It's hard to understand why HRW would choose last week to pick on the Ukrainian government and call out its violations of human rights in its "anti-terrorism operation," when even the wimpy White House, hobbled by the "re-set" for far too many years, has found the strength to condemn Vladimir Putin personally, and the separatists directly, for downing the civilian airliner MH17, killing 298 people.
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH HAS NO STATEMENT ON MH17
If you look at hrw.org you will find not one word about MH17 at all. Some people marvel how that could be; it seems shocking. Not a word?! Couldn't they even say, in the context of their report focusing mainly on Ukrainian sins where they concede a few rebel sins that these rebels are so reckless that they shot down a civilian airplane?!
But that's a vivid example of how human rights works in general, and particularly for the strict-constructionist Human Rights Watch -- crimes committed by terrorists, or accidental shoot-downs that weren't intentional, just don't merit a comment much less a condemnation; they are not about human rights, strictly speaking. Non-state actors made a mistake, and it's sad, but they didn't sign any human rights violations, accidental hits don't apparently "fit" under international humanitarian law, so that's that.
UNGUIDED ROCKETS - BECAUSE WHY? RUSSIA!
I've been appalled at the positions taken by Human Rights Watch on Ukraine and this last week I've heard from a number of friends and colleagues who are also appalled or simply bewildered.
In this report, while conceding that separatists also used "unguided rockets," HRW puts the lion's share of blame on the Ukrainian government. How can this be, when Russia and the separatists are to blame for starting and pursuing this war?
Even more to the point, the report is also completely heedless of ample evidence available now that Russia is using Grads to fire into Ukraine itself and killing both Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. HRW doesn't even mention this!
The extraordinary certitude that HRW brings to statements like this one below boggle the mind. It uses its usual scientism -- in a process that is not transparent from its arms experts and arms panels -- to say that the craters of shells are all showing a certain angle and direction near the front line -- even in a war that has no formal front line in which separatists fight in civilian areas:
The four attacks took place close to the front line between insurgent and government forces. Impact craters on the ground and on buildings investigated by Human Rights Watch were characteristic of rocket attacks, not shelling. In all four cases, the angle and shape of the craters, and the fact that they were on the side of buildings facing the front line, strongly suggests that the rockets came from the direction of Ukrainian government forces or pro-Kiev armed groups. The attacks’ proximity to the front line also makes it unlikely, and in some cases impossible, that insurgent forces were responsible for the attacks. In two of the attacks, rockets hit on or near insurgent bases and checkpoints at the same time as they hit residential areas, indicating government forces were responsible.
Where's that "front line," when separatist tanks go into residential areas to fire on Ukrainian troops, like this, as they did in Donetsk?
IS THIS REALLY THE SCIENCE THEY CLAIM?
I don't accept that crater-analysis is the exact science they say, now that I've spent weeks monitoring this war, no do I trust their judgement about proximity, seeing how they left out the shooters in the crowd in Mariupol in their claims of "war crimes" in that battle, and left out the near proximity of fighters in their analysis of Stanitsa Luganskaya and nearby villages.
Human Rights Watch is not capable of monitoring separatist fighters properly; not only do they have an ideological and "mandate-driven" bias to not even consider Russia and separatists as in the wrong in the larger picture (they can only select out individual abuses and aren't very rigorous about such selection); they are dependent on these fighters in rebel-held territory because these rebels require press passes for all journalists -- and NGOs -- coming into their territory.
But ultimately it doesn't matter if the narrow-cast slice of the war that HRW has captured here proves Ukrainian forces guilty of hitting residential areas, and they think this will somehow help a moral suasion on Kiev to "be better" and on the US to "instruct Kiev to be better".
The "teachable moments" they hope to inspire will be ignored because Western states know the Ukrainians are fighting there because Russian-backed fighters took over buildings and towns and instituted terror first, and they have the right to fight back.
WRONG TAKE, WRONG TIMING ON IDPS
A mere three days after MH17 -- it happened on a Friday and they wrote to Poroshenko on the following Monday -- remaining silent under its mandate gag about that horror, HRW saw fit to condemn President Petro Poroshenko for not doing enough to care for tens of thousands of internally displaced persons fleeing from Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, and for those fleeing separatist takeover of their towns and fighting they started in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko at that point hadn't even gotten the separatists to let in international experts and the Malaysians, but, no, the world must stop and HRW must speak about the urgent matter of housing IDPs -- caused by Putin.
No matter that these people fleeing for their lives were induced by a state of war and occupation planned and engineered by Vladimir Putin and his "little green men" -- and by Russian authorities giving everybody in Crimean only until April 15 to decide to give up their Ukrainian passports and accept Russian citizenship, which was unconscionable.
