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Farber: In defence of Human Rights Watch

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Human Rights Watch logo (Wikimedia Commons photo)

It is probably fair to say that the first monotheistic faith to embrace the concept of human rights within its traditions was Judaism. The notions of treating your neighbour respectfully, honouring the stranger, understanding the harm that comes from slander and treating your enemy with kindness have all been etched into the historic themes of Judaism.

Our great sages – from Hillel to Maimonides, Rabbi Akiva to the Baal Shem Tov – have all spoken of the need to honour human rights and to stand with the victims against the victimizers.

Thus, I was surprised and saddened when I read a recent CJN column by Gerald Steinberg that, in my view, unfairly accused the globally respected international human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) of a singular bias against the State of Israel. The article read as though HRW had Israel in its sights and was spitefully accusing it of wrongdoing, using standards that it doesn’t apply to virtually any other country in the world.

In fairness and total transparency, I sit on the advisory board of HRW Canada. It was my values as a Jew that propelled me in that direction. To be sure, Israel – along with literally dozens of other countries, including democracies like Canada and the U.S. – have been the target of criticism by HRW, following in-depth human rights investigations.

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Established in 1978, HRW has become renowned for its targeted advocacy in defence of those who cannot always protect themselves from human rights abuses committed by government and non-state actors. It publishes timely reports on suspected incidents of mistreatment and presses for changes that better promote human rights and justice around the world. Today, HRW monitors rights violations in more than 90 countries worldwide.

Naturally, HRW focuses much of its efforts on repressive dictatorships and autocratic governments, such as China, Vietnam, Russia, Syria and North Korea. But it also does a lot of work in Western democracies – such as the U.S., Canada, Brazil, India, Hungary, France and South Africa – especially as we’ve seen the rise in populist movements in many of these countries. So the idea that Israel is the only democracy that it specifically, or continuously, targets is simply untrue. In fact, HRW’s program that documents human rights abuses in the United States is the organization’s largest of its kind.

And its latest report on human rights abuses in the United States is one of the most egregious. Titled, US: Separated Families Report Trauma, Lies, Coercion, it lays bare the callous treatment and the myriad of human rights abuses that were caused by the U.S. government’s cruel decision to separate refugee parents and children at the border.

Canada also hasn’t escaped the vigilant eye of HRW, especially when it comes to the way we treat our indigenous people. HRW’s report on the First Nations water crisis harshly criticized our government’s discrimination when it comes to ensuring that First Nations reserves have clean drinking water, which is a basic human right.

In Brazil, the largest democracy in Latin America, HRW has been highly critical of the government’s treatment of people with disabilities and the suspicious death of a human rights advocate. Greece, the United Kingdom, France and other democratic nations have also faced reports on human rights abuses.

Israel falls within the purview of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, which covers all 19 countries in the region. On average, HRW’s reports on Israel account for less than one per cent of its organizational budget.

HRW recognizes the extraordinarily complex and polarized political reality of the situation in Israel and the occupied territories, and the difficulties of reporting impartially in that context.  But as with its reporting on many other complex situations, HRW brings its commitment to meticulous, impartial fact-finding.

HRW is no more “anti-Israel” than it is anti-Iraq, anti-Brazil, anti-Canada or anti-America. If anything, it is pro-people, pro-dignity and, like Judaism itself, chooses life.