An Interview with Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch

by Forum Staff

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading international human rights organizations, which operates in more than ninety countries. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch in 1987, Roth served as a federal prosecutor in New York and for the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington. A graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University, Roth has conducted numerous human rights investigations and missions around the world. You can follow him on Twitter @KenRoth.

In an interview with The Fletcher Forum, Mr. Roth discusses a potential way forward in Syria, the devastating situation in the Central African Republic, the crisis in Ukraine, and a host of other pressing international issues—from Venezuela to Burma. He also touches on the promotion of human rights in China, the role of international tribunals in prosecuting war crimes, and U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and Cuba.

FLETCHER FORUM: As Executive Director of Human Rights Watch since 1993, you’ve no doubt been witness to a multitude of global conflicts, crises, and challenges. And yet it seems that there is an almost unprecedented amount of crises around the world in 2014—from Syria to the Central African Republic to Ukraine. From your perspective, are today’s conflicts and crises fundamentally different or more intractable than those of the past twenty years? Has Human Rights Watch had to adjust the way it carries out its work to reflect these new realities?

ROTH: This is a tumultuous moment, but I wouldn’t say the problems we confront are radically different from those we have seen in the past. However, the world confronting those problems is different. In addition to investigating and reporting on rights abuses in some ninety countries, Human Rights Watch works in key capitals to generate pressure on abusive governments to curb their human rights violations. At the height of the Cold War, much of that work was directed toward enlisting the influence of the United States. For the past two decades, we have built the capacity to do the same thing in the European Union, as we have opened advocacy offices in Brussels as well as the key European capitals of Berlin, London, and Paris.  We have also built up our capacity at the United Nations in New York and Geneva.

However, as non-Western nations have gained in relative influence, we have established a series of advocacy centers in such places as Brazil, India, Japan, and South Africa. Many of these countries do not have a history of promoting human rights in their foreign policies, but at home they are now thriving democracies. By working with local civil society and encouraging the national media to focus on their government’s foreign policy, we are working to bring that foreign policy more in line with the values informing their domestic policy. Our aim is to increase our capacity to exert influence on abusive governments from an ever-wider range of powerful international actors.

FLETCHER FORUM: The ongoing crisis in Syria is perhaps the most acute crisis we face as a global community, and yet the response has been extraordinarily disappointing. In your view, what is the way forward in Syria? Should the international community have intervened under R2P? What is the role of Human Rights Watch in encouraging a path to resolution?

ROTH: There is no question that the level of killing and atrocities in Syria trigger the responsibility to protect, but saying that does not necessarily mean that military intervention is called for. Under the R2P doctrine, military intervention should occur, among other criteria, only if it is reasonably likely to do more good than harm, and on that question there has been considerable difference of opinion. That said, there is plenty that the international community can do to curtail the suffering of the Syrian people. For far too long, for example, the U.S. government was focused almost exclusively on the Geneva II peace process, even though there was little prospect of success.  However, that meant treating Russia as a “partner in peace” rather than an accomplice in mass murder. I outlined the problem here.

The disappointing lack of progress with Geneva II, coupled with Russia’s behavior in Ukraine, has changed that dynamic. One result is that the U.S. government (belatedly) agreed to the strategy devised by Human Rights Watch and a few of our partners to force Russia to vote on a UN Security Council resolution on Syria during the Sochi Olympics, when Putin was eager to project a positive image. The strategy worked: for the first time other than the Security Council resolution ratifying the chemical weapon deal, Russia allowed a resolution on Syria to be adopted. It orders the release of political prisoners, an end to the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas, and an opening of borders and lifting of sieges for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The task now is to enforce that resolution. As we saw with the chemical deal, Russia has enormous influence over Syria. If it does not use that influence constructively, the United States and the EU should be prepared to apply targeted sanctions, much as they are doing with respect to Russian conduct in Ukraine. In addition, the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, should not be allowed to get away with his “reformist” image simply because he is willing to negotiate a nuclear deal if at the same time he is underwriting mass slaughter in Syria.

