Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) is an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. Its headquarters are in New York City and it has offices in Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Geneva, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Toronto, and Washington D.C.
Human Rights Watch was founded under the name Helsinki Watch in 1978 to monitor the former Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Helsinki Watch adopted a methodology of publicly "naming and shaming" abusive governments through media coverage and through direct exchanges with policymakers. By shining the international spotlight on human rights violations in the Soviet Union and its vassal states in Eastern Europe, Helsinki Watch contributed to the democratic transformations of the region in the late 1980s. Americas Watch was founded in 1981 while bloody civil wars engulfed Central America. Relying on extensive on-the-ground fact-finding, Americas Watch not only addressed perceived abuses by government forces but also applied international humanitarian law to investigate and expose war crimes by rebel groups. In addition to raising its concerns in the affected countries, Americas Watch also examined the role played by foreign governments, particularly the United States government, in providing military and political support to abusive regimes. Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989) were added to what was then known as "The Watch Committees." In 1988, all of the committees were united under one umbrella to form Human Rights Watch.
Pursuant to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch opposes violations of what it considers basic human rights, which include capital punishment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Human Rights Watch advocates freedoms in connection with fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion and the press.
Human Rights Watch produces research reports on violations of international human rights norms as set out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what it perceives to be other internationally accepted human rights norms. These reports are used as the basis for drawing international attention to abuses and pressuring governments and international organizations to reform. Researchers conduct fact-finding missions to investigate suspect situations and generate coverage in local and international media. Issues raised by Human Rights Watch in its reports include social and gender discrimination, torture, military use of children, political corruption, abuses in criminal justice systems, and the legalization of abortion. Human Rights Watch documents and reports violations of the laws of war and international humanitarian law.
Human Rights Watch also supports writers worldwide who are being persecuted for their work and are in need of financial assistance. The Hellman/Hammett grants are financed by the estate of the playwright Lillian Hellman in funds set up in her name and that of her long-time companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. In addition to providing financial assistance, the Hellman/Hammett grants help raise international awareness of activists who are being silenced for speaking out in defence of human rights.
Each year, Human Rights Watch presents the Human Rights Defenders Award to activists around the world who demonstrate leadership and courage in defending human rights. The award winners work closely with Human Rights Watch in investigating and exposing human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch was one of six international NGOs that founded the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 1998. It is also the co-chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a global coalition of civil society groups that successfully lobbied to introduce the Ottawa Treaty, a treaty that prohibits the use of anti-personnel landmines.
Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global network of non-governmental organizations that monitor censorship worldwide. It also co-founded the Cluster Munition Coalition, which brought about an international convention banning the weapons. Human Rights Watch employs more than 275 staff—country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics – and operates in more than 90 countries around the world.
The current executive director of Human Rights Watch is Kenneth Roth, who has held the position since 1993. Roth conducted investigations on abuses in Poland after martial law was declared 1981. He later focused on Haiti, which had just emerged from the Duvalier dictatorship but continued to be plagued with problems. Roth’s awareness of human rights began with stories that his father told about escaping Nazi Germany in 1938. He graduated from Yale Law School and Brown University.
Financing and services
For the financial year ending June 2008, HRW reported receiving approximately US$44 million in public donations. In 2009, Human Rights Watch stated that they receive almost 75% of their financial support from North America, 25% from Western Europe and less than 1% from the rest of the world. According to a 2008 financial assessment, HRW reports that it does not accept any direct or indirect funding from governments and is financed through contributions from private individuals and foundations. According to NGO Monitor this policy is violated by support from the Dutch government and a May 2009 fund raising trip to Saudi Arabia.
Notably, billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros announced in 2010 his intention to donate US$100 million to HRW over a period of ten years. He said, "Human Rights Watch is one of the most effective organizations I support. Human rights underpin our greatest aspirations: they're at the heart of open societies."
The donation will increase Human Rights Watch's operating budget from $48 million to $80 million. The donation was the largest in the organization's history.
Charity Navigator gave Human Rights Watch a four-star rating, the highest number of stars possible. The Better Business Bureau said Human Rights Watch meets its standards for charity accountability.
Issues and campaigns
Traffic in small arms
Legalisation of abortion on demand
Rights of AIDS patients
Safety of civilians in war; opposes use of cluster bombs
Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity
Extrajudicial killings and abductions
Extraordinary rendition by the United States
Legal proceedings against human rights abusers
Trafficking in women and girls
Abolition of capital punishment worldwide
Human Rights Watch criticized the Jordanian government for arresting elected officials who praised Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, at ceremonies held in response to his death. Human Rights Watch also spoke out against the mass killings and government-imposed famines during the last decade of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's rule.
