Robert Bernstein, founder of Human Rights Watch, is highly disappointed that his organization would apply the same standards to Israel that it does to every other nation. Scott Lemieux has ably picked apart his curious claim that any nation acting in self-defense gets to play by some looser set of moral standards. His relativism about democratic regimes, however, I find particularly galling:
[Human Rights Watch] sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.
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.
Bernstein should know that when he uses this logic to attack HRW for criticizing Israel, he's also attacking large swathes of the work the organization does in countless other parts of the world. Is the United States branch illegitimate for trying to secure the rights of military detainees? After all, the US is an open society, and the detainees are at least according to the government fighting in defense of a closed one. Does Bernstein support shutting down the LGBT division of HRW for criticizing democracies like Jamaica and Lithuania alongside dictatorships?
The only reason HRW has any legitimacy is because it refuses to allow the rhetoric of the administrations it criticizes -- including the rhetoric of democracy and self-defense -- to prevent it from calling out real abuses on the ground. The HRW of Bernstein's dreams would almost certainly be seen as a Western institution devoted to defending Western governments by both the governments and opposition movements of criticized nations. It would neither be a trusted documenter of abuses nor an effective pressure group, two roles at which it has been tremendously effective to date.
HRW can be a tool for lashing out at governments that Bernstein doesn't like, or it can be an effective and dispassionate research group. It cannot be both.