Israel: Human Rights Watch backslides on free speech?
Human Rights Watch's suspension of military analyst Marc Garlasco under Israeli pressure raises questions about its own commitment to free expression, says Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam
17 Sep 09

richard_silverstein_140x140Human Rights Watch’s suspension of military analyst Marc Garlasco under Israeli pressure raises questions about its own commitment to free expression, says Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam

As Human Rights Watch’s senior military analyst, Marc Garlasco is responsible for investigating munitions that kill and maim civilians in military conflicts. He investigated the Israel Defense Force’s human rights record in Lebanon and Gaza. His HRW report on the Lebanon war urged Israel to stop using weapons such as cluster bombs.

Garlasco is a self-defined “military nerd” who served as an analyst with the Pentagon for eight years. Right-wing pro-Israel blogs, together with the Israeli foreign ministry, have publicised the fact that he collects World War II memorabilia, specializing in Nazi-era anti-aircraft unit regalia. He’s written two books for collectors in the field.

Garlasco claims that he has never hidden his hobby from anyone. HRW’s legal office is responsible for vetting any book or article written by a staff member. Garlasco’s latest book (freely available on Amazon) was published in January. Given this, the group cannot credibly argue it did not know about Garlasco’s personal hobby.

Pro-Israel advocates claim that Garlasco is a Nazi sympathizer, and that his hobby disqualifies him from being a neutral observer in his professional work. Even some HRW supporters are extremely uncomfortable in defending his personal enthusiasms. I for one, have distant family members who were murdered by the Nazis. As such, hobbies like this repel me.

Garlasco responds that he has never said or written anything anti-Semitic or sympathetic to Nazism, nor have his attackers discovered any such expressions. In fact, in the introduction to his recent book he decries the Nazis and the suffering that they inflicted on the world.

When the news first broke, HRW vigorously defended Garlasco. But once the story hit the New York Times, the group ‘”shifted course” (as the Times itself noted). HRW suspended Garlasco from his job pending further investigation.

As an organisation devoted to human rights, HRW walks a very thin line. On the one hand, it must honour Garlasco’s right to free expression (which includes pursuing a personal hobby. Though it may be repugnant to some, it is neither criminal nor immoral.). On the other hand HRW must also protect its integrity and reputation among the nations it investigates.

But the truth of the matter is that the attack on Garlasco is entirely political in nature. There is no moral component involved since even his detractors would be hard-pressed to find any ethical breach in his behaviour. If HRW fires Garlasco, then it will be violating its own commitment to human rights (among its employees). If it does not, it will face more of the same opprobrium from its detractors.

Not an easy set of choices, but it seems there is only one right one. One wonders whether HRW will have the courage to stick up for human rights at home as well as abroad.

Richard Silverstein writes Tikun Olam, a liberal Jewish blog dedicated to Israeli-Palestinian peace. He is on the advisory board of Tikkun Magazine, and has written for Ha’aretz and Tikkun Magazine