For having suddently to deal with flocks of people seeking shelter, Poroshenko is to blame merely because its his country. By all means, people fleeing need care -- perhaps UNHCR could set up some camps with international funds? To be sure, UNHCR is stretched thin. And when the Ukrainians try to set up camps, for their trouble, they're accused falsely of making "filtration camps" to jail separatists.
Poroshenko is also blamed for people fleeing Ukraine for Russia in the HRW book, although of course there's the little facts that Russia has sent tanks and troops and armaments into Ukrainian territory -- an absolutely established fact -- and aided separatist leaders who are mainly Russians from Moscow. They've taken over buildings by force, kidnapping, torturing and killing all along the way, they've set up checkpoints and mined roads and bridges and shelled from Grads given them by Russian near villages and towns, wounding and killing numerous people. They blocked the roads out of Donetsk to people fleeing shelling. Where does that count?!
Note that no letter goes to Putin to reprimand him for CREATING these refugees with his backing of separatists who have forced them to flee everywhere.
No doubt HRW thinks Russia is "coping just fine" with refugees coming into Russia from Ukraine -- including the families of separatists that they want to get to a safe place and have Russia protect -- we've seen a lot of that.
No matter that Russia has unconscionably exaggerated the numbers of refugees coming into Russia for political gain and not let in journalists or international organizations EVERYWHERE there are refugees -- and is even moving refugees to deep within Russia away from the border. No, none of that merits a letter from HRW.
UKRAINE HAS THE RIGHT TO DEFEND ITSELF FROM ARMED INSURRECTION - AIDED FROM RUSSIA
What, the Ukrainian government is supposed to just roll over and let them do that, harming Ukrainian citizens? International law in fact not only grants Ukraine the right to defend its own sovereignty and territory, but acknowledges its duty to protect the lives of citizens. Human rights wonks fixated on "responsibility to protect" doctrine don't want to concede that such a responsibility entails preventing armed insurgents from taking over buildings and shutting down towns and killing people. But it must. Why is it okay to take over administrative buildings by force, stop industry and business and normal life in towns, run armed checkpoints and massively arrest, interrogate and even kill people? It's not.
To be sure, HRW has done some reporting on the bad things that the separatists have done. But they refuse as we can see from the TV program above to admit that this is an international conflict, involving Russia. They call it an internal conflict, and they simply screen out the glaring role of Russia.
Some people have even suggested to me that HRW remains so myopic about Russia because they have an office in Moscow that they are keen to keep open, and that they take these softer positions and pull their punches accordingly.
I actually don't think that's the issue, although I believe their office in Moscow should have been closed long ago, when Natalya Estemirova, who helped them with their reports, was killed. I don't see any advantage to keeping an office open that leaves staff vulnerable to harm by an alarmingly abusive state and various non-state extremist actors, and which anyway has for years been distracted with non-essentials (like the "harm reduction" cause which is the gateway to drug legalization flogged by the Soros Foundation, a cause that should be done by medical and health organizations, not human rights groups, in my view.)
CONTRARIANISM DICTATED BY IHL MYOPIA
I think it's more about the contrarian and adversarial posture that HRW always assumes, donned in its flowing white robes stitched out of international human rights treaties, that it must always and everywhere "do the unpopular thing" and "not follow the crowd" and "make sure nobody forgets" about human rights violations by states that people are sympathizing with for various political, cultural or geopolitical reasons.
This naturally gets tiresome in and of itself -- we see HRW do this all the time with Israel and Palestine, or Nigeria, where they get more busy condemning the violations of rights of terrorists by the Nigerian government than robust and full-throatedly covering and condemning the appalling horrors of Boko Haram.
But as I've explained, HRW is actually more "mandated" by their zealous promotion of "international humanitarian law" than anything else. While the world once believed that only the International Committee of the Red Cross was the repository for this monitoring and care, today, not only HRW but thousands of international, regional, and local groups feel it is their birthright and in many, many instances, this involves taking up the cause of violent, extremist movements whose members have their rights violated by states.
CIVILIANS KILLED IN SNEZHNOYE - BECAUSE RUSSIAN-BACKED SEPARATISTS FIRST TOOK IT OVER
Right now, HRW is mad because the Ukrainian Air Force, for example, has struck a residential biulding in Snezhnoye, killiing 11 people. That's awful, and having myself seen the videos of the rubble and survivors, who are understandably very angry that the Ukrainian government has killed their relatives, and now hate them with a fierce passion, I totally get why it's a terrible thing.
But here's the context for this terrible thing:
o Russia helped the separatists with Russian tanks (I geolocated one of them myself and there are huge numbers of eye-witnesses, video footage, journalists' reports etc. showing this) as well as armored vehicles and weapons, pouring these into Snezhnoye and environs for weeks.
o Separatists took over Snezhnoye and put batteries even by a children's store and other civilian buildings; we have evidence that they parked the Buk anti-aircraft missile system right in a store parking lot.
o Separatists have shelled the area, knocked numerous Ukrainian planes out of the sky, and run roughshod over this area, killing people as they shoot at planes or shell Ukrainian positions.
