- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

By the numbers, the two worst human-rights crises in 2004 were genocide in Darfur and the ongoing nightmare of North Korea. In the war in Darfur, tens of thousands were slaughtered and 1.6 million were displaced. In North Korea, hundreds of thousands languish in gulags. No one really knows how many because the government is so repressive. Millions are reported to have died in famines in the 1990s, but again, no one really knows for sure.

Given those facts, human-rights watchdogs should highlight those cases above others. But Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, instead says, “Among the myriad human rights challenges of 2004, two pose fundamental threats to human rights: the ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib.” Why elevate Abu Ghraib above North Korea? Unlike Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch determines its focus not just by the numbers of victims, but also on “access to the country and the availability of information about it,” and by “the susceptibility of abusive forces to influence.” It also cites the “importance of addressing thematic concerns” as a fourth criterion.

In other words, it takes the low-hanging fruit, the dominant media issue or whatever is sexy at the time. With all the media attention on Abu Ghraib, what could be sexier than abuses by U.S. forces? Buried on page 309 of the 527-page report is a summary of North Korea’s human rights situation. North Korea has “abysmal human rights conditions” and “routinely and egregiously violates nearly all international human rights standards,” the report concludes. The headlines don’t proclaim it every day, however, so Mr. Roth opts to highlight the issue they do.

We don’t mean to pick on Mr. Roth; Human Rights Watch does much to document abuses worldwide. But it’s no wonder the group has developed a reputation as the irresponsible lefty among major human-rights groups, one that condemns Western governments in a seeming quest for media notoriety.

A capacity for vigorous self-criticism is a virtue of open societies like that in the United States. It shows the political culture is healthy and capable of identifying law-breakers and bringing them to justice. That’s how the Abu Ghraib abuses first came to light, and it’s why Army Spc. Charles Graner Jr. was sentenced to 10 years in prison over the weekend for physically and sexually mistreating Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Human-rights advocates are a part of that self-critical process. But they shouldn’t let themselves be wagged by the media as they take part. If they pass over cases like North Korea just because they’re difficult, then they’re being wagged.

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