On August 15, Human Rights Watch issued a statement— still published on their website without comment– saying its researchers “have uncovered evidence that Russian aircraft dropped cluster bombs in populated areas in Georgia.” On that same page is a photo of Georgian men standing around a crater pointing to what is described in the caption as “the remnants of an RBK-250 cluster bomb dropped by Russian aircraft on the village of Rusisi…”
This story about “Russia’s use of cluster bombs in Georgia” got huge play in the western MSM, many of whose leading contributors have come to treat HRW with almost oracular reverence.
On August 21, HRW issued another statement on the same subject, adding that despite Russia’s denials that it had used these weapons, its researchers had “documented additional Russian cluster munitions attacks during the conflict in Georgia.”
It turns out, though that the “research” in question was considerably less than expert or thorough, and that HRW’s much-lauded lead “researcher” on this topic, Marc Garlasco, may have fallen victim– or worse– to a Georgian disinformation campaign.
Bernhard of Moon of Alabama is just one of those who’ve been pointing out that the bomb remnants in the photos published by HRW in those two releases are very different from those of a Russian “RBK-250 cluster bomb”, or its submunitions. Indeed, they’re not items of Russian manufacture at all… but Israeli, as can easily by seen by comparing them with stock weapons-ID photos and charts.
However… At some point in late August, the Georgian government finally confessed to HRW that it had used cluster bombs during the recent conflict– and that these had indeed been of Israeli manufacture. That news was posted on the HRW website yesterday, here.
The latest HRW news release does nothing to retract or raise questions about its earlier “reports” about Russian use of cluster bombs in Georgia. Instead it says this:
In August, Human Rights Watch documented Russia’s use of several types of cluster munitions, both air- and ground-launched, in a number of locations in Georgia’s Gori district, causing 11 civilian deaths and wounding dozens more. Russia continues to deny using cluster munitions.
“Russia has yet to own up to using cluster munitions and the resulting civilian casualties,” said Garlasco.
So Garlasco is still in good favor at HRW’s New York headquarters, in spite of the clearly flawed nature of his earlier “documentation”?? And the two August reports about Russian use of cluster bombs remain in their original positions on the HRW website, with no clarificatory comment attached?
We need to understand what Garlasco’s original “research” or “documentation” on the cluster-bomb remains in Georgia consisted of.
Here’s what the first of the reports on the HRW website said about the research methodology:
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed numerous victims, doctors, and military personnel in Georgia. They examined photos of craters and video footage of the August 12 attack on Gori. Human Rights Watch has also seen a photo of the submunition carrier assembly and nose cone of an RBK-250 bomb in Gori. The Gori video showed more than two dozen simultaneous explosions during the attack, which is characteristic of cluster bombs. Two persons wounded in Gori described multiple simultaneous explosions at the time of the attack. Craters in Gori were also consistent with a cluster strike.
… Photographic evidence on file with Human Rights Watch shows a civilian in Ruisi holding a PTAB submunition without realizing it could explode at the slightest touch…
So the researchers don’t even claim that they’ve actually traveled to see the cluster bomb remnants in situ, and document where they had been found. All they did was rely on “photographic evidence” about them. All talk about photographic “evidence” is quite meaningless unless we have a well identified provenance for these items. Whose word are we being asked to take that these photos were taken “in Gori” or wherever it was listed as? And whose, that these cluster bombs were seen being delivered “by Russian aircraft”?
Garlasco also considerably– perhaps fatally– undermines his own credibility by stating that the cluster bomb remnant in the photo is that of a “cluster bomb dropped by Russian aircraft”, since the remnant in question not only isn’t Russian but also was not dropped by any aircraft, since its fins have the distinctive curving of the ‘pop-put’ fins of an artillery-launched bomb.
Garlasco seems guilty of, at the very least, considerable professional slipshoddiness as a researcher. And how could his superiors at HRW have accepted– and agreed to publish– as “evidence” for his claims, just a few photos whose provenance, timing, and other attributes have not been thoroughly checked and cross-checked? The professional slipshoddiness at HRW goes considerably higher than just Marc Garlasco. And it also extends to those media outlets that just reproduced all his/HRW’s arguments and claims about “Russian” use of cluster bombs– for which we still have no actual evidence, at all– without interrogating and trying to understand the extremely flimsy nature of the “evidence” he was using.
This incident reminds me a lot of the time in January 1991 when Amnesty International got “used” by the Kuwaiti hasbara machine in Washington to give its stamp of approval to Kuwait’s fabricated story about the Iraqis throwing babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital. Then, as now– and as very frequently happens when people are trying to beef up public support for a war venture– the “bloody shirt” of the civilian losses inflicted by the other side is waved to try to persuade people of “our side” to support confrontation, escalation, and war.
Was Marc Garlasco used, or did he connive in the Georgian disinformation? Either way, why is he still apparently regarded by HRW-NY as a credible researcher on these matters?
This matters to me because I still sit on the Middle East advisory committee of HRW. HRW’s work in the Middle East has certainly been the location of a lot of disagreement about priorities and policies, but overall the Middle East division has done some excellent, ground-breaking work. Work that has always– with one notable exception, back in November 2006– been painstakingly researched, documented, and reviewed long before it is released for publication.
What happened to that whole extensive documentation and review process this time round? HRW has some very serious questions of methodology and internal procedures that it now needs to address.
Also, HRW, which is one of many organizations around the world calling for greater accountability by all kinds of public bodies, needs to become much more accountable, itself.
The November 2006 incident occurred when the organization rushed out a statement criticizing– on grounds allegedly derived from international humanitarian law– an action of mass nonviolence undertaken by Palestinian organizations in Gaza. I was one of those who prominently and publicly called them out on it, noting that nothing in IHL provided any basis for criticizing the action in question. HRW then took more than three weeks to issue a correction. And when it did so, it did it without fanfare and without even distributing the correction to the whole of the same list that had received the original accusation.
That is not good accountability.
This time around, HRW needs to assemble a high-level team of credible people– not including Marc Garlasco– to investigate the performance of the whole organization regarding these accusations of Russia’s use of cluster bombs, and other aspects of its work during the Russian-Georgian war, and then in a timely manner to issue a public report on what was done well and what was done badly during this work. This report should also contain concrete recommendations regarding methodology and internal procedures, to ensure that slipshod and potentially inflammatory work like that done by Marc Garlasco does not appear in the organization’s name again.
I quite understand that, being a privately-funded organization, HRW has a lot of motivation to have “something to contribute” to the public discussion on the latest issues of the day. They probably think this is necessary in order to keep their funding flowing in. (And it also lets HRW’s leaders appear to be “big players” on the international scene.) But there can be no substitute for careful, painstaking, and thoroughly well documented research. Human rights work should never seek to be “flashy”, and should absolutely never allow itself to become politicized.
Wake up, Ken Roth and the rest of the HRW leadership. This issue is most likely your “Kuwaiti incubator story,” and you need to deal with it effectively, honestly, and well.
And yes, if you invite me to sit on your “Georgia incident special investigation team”, I would be happy to do so.