The Ukraininan Air Force has responded to this Russian-backed force from Russia by bombing targets of the separatists -- their checkpoints, camps and so on. So they accidently hit a residential building -- because the separatists freely place weapons and vehicles among these civilian buildings, and this tragedy occurs. Obviously, despite all the Kremlin's hysteria, the Ukrainians don't deliberately wantonly hit a residential building "just because". They are drawn to these towns to fire on them *because the separatists are in them waging war*.
Human Rights Watch blots all of that out of the picture completely, and focuses only on what "fits" under IHL which is the bombing of a civilian building.
They'll concede that separatists shouldn't be in civilian buildings either, but their juices just aren't flowing as much to cover that problem with as much zeal and ink because their main target always and everywhere is states, which they believe are the main force for IHL observance. Given that almost no war these days is ever actually formally fought between states, but the lion's share are fought by non-state actors, you would think HRW -- and even international law -- would change its obsessions. But it won't. They aren't constructed that way ideologically or politically, nor are the legions of people in international institutions, either.
It's odd, of course, that the mistake of the separatists in shooting down a civilian plane becomes an "accident" outside the moral universe of Human Rights Watch, but the mistake of the Snezhnoye building bombing by the Ukrainian Air Force becomes a suspicion of a war crime even though there is absolutely no evidence that it was deliberate.
OUTSIDE THE MORAL COMPASS
But what's also outside the moral compass of HRW is the blatant fact that the separatist warfare isn't just, because there are absolutely no grounds for it to have started except for Ukraine's desire to be more independent of Russia for a host of reasons which have only multiplied by this awful war unleashed by Putin.
There were no reports of suppression of the Russian language as imagined, or any massive human rights violations committed in the southeast of Ukraine by Kiev in the months before Putin decided to wage war there by proxy; indeed, it's hard to find any human rights violations that one could point to as "justification" for armed insurrection. There's no grounds for any "just war" here whatsoever; meanwhile, the "just war" notion is on the side of the Ukrainians, as they must act to stop war -- they cannot allow warfare to continue.
It's not just a matter that it's "nice to have" the Donbass and keep it within Ukraine; it's that separatists, if they were to rule in these areas, would bring a reign of terror and a Soviet-style governance system. We've already amply seen that in their behaviour as they conduct their takeovers, instituting draconian Soviet-style practices and even resurrecting labels like "NKVD." The very term "People's Republics" -- the duplicitious term used in the Soviet area for nations or peoples in fact taken over by force and cowed by massive crimes against humanity -- lets us know the nature of these regimes.
So it's the duty of Kiev to prevent a re-institution of a murderous Soviet-style system on any part of their territory.
Fortunately, liberal, democratic states aren't obsessive and zealous human rights groups, and they weigh a variety of factors in making policy. The US and EU are fortunately condemning Russia and backing Ukraine at this point and putting more sanctions in place.
WHAT'S COMING IS MORE BLAME FOR UKRAINE UNDER THIS APPROACH
As the weeks wear on -- and they will -- it will be harder for the US and EU to keep the big picture in mind that includes the massive crime of Russia itself using force and violent proxies on its neighbours, in grotesque and profound violation of the Helsinki Accords and every other international agreement.
The memory of even the horror of MH17 will recede and the blown-up pictures from LifeNews and RT.com, two lurid Kremlin propaganda arms, of civilians suffering from Ukrainian bombing or even separatists' shelling that in fact they are responsible for but can pin on the Ukrainians for Russian TV, will take its toll. It's like Israel and Palestine, where Israel's killing of 800 civilians looms large, and Palestinian suffering is at the forefront, but in the background, the years of terrorism from the Palestinian killing numerous Israeli citizens in the intifadas, the missiles Hamas kept lobbing into Israel, the tunnels built with the aid of neighbours to smuggle in armaments and supplies and keep up a terrorist warfare against Israel -- all those recede from the view. They don't "count" and "don't fit" under IHL because they are non-state actors or a government of an occupied territory.
So with Russian exaggerated propaganda and outright lies, the uncertain West will be drawn into a scenario of "peace talks" and "negotiations" that will be just like the Crimean annexation -- undermining Ukrainian territory and sovereignty and embolding Russia, on whom Europe depends for gas.
Human rights work will have helped bring that awful situation into being. That's why ultimately it's immoral, whatever it's little moral victories and self-righteousness along the way.
