HRW’s credibility comes under scrutiny

A new document by Richard Johnson, a retired American diplomat, has called the credibility of Human Rights Watch (HRW) into question over its coverage of post Genocide Rwanda.
A Gacaca court in session. HRW attacked the traditional justice system. The New Times/File.
A Gacaca court in session. HRW attacked the traditional justice system. The New Times/File.

A new document by Richard Johnson, a retired American diplomat, has called the credibility of Human Rights Watch (HRW) into question over its coverage of post Genocide Rwanda.

Armed with a hoard of documentation that spans close to 20 years to prove his point, Johnson paints a very disturbing picture of the New York based human rights organisation, an organisation, observers say is manically obsessed with Rwanda, aimed at rewriting history and influencing world opinion in a slanted manner.

“HRW’s discourse on Rwanda over the past twenty years has been viscerally hostile to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF),” Johnson writes, in a well articulated document he called ‘The Travesty of Human Rights Watch on Rwanda’; adding that … “But HRW’s decision-making process is not transparent, the aura of sanctity around its professed mission deters public scrutiny of its policies and practices, and the degree of accountability of HRW to anyone is quite unclear.  This situation of unchecked power is one where things can go seriously wrong.  With regard to Rwanda, they have”.

The author also accuses HRW of trivialising the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and trying to put the genocidal forces on the same footing as the RPF in order to propagate the “double Genocide” theory, as well as trying to push forward Victoire Ingabire’s FDU-Inkingi but failing to highlight the origin of the political grouping.

“...absent from the HRW narrative was any consideration of the history and nature of the FDU.  This omission is astonishing.  It testifies to a profound disrespect for the Rwandan people, and a high degree of confidence that Western decision makers and opinion leaders who are unfamiliar with Rwanda can be led by the nose,” Johnson continues.

“The FDU is a coalition of three Rwandan émigré political factions.  Its central component, also presided over by Ingabire since 2000, is a party called the RDR.  And, it so happens, the RDR is the direct political heir of the Hutu Power regime that perpetrated the genocide against the Rwandan Tutsi in 1994.

“The RDR (Rally for the Return of Refugees and Democracy in Rwanda) was created in eastern Congo (then called Zaire) in early 1995 by leading perpetrators of the Genocide, who had fled there (together with their genocidal regime, army and Interahamwe militia, and a mass of over a million Rwandans including civilian participants in the killing, and many bystanders) after being militarily defeated by the RPF in Rwanda in summer 1994”.

The former diplomat does not hide his disappointment the worrying metamorphosis  Human Rights Watch has taken over the years, particularly with regard to Rwanda.

“I thought well of HRW when it was Helsinki Watch and focused on East Europe, and I was a Foreign Service Officer doing the same.  I still did, the first time I read Leave None to Tell the Story before moving to Rwanda in 2008.  But the more I learned about Rwanda, the less I trusted HRW.  The decisive eye-opener for me was HRW’s campaign for the FDU/RDR to be included in Rwanda’s election in 2010.  There is something seriously wrong with an institution that wants a political party founded by the leaders of a genocide to be allowed back in to the scene of their crime”.

Word of caution 

Johnson  singles out Gacaca, which has been HRW Executive Director Ken Roth’s favourite punching bag, and urges the international community and the media to take HRW reports on Rwanda with a pinch of salt citing an April 2009 statement  by HRW timed to coincide with Rwanda’s annual week of mourning for  genocide, victims titled ; “The Power of Horror,” where Roth is quoted as saying: “…ironically, it is the genocide that has provided the government with a cover for repression…One tool of repression has been the gacaca courts”. Johnson advises  HRW bankrollers to : “… think seriously about what causes their money might serve.  Western governments should be careful about following HRW advice, and courageous enough to challenge them publicly when need be”.

He sums up his lengthy essay with a word of caution:

“It is dangerous when this institution has the power to influence Western policy.  So I took a closer look at HRW’s discourse on Rwanda over the years.  I found that the summary that captures it best is the one that structures this essay: let the genocidal parties back in, don’t ban their ideology, don’t hold more than a few perpetrators accountable, and admit you are no better than they.  I hope that my summary will open others’ eyes as well.”

This is not the first time HRW has come under scrutiny. Among its critics is its former chairman (1978 to 1998) Robert L. Bernstein, who is particularly critical of the international organisation’s narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished,” said Bernstein.

Before retiring, Johnson served as a Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State from 1979 to 2002, specialising in Russian, East European and North African affairs.

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