, yes, the policy is unprecedented -- Israel has not before publicly delineated a limited number of specific housing units (only those already under construction) beyond which it would not build in the West Bank. 

In terms of substantive impact, use of the term "unprecedented" is on flimsier ground. The approximately 3,000 housing units that Israel will continue to build is par for the course for its annual settlement expansion. And of course, the exclusion of East Jerusalem renders the arrangement a nonstarter to the Palestinian and Arab side, since no two-state solution can be envisaged without a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. 

The arrangement could, however, become genuinely unprecedented if the 3,000 units already under construction were explicitly acknowledged as the final settlement expansion of any kind, full stop. That may be the logic of the U.S. effort, but it has not yet been unequivocally articulated.

3. Should a settlement freeze be a precondition for negotiations?

The Palestinian leadership has been arguing that absent a settlement freeze, there is little point in resuming negotiations on a two-state solution. The original Oslo Agreement states that "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations." This is a clause that the Palestinians have consistently referred to in claiming that settlement building is a violation of past signed agreements. Yet the Palestinians never before made such a stand on the issue. In Jerusalem on Saturday night, Netanyahu reiterated that, in the 16 years of previous negotiations since Oslo, a settlement freeze has never been an explicit precondition for talks -- and he was backed up by Clinton, who confirmed that "what the prime minister is saying is historically accurate." Netanyahu and Clinton were both right.

It is also worth noting that, contrary to much reporting, the Obama administration never made negotiations conditional on a settlement freeze. Rather, they argued that the freeze would be part of the actions needed to create an environment conducive to successful talks.

Nevertheless, the United States should view the current Palestinian insistence on a settlement freeze as a long overdue course correction. Had a settlement freeze been insisted upon when talks began in 1993, an agreement today would be dramatically more attainable. Back then, 111,000 Israelis resided in the West Bank alone, while today that number has surpassed 300,000. For most Palestinians, this belated insistence from their leadership is better late than never and perhaps the only way to revive any faith in the efficacy of a negotiated path to Palestinian freedom. For the PLO leadership, negotiating over an ever-shrinking territory has been an exercise in political self-emaciation. It is an exercise they can ill afford to continue, especially given the internal political challenge they now face from Hamas.

4. Do settlements really matter?

Yes, and then some. No single development during the peace process has done more to undermine Palestinian confidence in the possibility of the two-state solution. Likewise, nothing is as politically foreboding for an Israeli prime minister who is actually ready for a viable two-state deal than the awaiting confrontation with the settlers and their supporters.

Clinton seemed to be commending Netanyahu on a restraint policy that includes a commitment to "build no new settlements, expropriate no land." While this sounds like an impressive concession, the actual impact of this policy on the ground will be very limited.

Since Oslo began, Israel has considered it diplomatically impolite to officially create new settlements. Successive Israeli governments found convenient alternatives -- expanding existing communities, creating new suburbs of existing settlements (sometimes several kilometers from the original site), and most notably facilitating the establishment of over 100 new "outposts." The outposts are not formally authorized but they normally have the necessary infrastructure, water, electricity, and security needs provided by Israel's governing authorities and they are not removed -- settlements by another name.

Over 40 percent of the land of the West Bank is already within the municipal jurisdiction of the settlements, even though only about 2 percent is currently built up. So "no new land confiscation" is an empty and irrelevant gesture. For a full settlement freeze to really be meaningful, it would have to include a prohibition on advancing permits for planning and zoning of new settlements, and it would have to deal with the entirety of the settlement infrastructure. Netanyahu's jargon regarding the settlements needs translation -- and the translation is that such commitments are meaningless. 

5. So, what's next?

The Obama administration still seems to be pushing the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as the key goal. Under current circumstances, that would be a hard pill to swallow for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, especially if Palestinian elections are on the horizon. But even if talks were restarted, many in the Middle East are struggling to see the point of yet more negotiations after all these years.  The issues and their solutions are largely known, but the expectations that negotiations would deliver anything meaningful are nearly nonexistent. Another option for the U.S. would be to initiate back-to-back talks with the respective parties -- this approach may actually be more productive than bilateral talks between two parties who have proven that they cannot resolve this conflict on their own.

After all of my questions, it is worth recognizing the question that is actually being asked of America from the citizens of the Middle East themselves: When will there be a serious American implementation plan for a two-state solution that recognizes the asymmetries of power and vital needs of each party and that is determinedly pursued by an administration which has, from day one, made Israeli-Palestinian peace a strategic American priority? On this question, we are all still waiting for an answer.

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