To George Monbiot re. HRW’s report about Ghouta

By Joe Emersberger (Z Space)

Dear George Monbiot

I see from your Twitter account that you consider HRW’s recent report on the alleged Chemical Weapons attacks in Syria to be strong evidence of the Assad government’s guilt.

Did you know that HRW has endorsed the US bombing of Syria? Ken Roth, the group’s executive director, not only called for bombing but worried that it would only be “symbolic”. Ken Roth then lied in an interview on Russia Today that HRW did not take a position on the US bombing Syria.

HRW also has a revolving door with the US State Department. Tom Malinowski, former ‘Washington Director for Human Rights Watch’, has just been named the Obama Administration’s “Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights”. Before joining HRW, Malinowski had been a ‘special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director for foreign policy speechwriting at the National Security Council’.

None of these facts would be relevant if HRW’s report had relied on sources that readers could easily check. That isn’t the case.  Human rights report cannot generally have the transparency of scholarly work where sources that can be checked are explicitly identified, interviews recorded and so on. Hence the political bias and integrity of the human rights group are often very relevant concerns.

For example, below from the report where it talks about “Identification of the Weapons Used in the Attacks”:

“Human Rights Watch analyzed publicly posted YouTube videos from the attacked areas as well as higher-resolution images of weapon remnants provided by a local activist in Eastern Ghouta, and identified and analyzed two separate surface-to-surface rocket systems that are believed to be associated with the delivery of chemical agents.

By directly contacting the activists who videotaped and uploaded the videos of the attack available on YouTube, Human Rights Watch has been able to verify the reliability of the videos, and confirmed that they were filmed in the affected area.”

HRW’s core evidence in its report requires that readers trust HRW to have kept their political bias out of how they selected sources (the “activists”) and to have honestly conveyed what they said.

HRW does provide at least one source in their report than can be checked by readers. Quite damningly, HRW’s use of this source does not check out. HRW conveyed MSF’s statements on the attacks as follows:

“According to Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 3,600 persons were treated for symptoms consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents at three hospitals it supports in the area in the first three hours following the attacks.”

The source is an August 24 press release by MSF.  As HRW must have known, MSF put out a disclaimer about that press release on September 2. MSF made three very important points

“MSF does not have the capacity to identify the cause of the neurotoxic symptoms of patients reported by three clinics supplied by MSF in Damascus governorate.
MSF was not and is not directly present at these clinics.
MSF does not possess the capacity or ability to determine or assign responsibility for the event that caused these reported symptoms to occur.”

HRW made no mention of MSF’s disclaimer. Readers who did not already know otherwise, would conclude from HRW’s report that MSF personnel had treated 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms.

In spite of everything I’ve pointed out, it is quite possible that HRW and the US government are correct in what they claim about the attacks. That possibility doesn’t justify uncritically offering up HRW’s report as strong evidence.

Joe Emersberger was born in 1966 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada where he currently lives and works. He is an engineer and a  member of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union.

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