FLETCHER FORUM: One of the most dangerous human rights situations in the world is in the Central African Republic, where we’ve heard reports over the last year of widespread violence and killings. How has Human Rights Watch worked to raise the profile of this issue, and what role are they playing to prevent further conflict?

ROTH: When large-scale killing broke out in the Central African Republic upon the Seleka’s ouster of President François Bozizé, few people even knew where the country is located. Our first task was to put it on the map—to alert people to the mass slaughter that had commenced. We immediately deployed a team of researchers and began publishing bulletins on the killing. We also launched an extensive social media campaign, sending out live Twitter updates about developments on the ground. In addition, we hired one of the world’s top photographers, Marcus Bleasdale, to accompany us and to take pictures of the crisis, and we published strategically placed articles and op-eds (accompanied by Bleasdale’s compelling photographs) in such leading media outlets as The New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Le Monde, andJeune Afrique. These efforts sparked international interest in the crisis, with many journalists, diplomats, and humanitarians relying on our reports from the ground. At the same time, we engaged in advocacy with the African Union to bolster its peacekeeping presence in the country and encouraged the French to deploy a peacekeeping force. Both took place.

In the meantime, the Seleka have been overthrown, but communal violence continues, this time with forces known as anti-balaka killing Muslims. (The Seleka are mostly Muslim, and many of their victims were in the country’s dominant Christian community.) Our current task is to convince the Security Council to deploy UN peacekeepers, since everyone agrees that the AU and French troops alone, even if supplemented by a modest EU force that has been promised, are not enough to stop the killing. Despite some initial reluctance because of the expense involved, the Security Council seems poised to authorize that deployment.

FLETCHER FORUM: A country also facing violence and unrest but with much less attention in the media is Venezuela. The profound political, social, and economic crisis there has led to massive protests and violence. How can the international community raise the profile of this dire situation and work toward a solution? Is this a priority for Human Rights Watch?

ROTH: It is true that the very troubling situation in Venezuela has been overshadowed by developments elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Ukraine. The government of Nicolás Maduro has responded to largely peaceful protests with tactics typical of an authoritarian regime: shooting and beating protesters, censoring the media, and jailing an opposition leader. While a few demonstrators have engaged in acts of violence and should be held accountable, these acts do not justify the abuses being committed by the government. The international community could play an important role by condemning these abuses. Unfortunately, most leaders in Latin America have so far been reluctant to do so, and some have even expressed unconditional support for the Maduro government. Human Rights Watch is working hard to document the abuses with the hope that, by drawing more attention to what is taking place, we can help encourage the international community to adopt a more constructive approach.

FLETCHER FORUM: Since the Nuremberg Trials, international criminal tribunals have become the preferred response in the wake of extreme violence. Yet we’ve witnessed what some call “tribunal fatigue” as the ICTY and ICTR have come to a close and as a growing number of countries in the African Union advocated withdrawal from the International Criminal Court. In your view, do international criminal courts and tribunals still have a vital role to play in prosecuting massive human rights abuses? Are they the best approach to prosecute such crimes and provide closure to victims?

ROTH: The best approach to prosecuting mass atrocities is in the courts of the country where those atrocities took place. That is the preference enshrined in the statute establishing the International Criminal Court under the principle of “complementarity.” However, due to intimidation or lack of political will, national courts and prosecutors are often incapable of carrying out these prosecutions. In those circumstances, the choice is between an international prosecution and impunity. I strongly favor prosecution as a way of punishing the perpetrators of heinous crimes, paying a modicum of respect to their victims, and trying to deter others from embarking on a path of mass murder.

As for the International Criminal Court and Africa, I would recommend a recent article I wrote on the topic. Suffice it to say that while a number of African leaders who face or fear charges for their complicity in mass atrocities oppose the ICC—Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame—their efforts to save their skins should not be equated with the many African victims whose plight would be ignored were the ICC not involved.