WHY A NEW KIND OF MONITORING GROUP IS NEEDED
I try to think of what the solution for all this is regarding Human Rights Watch. Some people think HRW could be reformed, could be persuaded by logic and moral appeal to change its contrarian, impudent reflex to go after states conducting legitimate warfare in the face of the monstrous challenge of terrorism aided by enemy states (Iraq and Syria are no different).
I think back to 1983 when the Soviets shot down the Korean flight 007, when I worked at Helsinki Watch which later was amalgamated into Human Rights Watch. Likely we didn't issue a statement on this appallingly paranoid and inhuman act by the Kremlin at the time -- I don't recall it. That's because it wasn't a "violation of human rights" in the technical sense, but an international crime. But we didn't behave like contrarians and rush to go try extra hard to cover US human rights violations because "everybody else" was "knocking the Soviets," or say, rush to cover the violations of Yugoslavia, which was somewhat independent from Moscow and then a client of the US trying to break up the Soviet bloc.
No, we realized that 007 was an indication of the monstrous face of a regime that also caused all the human rights violations in its own territory and among its neighbours it controlled. We would only redouble our efforts to try to report on and advocate on that situation, so that some day, perhaps there would come a civilian government that would observe the rule of law where such things as the shooting down of 007 wouldn't happen.
And obviously that work isn't done with Russia, which is responsible for an enormous amount of misery in the world, not only at home and in Ukraine and other areas it dominates in "the near abroad," but in Syria, where it backs Assad, and its hobbling of international concerted effort in places like Afghanistan as well as Iran and Iraq, its old clients since the Soviet era.
If you call out human rights groups as myopic or immoral, then their answer is to say that you are shielding from criticism some state that you like for mere political or cultural or even ethnic reasons, that you are going "soft" on a state and not being "true" to human rights values.
But this argument is increasingly hollow in a world where thousands of both fighters and civilians have been killed in Ukraine now for no good reason at all except for Putin trying to clutch to himself a country that wants to be free of Russia because its not free itself.
So I personally have concluded that trying to fix HRW isn't possible. New kinds of organizations have to come into being that do more to track terrorist attacks and their victims; to track warfare conducted by aggressive, authoritarian states against neighbours directly or through proxies, to track and expose what they do in the same way that the human rights industry tracks and exposes mainly states. Such new organizations would cover crime and terrorism committed by non-state actors -- with the help of their state friends, and expose that to the extent possible.
HRW will always view groups doing that sort of activity as partisan or sectarian and not wearing the flowing white robes that they wear hugging to themselves the mantle of IHL. They will even claim that they "excuse" human rights violations by states. So what? They're immoral when their moral calculas can never take in the downing of MH17 or the take-over of Snezhnoye first by Russian tanks.
They will go on covering primarily states' violations especially at times when they think "the world needs to be reminded" as they are preoccupied with "political" things like the MH17 downing that "don't fit" the human rights paradigm. It's not as if any state will evade scrutiny, given the outsized presence of HRW in the world with its numerous offices and media capacity; it is like a country with embassies.
Meanwhile, a corrective should start to come into being that accepts that terrorism and crime should be monitored with the same verve as human rights violations.
WHY HRW CAN'T HOLD THE LIMELIGHT ON ITS VERSION OF MORALITY FOREVER
The overwhelming presence of journalism, blogging, and citizens' reporting and social media fortunately present a profound challenge to the sectarian approach of Human Rights Watch -- they can no longer be the sole proprietor of information from the ground and the sole conveyor of it to states -- and that's a good thing. The picture is now going to be inevitably wider than their cramped moral perspective can allow, and will be faster and in real time and get out before their legal bureaucracy approves their long and slowly-prepared reports.
They will go on doing what they are doing, but other groups will spring into being and affect public opinion, and that's as it should be.
Eventually -- after 50 years? -- perhaps the citizens' effort to track crime and terrorism which can't "fit" in the "international law" system because states can't agree on terrorism or are reluctant to assign "duties" to citizens for fear of harming civil rights -- may result in more holistic civil society bodies with credibilty covering both human rights and crimes, and states as well as non-state actors.
But before that can happen, years of monitoring must be done of the bad behaviour of non-state actors to build up a credible body of work -- using those very same values of civil society and human rights that once animated Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch when they had more credibility.
For years I've suggested that a movement with a name like "Accountability" should be started that challenges non-state actors and monitors them against a set of criteria like the values of democracy and due process and the rule of law and of course civil and political rights -- as if they had in fact signed those accords. It should jetison the adherence to the "11th commandment" of HRW which is "thou shalt never criticize another NGO" because a government might use it to persecute them. It should set aside fears of "McCarthyism" or "witch-hunting" because those who aid and abet violent jihad and other violent extremism movements shouldn't be able to endlessly hide behind those invocations.
I've concluded such a group will inevitably be very poor and small, given that the world's media and foundations and donors are all oriented toward the other "human rights" approach. But it could get started.