In 2007 HRW denounced Spain for holding hundreds of migrant children in emergency centers in the Canary Islands. They were living in squalid, overcrowded conditions and faced the risk of abuse from their custodians and other children. The Canary Islands government, which runs the facilities, replied in a statement that the report lacked "rigor" and that "an internal investigation had failed to corroborate" Human Rights Watch's findings.
Robert L. Bernstein, a founder and former chairman of HRW, argued in October 2009 that "Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective" on events in the Middle East. Bernstein argued that “the region is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region." He urged the organization to recognize "a difference between wrongs committed in self-defence and those perpetrated intentionally."
Tom Porteus, director of the London branch of Human Rights Watch, replied that the organization rejected Bernstein's "obvious double standard. Any credible human rights organisation must apply the same human rights standards to all countries." Jane Olson and Jonathan Fanton wrote "we were saddened to see Robert L. Bernstein argue that Israel should be judged by a different human rights standard than the rest of the world" and "as long as open societies commit human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch has a vital role to play in documenting those violations and advocating to bring them to an end." Human Rights Watch noted that Bernstein brought his concerns to the Human Rights Watch Board of Directors in April 2009 and also noted that the board unanimously rejected his proposed reconsideration of reporting policies in the Middle East.
Human Rights Watch made headlines in September 2009 when its Middle East military analyst, Marc Garlasco who led investigations into Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza, was found posing on the internet dressed in a sweat shirt with a German Iron Cross. After pressure from the media HRW suspended Marc with pay pending an investigation. No findings from this investigation have been published as of November 2010. Several media reports highlighted his interest in Second World War artefacts. and accused him of collecting Nazi memorabilia. Garlasco has said that the allegations of Nazi sympathies were "defamatory nonsense, spread maliciously by people with an interest in trying to undermine Human Rights Watch's reporting”. HRW has said the charges levelled against Garlasco are "demonstrably false" and fit "into a campaign to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch's rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government". Corey Flintoff wrote that "critics of Human Rights Watch have suggested that Garlasco's enthusiasm for Nazi-era badges and uniforms goes beyond historical interest and makes him a Nazi sympathizer or anti-Semite."
Human Rights Watch publishes reports on several topics and compiles annual reports ("World Report") presenting an overview of the worldwide state of human rights. Human Rights Watch has published extensively on the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 and the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Comparison with Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are the only two western-oriented international human rights organizations operating worldwide in most situations of severe oppression or abuse. Though close allies, the two groups play complementary roles, reflecting a division of labour. The major differences lie in the groups’ structure and methods for promoting change.
Amnesty International is a mass-membership organization. Mobilization of those members is the organization's central advocacy tool. Human Rights Watch's main products are its crisis-directed research and lengthy reports, whereas Amnesty lobbies and writes detailed reports, but also focuses on mass letter-writing campaigns, adopting individuals as "prisoners of conscience" and lobbying for their release. Human Rights Watch will openly lobby for specific actions for other governments to take against human rights offenders, including naming specific individuals for arrest, or for sanctions to be levied against certain countries, recently calling for punitive sanctions against the top leaders in Sudan who have overseen a killing campaign in Darfur. The group has also called for human rights activists who have been detained in Sudan to be released.
Its documentations of human rights abuses often include extensive analysis of the political and historical backgrounds of the conflicts concerned, some of which have been published in academic journals. AI's reports, on the other hand, tend to contain less analysis, and instead focus on specific abuses of rights.
In 2010 The Times of London wrote that HRW has "all but eclipsed" Amnesty International. According to The Times, instead of being supporting by a mass membership, as AI is, HRW depends on wealthy donors who like to see the organization's reports make headlines. For this reason, according to the Times, HRW tends to "concentrate too much on places that the media already cares about," especially in disproportionate coverage of Israel.
There are some small differences in policy: for example, Human Rights Watch believes that women have the right to wear a veil whereas Amnesty has no policy on this issue.
Criticism of Human Rights Watch may be classified into four major categories: accusations of poor research methods producing inaccurate reports, accusations of selection bias, accusations of ideological bias, and questions regarding their funding practices. In the second category, Human Rights Watch has been criticized for perceived biases that are anti-Sri Lanka, anti-Israel, and anti-Ethiopian government. In 2008, Venezuela expelled the organization for its criticism. In the third category, Human Rights Watch was accused of using anti-Israeli sentiment to elicit support while fund-raising in Saudi Arabia. In addition, The New Republic has published in April 2010 a very critical piece of HRW's stance towards Israel".