FLETCHER FORUM: You mentioned in your talk at the Fletcher School that a way to influence human rights issues in China is to mobilize Chinese public opinion, often using online social networking tools to fuel discussion. What are the challenges to translating public sentiment to policy changes in China? Do you believe that China’s growing middle class and increasingly open economy will put pressure on the NPC to improve its human rights record?

ROTH: For well over twenty years, Western governments, worried that their criticisms of China’s repression would undermine their businesses’ access to the Chinese market, have propagated the theory that such criticism is of diminishing importance because a growing Chinese middle class can demand its rights. As China’s economy has boomed while its repression has, if anything, accelerated in recent years, it is quite clear that this convenient theory is unfounded. Pressure must be part of any serious strategy for improving China’s oppressive rights record.

Despite the equally convenient view that China is impervious to external pressure, that also is not true. For example, China’s recent abolition of re-education through labor—a system under which the police detained tens of thousands of people at a time for up to four years without ever bringing them before a judge—was explained in part by international criticism. Similarly, China backed off its proposed Green Dam censorship software because international businesses objected. International opinion also seems to be playing a part in reducing the role of the Communist Party in criminal cases (or, for that matter, in shaping China’s foreign human rights policy).

However, the most powerful constituency for change is undoubtedly domestic, and the voice of ordinary Chinese people has been greatly amplified by the emergence of social media. Despite the government’s efforts to control the conversation—and it is trying, with an intense crackdown on internet activists and others aligned with them—it is not easy to censor 400 million users, and there have been repeated cases in which the authorities have had to respond to public opinion as expressed on social media.

Any serious international effort to promote human rights in China must take this new power of public opinion into account. One illustration of the lack of seriousness of the private, backroom human rights “dialogues” that many Western governments engage in with China is that they make little effort to speak to the Chinese public. Rather than emboldening domestic efforts for change, these quiet dialogues serve little purpose other than to enable Western leaders to pretend that their governments are addressing rights in China while avoiding the need to take up the issue themselves in a public way that might help to make a difference.

FLETCHER FORUM: Many nations with poor human rights records are developing nations or those in the middle of crisis or conflict, but the United States is also not immune to issues of human rights. The condition of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and civilian deaths due to drone strikes in the Middle East and Pakistan, for example, are two issues that Human Rights Watch is currently addressing. Do you use different strategies to approach and influence the United States than you would other nations? What leverage points does Human Rights use to improve U.S. domestic and foreign policy, especially when many actions are framed as national security imperatives?

ROTH: Human Rights Watch uses the same international standards to assess the United States as every other country and many of the same enforcement tools, particularly those of public shaming and diplomatic pressure. However, the U.S. government is among our most sophisticated adversaries in that it deploys teams of lawyers to try to explain why its actions are legally justified, even if their arguments are often strained. For example, despite a speech by President Obama in May 2013 suggesting that the global war on terrorism was coming to an end, the U.S. government has still not been willing to publicly embrace that fact to limit the rules governing its drone attacks. Al Qaeda certainly still poses a terrorist threat, but in places like Yemen, there is nothing like the regularity of hostilities that would justify calling the defense against Al Qaeda a war, as I explained here. As a result, drone attacks there should be governed not by the relatively permissive laws of war but by the more restrictive laws on police operations, which permit the use of lethal force only as a last resort to meet an imminent lethal threat, as I explained here.

By the same token, the war rationale used by the U.S. government to justify long-term detention without trial at Guantanamo is wearing thin. And the insistence on using military commissions to try the key 9/11 suspects, despite their painfully slow and deeply problematic process, rather than the proven regular civilian courts, shows ideology trumping pragmatism. Moreover, some positions of the U.S. government, such as Obama’s refusal to prosecute the Bush torturers, as international and domestic law require, and his CIA’s blocking of the Senate report on the matter, can be explained only by some combination of political expediency and cowardice.

FLETCHER FORUM: Burma is going through transition from a closed military dictatorship to a democracy. However, the power the military holds over the civilian government and in the constitution continues to be a concern. Considering that Burma is just beginning to open itself up to the international community, how does Human Rights Watch encourage the new government to include principles of religious freedom and civil rights?

