Watching Human Rights Watch

"Nazi scandal engulfs Human Rights Watch." Not a headline you would expect to ever see. But there it was in The Sunday Times of London. And all I could think was: Not again. No, not again. This headline poorly described a broad feature about Human Rights Watch by focusing on a scandal that broke in September, when Marc Garlasco was forced out after his fanfare for Nazi memorabilia was revealed -- an incident that followed questions and online coverage last year of fundraising in that citadel of human rights defense, Saudi Arabia, and of the organization's Israel problem

Kind of makes you wonder who's watching Human Rights Watch. (I bet you didn't expect to see that line in this post.)

You typically only hear about the New York-based organization when a reporter needs a quote on Darfur or the treatment of women in places like Saudi Arabia or oppression of dissidents in industrializing nations. But The Times traveled across the pond Sunday for a lengthy profile of HRW that, before moving onto other trouble's at HRW and concerns over its criticism of Israel, opens with Garlasco:

By day, Marc Garlasco was HRW's only military expert, the person that its Emergencies Division would send to conflict zones to investigate alleged war crimes. He wrote reports condemning the dropping of cluster bombs in the Russia-Georgia war, the alleged illegal use of white phosphorus by the Israeli army in Gaza and coalition tactics that he said "unnecessarily" put Iraqi or Afghan civilians at risk. An enthusiastic source of quotes for the media, he was incessantly on the phone to journalists.

But by night, Garlasco was "Flak88", an obsessive contributor to internet forums on Third Reich memorabilia and an avid collector of badges and medals emblazoned with swastikas and eagles.

A lavishly illustrated $100 book he compiled and self-published is dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the Luftwaffe. On members-only sites such as he was writing comments like "VERY nice Hitler signature selection"; "That is so cool! The leather SS jacket makes my blood go cold it is so COOL!"

An interest in Nazi memorabilia does not necessarily suggest Nazi sympathies -- but it is hardly likely to play well in the salons where Garlasco's employer might solicit donations.

No kidding.

I've seen no other coverage of this story recently. Garlasco was, after all, forced out months ago. But the politics blogger and DC correspondent for the Jewish AP -- AKA the JTA -- reviewed the efforts of Times reporter Jonathan Foreman. The most surprising line, especially from a journalist whom I really admire, was this:

Sometimes gut-level reactions get the better of us (myself included): Garlasco's hobby was weird, icky, off putting -- but did it say anything, really, about his professionalism?

Actually, I would argue it does. But I would also argue that whether a Nazi hang-up really says anything about Garlasco's "professionalism" is moot.

Who cares if he has a firm handshake and is great at doing the work HRW hired him for? Carrying the banner for a human rights organization isn't just about efficiency but also appearances -- the appearance that you are willing to fight to good fight for human rights. How then could any Jews reconcile someone's hobby of collecting Nazi mementos with his desire to see a mutually beneficial resolution to conflict in Gaza?

PHOTO: Via Flickr

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