One of the best ways to reduce human rights abuses is to maintain strict surveillance of governments and armed groups via independent watchdogs. One of the most vital groups of this sort is Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization whose mandate is similar, but not identical, to Amnesty International.
Human Rights Watch originated in New York and was thus oriented, both implicitly and explicitly, towards the preoccupations of the American foreign policy establishment and anti-establishment. It began in 1978 as “Helsinki Watch,” a group devoted to uncovering abuses in the Cold War-era Soviet Bloc, but was soon followed by “Americas Watch,” a division focused on abuses in Latin America, mostly by allies of the US government. Later, new regional and thematic divisions were created to cover virtually all world regions as well as many vulnerable populations, such as children, prisoners, refugees, victims of war, women, LGBTQ individuals, and more.
Amnesty, by contrast, originated two decades earlier in London and was thus marked by the United Kingdom’s post-imperialist inclinations. The two groups are similar in many ways, but Amnesty has devoted more resources to developing national chapters worldwide and views itself as more of a grassroots membership organization than Human Rights Watch. HRW is more oriented towards mobilizing intellectual, professional, and political elites worldwide. Unlike Amnesty, HRW has not created a dues-paying membership that participates in organizational decision-making and agenda-setting.
Both HRW and Amnesty can trace their roots to the Anglo-American countries that helped win the Second World War. Today, however, both groups have made great efforts to decentralize their offices and recruit both researchers and advocates from all over the world, with special emphasis on countries with lower per-capita incomes.
Today, the HRW team numbers roughly 450 professionals from over 70 countries, including former journalists, lawyers, social scientists, historians, and career activists. Its researchers and advocates are either specialists in specific world regions and languages, such as the Arabic-speaking Middle East, or in specific thematic areas, such as public health or weapons systems.
HRW, like other internationally oriented human rights groups, is dedicated to exposing and publicizing abuses of those rights codified in international human rights law, which includes the universal declaration of human rights and its two associated international treaties, the covenant on civil and political rights, and the covenant on economic, social and cultural rights.
Unlike many international humanitarian aid groups, however, HRW does not accept grants, contributions, contracts or other forms of financial support from any government anywhere in the world. As a result, it maintains a comparatively high level of independence and impartiality. Although some critics have accused HRW and other international rights groups of being overly-preoccupied with promoting American foreign policy goals, those groups deny so doing. My own surveys of global public opinion, moreover, suggest that most ordinary people do not subscribe to this view.
The essence of HRW’s work is investigating allegations of abuse, relying whenever possible on testimonies gathered by their own team from individuals who were either direct victims of abuse or who witnessed those abuses first-hand. HRW also relies whenever possible on aerial photos, official documents, video content, and other, equally persuasive forms of physical evidence.
Once HRW researchers have found sufficient credible evidence to support allegations of systematic abuse, its advocacy and communications team publicizes that information through multiple channels, ranging from one-on-one meetings with government officials, military officers or legislators, to public, multilingual communications with the help of social media, newspapers, television, and more. The collection and strategic deployment of this hard-to-obtain evidence is the essence of both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty’s work.
Today, HRW publishes hundreds of reports of varying length as well as a stream of newspaper commentary, social media posts, Tweets, and other communication items. The group has successfully leveraged its reputation as a credible purveyor of human rights evidence to become a global thought leader, publishing commentary in dozens of languages and many hundreds of media venues. The organization’s Twitter account has 4.5 million followers, while the personal account of its executive director, Ken Roth, has over 355,000.
I began working for HRW in the late 1980s as an intern on the Middle Eastern desk, filing hard copies of newspaper articles, letters, and other written materials (remember the good old days?). In 1992, the head of the Middle East division asked me to conduct research on a new Israeli military unit operating in the occupied Palestinian territories. The members of these units dressed up as Palestinians and moved around the occupied West Bank and Gaza in unmarked civilian cars. Although these “Arabizing” units did arrest many Palestinian suspects, they also killed far too many in the field, provoking widespread concern. I interviewed dozens of Palestinian eyewitnesses to these shootings, as well as a number of former Israeli soldiers. (The activities of these units were later profiled in the recent and widely-viewed Israeli-made Netflix series, Fauda).
In 1994, I did another research job for HRW’s Middle Eastern desk, producing a report on Israeli abuses while interrogating Palestinian suspects. In subsequent years, I led a research project for the group in Turkey, where government forces were violating the laws of war while battling Kurdish rebels in the Southeast. I then participated in HRW field research in Nigeria, Albania, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. Later, my graduate students and I worked on a number of advisory projects for HRW, including detailed how-to manuals on a wide variety of innovative research methods. In 2018, my colleagues and I conducted a public opinion poll for Human Rights Watch in the US, surveying a nationally representative sample of 2,000 Americans (plus an “oversample” of 1,000 committed Trump supporters) for their views on human rights issues, principles, and policies.
Over the years, my academic work has often focused on the activities of HRW and other like-minded groups, as well as on the views of the general public worldwide towards human rights.
I began my career as a researcher for Human Rights Watch over two decades ago, and have spent many days, weeks, and months since working with their team. I will be eternally grateful to have had that opportunity.