Is Israel singled out for its human rights violations?

Rochelle Terman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research examines the consequences of global human rights shaming campaigns, especially around women’s rights in the Muslim World and she is a member of WLUML’s Advisory Council.

With the crisis in the Mideast escalating, I keep hearing the argument that Israel is being “singled out” for its human rights violations. Some people assert that human rights activists and the international community are disproportionately – and unjustifiably – focusing their attention on the Jewish state. They are “ignoring” human rights violations elsewhere — Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Chad, wherever — in order to unfairly vilify Israel. This bias, the argument usually goes, is motivated by anti-Semitism.

I’m particularly familiar with this argument because it is often hailed against me and my “bias” towards working on women’s rights in Muslim majority countries. Because there are (equally) bad things happening to women elsewhere, I am automatically Islamophobic if I choose to care especially about bad things happening to women in Muslim contexts. Of course, this trope — but more people die of car accidents! — can be used to discredit pretty much anything.

But even though I have bad experiences with the logic, I’ll do my best to take it seriously as an academic and be as dispassionate as I can. In that spirit, one can evaluate this argument on both its theoretical and empirical grounds. Theoretically, one may ask whether poor motivations automatically entail illegitimate claims. That is, even if we assume two very dubious conclusions for the sake of argument — that Israel is being “singled out”, and those wishing to vilify Israel are anti-Semitic — does it follow that Israel’s human rights violations are unworthy of scrutiny?

Right now, the most interesting question on my mind is the empirical one: Is Israel being singled out? Those who say that Israel is “singled out” usually point to three fora that disproportionately vilify Israel: the UN, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, and mainstream media coverage.

Luckily, I’m currently working with data on two of those sources, specifically Amnesty International urgent actions, and media coverage on human rights violations from New York Times from 1985-2007

So is Israel singled out for its human rights violations? Let’s look at the rankings.

Amnesty International Urgent Actions, 1985-2007

I got data from all of Amnesty International’s publicly available urgent actions, which are reports and call-to-actions concerning a specific human rights violation. Urgent Actions are tagged by country. So let’s see how Israel ranks in terms of Amnesty International’s criticism:

Top 20 Countries Criticized:

  1. USA: 1674
  2. Turkey: 1302
  3. Colombia: 1136
  4. Guatemala: 603
  5. Iran: 598
  6. Indonesia: 523
  7. Peru: 514
  8. Mexico: 509
  9. China: 472
  10. Sudan: 445
  11. South Africa: 444
  12. Nepal: 415
  13. Tunisia: 334
  14. Haiti: 307
  15. India: 297
  16. Syria: 292
  17. Israel/Occupied Territories: 280
  18. Egypt: 279
  19. Brazil: 272
  20. El Salvador: 264

New York Times Coverage on Human Rights Violations, 1985-2007

Now the New York Times. I got data from LexisNexis of all articles with the term “human rights” and that were classified as having something to do about “human rights violations” (a subject keyword.) I then attempted to classify each article by country using natural language processing procedures.***

  1. Iraq: 393
  2. China: 349
  3. Serbia: 311
  4. Bosnia: 285
  5. Sudan: 226
  6. Rwanda: 159
  7. Chile: 149
  8. Guatemala: 111
  9. El Salvador: 106
  10. Russia: 106
  11. Colombia: 99
  12. France: 99
  13. Turkey: 92
  14. Mexico: 89
  15. Afghanistan: 88
  16. Indonesia: 86
  17. Argentina: 82
  18. Cambodia: 81
  19. Haiti: 81
  20. Israel: 81

*** This list doesn’t include the United States due to validity problems – email me for more info if you want to know.


I have no conclusions. Not yet anyway. This is just a first glimpse. Later I’ll try to run some regressions to see if Israel is singled out while controlling for other factors such as GDP, population, “freedom” score, democracy, etc. But from what I can tell looking at these descriptive statistics, it appears that the “Isreal’s being singled out” argument doesn’t hold much water. There are plenty of other countries that regularly get more criticism for its human rights violations.