The way a government or armed group responds to a Human Rights Watch report says a lot about its willingness to curb abuses. Does it grapple seriously with the findings or simply dismiss them? Human Rights Watch encountered a bit of each when we recently released reports on why civilians died during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah.
Our report on Hezbollah’s rocket attacks on northern Israel addressed Hezbollah’s two asserted justifications: that it was aiming only at military targets and, somewhat contradictorily, that insofar as it targeted civilians, it was in reprisal for Israeli misconduct. Human Rights Watch’s detailed investigation in northern Israel demonstrated that while at times Hezbollah did aim at military targets, frequently it aimed at civilian areas with no military target in sight. The report also emphasized the laws-of-war prohibition of attacks against civilians for any reason, even as ostensible reprisal.
Hezbollah did not want people to hear this message. Calling Human Rights Watch a “biased organization,” its Al-Manar television station rallied its supporters to protest outside the Beirut hotel where we had planned to hold a press conference to release the report, forcing the hotel to cancel the event. A lawyer sympathetic to Hezbollah even convinced a prosecutor to investigate the Human Rights Watch researcher in Beirut for treason. The report still got massive press attention – all the more so as “the report that Hezbollah tried to censor” – but Hezbollah’s response hardly showed a willingness to correct its lawless ways.