ROTH: Burma represents an example of sanctions working. As the military watched its ASEAN neighbors flourish while Burma’s economy stagnated—and increasingly was dominated by China, with considerable resentment among the Burmese public—the military realized that it would have to allow a degree of political opening for the sanctions to be lifted. Today, the unanswered question is how much of an opening that will be.

I was recently in Burma and met with various officials from the president on down, and I was left with the impression of a government that is quite split on that question. Political prisoners have been released but the laws used to imprison them are still on the books, so new prisoners are taking their place. Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to run for parliament but there is little movement on amending the constitutional provision barring her from running for president—or the other constitutional provisions that guarantee military power. The government says it opposes the Buddhist extremists who have been attacking Muslims and particularly the Rohingya, but it also is pursuing discriminatory legislation on religion that would enshrine some of their agenda, and has done little to address the incitement and violence against Burma’s Muslim minority.

Both the Western powers and ASEAN have important roles to play in trying to encourage the remarkable reforms that have taken place in Burma over the past three years while generating pressure to avoid back-sliding or new abuses. Merely investing in Burma without this active political role will not help promote reform any more than it has in China.

FLETCHER FORUM: LGBT rights in the United States have expanded greatly in the past twenty years, most recently with the Supreme Court striking down key parts of DOMA, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and the dismissal of California’s Proposition 8. Does Human Rights Watch see an overall positive trajectory worldwide for LGBT rights? What are the obstacles we still face that are preventing some societies from moving towards equality?

ROTH: There is no question that the cause of LGBT rights has made enormous progress in recent years, as illustrated by the developments in the United States that you describe. However, there has also been a backlash against LGBT rights in such places as Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria. Part of the reason for the backlash is that gays have been emboldened to be more visible and more active in defending their rights, which often advances those rights but sometimes provokes a reaction. Part of the reason, though, is convenient exploitation on the part of governments that are eager to bolster their standing in conservative quarters.

For example, Russia’s Vladimr Putin responded to the large demonstrations against his resumption of the presidency by strengthening his appeal to more conservative elements of society; that can be seen not only in the new law he promoted against homosexual “propaganda” but also in his prosecution of the Pussy Riot and Greenpeace activists and even in his conduct in Ukraine. Similarly, Nigeria’s anti-gay law can be seen in part as an effort to undercut the appeal of the anti-Western Boko Haram militants and in part to bolster Goodluck Jonathan’s controversial quest for another term as president. Uganda’s anti-gay law can be seen as an effort by President Yoweri Museveni to bolster his standing amid economic stagnation and charges of official corruption.

FLETCHER FORUM: We have been watching the situation in Ukraine very closely these past couple of weeks. You mentioned during your talk at the Fletcher School that Human Rights Watch had not received reports of human rights abuses against ethnic Russians in Ukraine (abuses being a reason Russia has cited for sending armed forces into Crimea). Do you believe there is a real risk to ethnic Russians in Ukraine as this conflict continues? In your opinion, would that justify Russia’s actions?

ROTH: I have seen no evidence of abuses against Russian speakers in Ukraine that come anywhere close to justifying a military intervention to “save” them. The new Ukrainian parliament was wrong to quickly derecognize Russian as an official language in certain regions—a bill that in any event the interim president vetoed—but there have been no reported cases of violence or abuse against Russian speakers based on their ethnicity. (There have, however, been violent clashes between pro-and anti-Russian protesters and activists in Kharkov and Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. There were also reports of abuse of pro-Yanukovich activists by pro-Maidan activists in Kiev.)

Human Rights Watch is eager to see the deployment throughout Ukraine of human rights monitors from the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that if such violations happen, they are documented and addressed. It would also help to clarify the truth behind the wild accusations that Russian officials and the state media have been making to try to justify intervention in Ukraine. Ironically, if any Russian speakers are in jeopardy today, it is the ones braving Putin’s repression in Moscow and other Russian cities to protest against his conduct in Ukraine.

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