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Human Rights Watch

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) is a human rights information and advocacy group funded by private donations. HRW was criticized by a range of activists in 2014 for a "revolving door" relationship with US government agencies and departments,[1] though it may be less clear a decade on how cozy such a relationship remains today; HRW demanded a criminal probe of CIA torture in 2015.[2]

HRW was founded by Robert Bernstein in 1978 as Helsinki Watch, an organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses in the Soviet bloc.[3] During the 1980s, similar groups like Americas Watch and Africa Watch were founded, and these were united under the HRW umbrella in 1988.

HRW's mission statement, as read on its website, is:

Human Rights Watch defends the rights of people worldwide. We scrupulously investigate abuses, expose the facts widely, and pressure those with power to respect rights and secure justice. Human Rights Watch is an independent, international organization that works as part of a vibrant movement to uphold human dignity and advance the cause of human rights for all.

Our work is guided by international human rights and humanitarian law and respect for the dignity of each human being.[4]

Alleged anti-Israel bias[edit]

For more information, see: Hostile media effect

As with many other human rights organisations, it has struggled with the issue of Israel and how much emphasis to place on Israel's human rights abuses versus the crimes of Hamas and other Palestinian organizations; this led to Bernstein writing an attack on HRW as anti-Israel in the New York Times in 2009.[3]

Absolutism and human rights[edit]

Critics have argued that the highly cosmopolitanWikipedia and absolutist view of human rights used by organisations like Human Rights Watch ignores the challenges faced by less privileged third-world nations. For example, HRW criticised the Rwandan government formed by Paul KagameWikipedia that effectively banned the formation of political parties on ethnic lines. Considering recent events in Rwanda, some felt that this policy was probably for the best.

Human Rights Watch wants Rwandans to be able to speak freely about their ethnic hatreds, and to allow political parties connected with the defeated genocide army to campaign freely for power. It has come to this: all that is necessary for another genocide to happen in Rwanda is for the Rwandan government to follow the path recommended by Human Rights Watch.[5][note 1]

Ensuring that everyone's human rights are met is difficult not least because people often differ in their understanding of which human rights matter, but also becuase protecting those rights often requires political, social, and economic capital. A tiny nation that has been ravaged by civil war is unlikely to have the resources to hand for a modern restorative justice system where all prisoners recieve adequate shelter, exercise, food, and opportunities to reintegrate into the community in a safe and supervised manner. Likewise, freedom of the press is relatively easy to provide if your society doesn't need to worry about newspapers being used to spread fascist propaganda or ferment a violent coup.[6]

In the case of Rwanda, providing stability, ensuring access to food and other utilities, and preventing the outbreak of another round of inter-ethnic violence was probably a more important concern for the Rwandan people than whether or not they could form political parties to air their tribal grievances.

Some have argued, in this vein, that human rights should be understood in their local context with reference to what is materially and politically feasible;[5] however, there may be some worry that such 'feasibility' concerns could be used as a smoke-screen for complacent authoritarianism.

Washington bias[edit]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is the most prominent NGO to repeatedly call on the USA and its affluent allies to apply sanctions on states they view as bad actors. Economic sanctions are almost always applied by rich states in the global North against the poorest countries that can least withstand restrictions on trade in a world which is ever more integrated through globalization.[7]

Human Rights Watch characterizes itself as “one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights.” However, HRW's close ties to the U.S. government call into question its independence.[1]

Human Rights Watch has also been criticised for giving the White House an easy ride while eagerly cheerleading U.S. led interventions. Most notably an open letter, signed in 2014 by over a hundred scholars and Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to boot, pointed to HRW's double standards and the worrying amount of cross-polination between the senior staff of Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Government and its Intelligence services.[1] This political and ideological closeness would go some way to explaining why it has garnered a reputation for being slow to report on the human rights abuses of the U.S.[8] but quick to sound the alarm on Washington's enemies.

This alleged epistemic sloppiness and bias in reporting was also a point of contention raised in an earlier open letter in 2012 that criticised its reporting on Venezuela, which was seen to be politically motivated and based on accusations that the report could not adequately evidence.[9]

HRW's report on Venezuela, characterised Chavez as a totalitarian dictator whose government systematically discriminated against it's political opponents.[10] For example, the report claimed that government services and jobs were routinely denied to political opponents of Chavez yet the only evidence of this claim in the entire 236 page report was one allegation, reported via phone by the nephew of a elderly woman.[9] This of course did not stop HRW from coming to a sensible conclusion.

Other problems that have been cited with the HRW report on Venezuela include its credulous reliance on then-oppositional[11] newspapers such as El Universal that signatories to the protesting 2012 letter claimed had a reputation for fabricating stories, and also oppositional bloggers who fantasised about having political enemies thrown from helicopters. Imagine, for instance, an international NGO calling for sanctions on a Labour government in the United Kingdom based on horror stories about political correctness and anti-conservative bias gathered from the Daily Mail and EDL rants on Facebook. Worse the reports author, Jose Miguel Vivanco, had allegedly said to media “We did the report because we wanted to demonstrate to the world that Venezuela is not a model for anyone…”, essentially admitting that the intention of the report was to attack the Venezuelan government from the very beginning. HRW responded to these criticisms in a 2008 article with an internal analysis of the diversity of HRW's sources for its Venezuela report. They added that the quote by Vivanco was quote-mined, and that it stems from HRW's focus on countries likely to become a "model" for other people — they reference a 2006 report on torture by the United States to compare.[12]

External links[edit]


  1. One can only speculate at what might have happened in post-war Germany if denazificationWikipedia hadn't taken place for fear of violating the human rights of Nazis, or how much better off the United States would be if the post-Civil War Reconstruction hadn't collapsed and allowed the bigoted Confederate culture to survive.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Nobel Peace Laureates to Human Rights Watch: Close Your Revolving Door to U.S. Government. Archived from Alternet, 12 May 2014.
  2. David Rohde (December 1, 2015). "Human Rights Watch demands U.S. criminal probe of CIA torture" Reuters.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Minority Report, Ben Birnbaum, New Republic, April 27, 2010
  4. About our research.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Stephen Kinzer, End human rights imperialism now. The Guardian, 31 December 2010.
  6. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Richard Norton-Taylor, CIA admits role in 1953 Iranian coup. The Guardian, 19 August 2013.
  7. Immanuel Ness, Chapter 6 Transnational Allies of Sanctions: NGO Human Rights Organizations’ Role in Reinforcing Economic Oppression in Sanctions As War,
  8. extraordinary rendition.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Taking Human Rights Watch to Task on the Question of Venezuela’s Purported Abuse of Human Rights: Over 100 U.S. and Foreign Scholars Take Issue with the head of HRW’s Latin American Division., 18 December 2008.
  10. A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela. Human Rights Watch, 18 September 2008.
  11. Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul (June 7, 2017). "The mess in Venezuela didn’t happen overnight. Here’s how two successive presidents chipped away at democracy". The Los Angeles Times. Quote: In 2014, the largest daily newspaper, El Universal, was forced to sell to a government-friendly owner group.
  12. (December 29, 2008). "HRW Response to Criticisms of our Venezuela Work". Human Rights Watch.