HRW v Chavez II

I have always been an admirer of the journalist Hugh O’Shaughnessy. So I was puzzled by his broadside attack on Human Rights Watch on newstatesman.com last week.

The immediate target was a recent HRW report on Venezuela under President Hugo Chávez, which O’Shaughnessy said was “untrustworthy”, “full of false and misleading information”, and “could well have been cobbled together by an inexperienced State Department recruit”. But O’Shaughnessy also took a swipe at HRW’s recent work on Lebanon and Palestine which he suggests is “bent in favour of the State Department, the Israeli government or just the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying organisation”.

O'Shaughnessy not only fails to provide any evidence for these allegations against HRW, but more seriously he misrepresents HRW’s positions in his apparent determination to undermine our well earned international reputation for accuracy and impartiality.

For example O’Shaughnessy accuses HRW of whitewashing “the lavish financing of the political opposition in Venezuela by US official bodies who … helped to overthrow Chávez for 48 hours”.

In fact the report explicitly condemns the 2002 coup. In its second paragraph the report states: “The most dramatic setback [to Venezuela’s democracy] came in April 2002 when a coup d’état temporarily removed Chávez from office and replaced him with an unelected president who, in his first official act, dissolved the country’s democratic institutions, suspending the legislature and disbanding the Supreme Court.”

O’Shaughnessy also takes HRW to task for “unjustifiably criticising political freedoms, the state of the trade union movement, government treatment of what remains the wonderfully free media and daily life which has got an awful lot better for poorest Venezuelans”.

In fact the report goes out of its way to underline that Venezuela still enjoys a vibrant public debate in which anti-government and pro-government media are equally vocal in their criticism and defence of Chávez. And nowhere does the report criticise the progress that has been made under Chávez in the economic and social betterment of the poorest Venezuelans.

Besides misrepresenting the report, O’Shaughnessy fails entirely to address the concrete evidence HRW puts forward to support its critique of the Chávez government’s human rights record: the expansion and toughening of penalties for speech and broadcasting offenses, the disregard for the separation of powers, the attacks on the independent judiciary and on workers’ rights to associate freely, the harassment of human rights advocates and other civil society activists.

Nor does O’Shaughnessy address the main argument of the report, namely that over the past decade Chávez has squandered the opportunity presented at the time of his first election in 1998, when Venezuela’s political system was largely discredited, to shore up the rule of law and strengthen the protection of human rights.

O’Shaughnessy’s criticisms of HRW’s work on the Middle East are equally out of touch with reality. On the basis of thorough research on the ground by HRW experts during the 2006 war in Lebanon, HRW has spoken out publicly, frequently and strongly against Israel’s war crimes, including the massive use of cluster munitions. We have also been energetic in our public criticism of Israel’s indiscriminate attacks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and, more recently, its siege of the Gaza strip, which amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population.

O’Shaughnessy appears to believe that for our criticism of Israel to be taken seriously HRW should refrain from scrutinising or exposing the poor human rights records of Hamas and Hezbollah or their violations of international humanitarian law. We argue that in fact the opposite is the case: it is precisely because we are seen as impartial investigators of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law that we are taken seriously by opinion makers and decision makers.

O’Shaughnessy’s parting shot at HRW is also his cheapest, most puzzling and most uninformed. “Surely, he says, “HRW doesn’t want to go down with George Bush … and poor Lynndie England of West Virginia and Abu Ghraib as another of today’s US failures.”

If O’Shaughnessy had bothered to do his homework he would have discovered that HRW not only played an important role in unearthing and exposing the abuses of the US government in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA detention programme, extraordinary rendition and the rest of it, but has worked hard to keep these abuses in the international public eye, to bring them to an end, and to secure accountability.

Tom Porteous is Human Rights Watch's London director