Reflecting on Human Rights: A Discussion with Kenneth Roth

Reflecting on Human Rights: A Discussion with Kenneth Roth

. 9 min read

Kenneth Roth served as the executive director of Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading international human rights organizations, from 1993 to 2022. Before joining Human Rights Watch in 1987, Roth served as a federal prosecutor in New York and for the Iran-Contra in Washington. Roth, a Brown University and Yale Law School graduate, is currently writing a book on the methodology of human rights and will join the faculty of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs for the 2023-2024 academic year.

As the executive director of Human Rights Watch, you turned the organization from a 60 person operation to one with a $100 million budget and a staff of 552, working in over 100 different countries around the globe. What was your recipe for success in advancing the human rights cause?

That's a complicated question. In terms of attracting the donors and the staff to gradually build the organization, the key was really emphasizing impact.

In other words, lots of people are for human rights, but many people have no idea how to advance human rights. And I found that both as a matter of guiding staff but also as a matter of attracting donors, it was important to spell out the strategies that we pursued and to give examples of how we were able to achieve them. People are drawn to the human rights cause to make a difference, and if I could show them that by banding together, we could make a difference, that was the key to success.

The Biden administration has been making strides to shift America's approach to the War on Terror: they withdrew from Afghanistan, and they are trying to restrict the use of drone strikes outside of war zones. Do you think this is the beginning of the United States putting lawlessness and military intervention with regard to the War on Terror in the rearview?

Well, I mean, that's an optimistic view. I hope that's true. There's a lot that needs to be done.

I think if Biden does pull back on that, that will be a big step. The other big legacy of the so-called Global War on Terror is Guantanamo and torture. Obama famously, with respect to the torture, stopped it himself but said that he would look forward not back, and refused to prosecute the Bush torturers. So as a result, torture effectively remained a policy option that Trump even toyed with rhetorically. I don't see that changing under Biden: it doesn't seem to be where he's going. But he does seem to be actively trying to reduce the Guantanamo prison population.

There are a couple of issues that he still hasn't made himself clear on. He's still proceeding with the so-called military commissions, as a way to try the 9/11 suspects, and these have been utterly discredited. These were a justice system made up out of scratch, mainly designed to avoid evidence of torture from going public. And they've been an utter disaster. If the suspects have been brought to federal court, in lower Manhattan, they would have long ago received a fair trial, and we would have justice served. There's no end in sight for military commissions in Guantanamo.

The Bush administration thought it was tough to not give these people a regular trial, to give them a military trial. But it [turned] out to be an utter disaster; the families of the 9/11 victims are probably never going to see justice done. So, I would like to see Biden commit himself to either prosecute people in regular federal court or release people because the Global War on Terror is long gone. And the right thing to do would be, as quickly as possible, to shut the facility down, either convict people in fair trials or let them out.

Going back to the point you raised, you said President Obama wanted to “look forward, not back,” Do you hope that eventually, someone in a different presidency decides to look back and hold people in the Bush administration accountable?

I would hope so. I hope that the Bush torture ultimately is prosecuted. There's no statute of limitation. My fear is that, right now, even though there is a criminal prohibition of torture, it's an unenforced prohibition when it comes to the senior levels of government. And that is a dangerous precedent because it means that some future president is more likely to exercise the torture option, seeing that Bush got away with it.

Now shifting topics, many media outlets are stating that “autocrats are winning,” from Putin's resilience to Western sanctions to the economic rise of China. So, is the Western world allowing for this change of tide, especially with President Biden's fist bump encounter with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last summer?

Well, why don't I begin with the fist bump, because I think that was a complete mistake. You know, Biden had it right, during the campaign, when he referred to the Saudi Crown Prince as a pariah, given the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, given his repeated bombing of Yemeni civilians, given his utter intolerance of dissent within the kingdom. And for Biden to fly all the way to Riyadh, just to beg the Crown Prince to pump a little bit more oil, in order to slightly curb inflation before the midterm election, showed that there was very little commitment to the human rights principles that he says guide his foreign policy. I think this was a real low moment for the Biden administration.

I kind of agree with the premise of your question. But on the broader question, I realized that the common wisdom these days is that autocracy is ascending, democracy is in decline. I actually think that that's wrong.

And I would begin with the example you gave, that it used to be that autocrats would say: “Oh, you know, we deliver better. This is just a better system of government, democracies are too messy, and too divisive, and too slow. You need a good, strong man to get things done.”

We've now seen very vividly what happens when you have a strongman who surrounds himself with sycophants, suppresses dissent, and makes decisions in a vacuum of debate. You get Putin, in his COVID-induced isolation, deciding that history requires the invasion of Ukraine, a disastrous decision for Russia, as well as for Ukraine. You get Xi Jinping, deciding to insist on zero-COVID lockdowns and facing mass protests. Then, suddenly, with zero preparation, [he] lifts all precautions for COVID. So, [he] doesn't invest in vaccinating older people, or building intensive care units, or even allowing the import of the most effective mRNA vaccines. He just lifts all the barriers, and The Economist estimates that 1.5 million people died.

This illustrates what goes wrong when you have an autocrat making decisions in an information space without free debate. Now, the people of the world have caught on. We've seen outpourings of public protests against autocracy [and] for democracy in a range of countries around the world. I just think in the last few years, we've had Hong Kong, Myanmar, Russia, Belarus, Sri Lanka, Iran, Uganda, Nicaragua, Cuba, Sudan. It's been pretty widespread, virtually every region of the world. What this says is that people are not fooled anymore: they recognize that they want a government that is accountable to them, not a government that serves the autocrat's self-interest.

When you add this all up, it is a very hostile environment out there to be a foreign autocrat. They may be able to cling on for the time being through shared repression, but it's not a long-term strategy because they've lost the support of other people. I think at this stage, it's actually autocracy that is in decline: we've seen what [it] means and people don't want it.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Biden bump fists as they begin meetings in Jeddah. Saudi Press Agency via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

So are we seeing through a mirage and coming towards democracy around the world?

I should say that it's not as if democracy [is] without its problems –we are seeing autocratic politicians emerge in various democracies. I mean, Marine Le Pen today is probably the greatest threat ultimately to take over the French presidency. At the same time, Trump lost in the United States, Bolsonaro lost in Brazil, Erdoğan is facing an uphill battle in Turkey. So, there is a battle within democracies as well, which is a bit ironic, because the people who were genuinely [for] full-fledged autocratic rule don't want it. But there clearly are people who are left behind by Western democracies, who are giving up on the system. That is a challenge to democracies. I think democracies have to do a better job of answering to everybody and not allowing significant segments of the population to feel unserved by the government, therefore [becoming] more willing to overthrow the entire system and follow some autocrat. So, there is a humbling autocratic threat. But I think if you take a global perspective, when autocrats are really in power, people are quite unhappy with their role.

I want to shift back to you personally in your work. You are sanctioned by China and Russia, denied entry by Egypt, barred from entering Hong Kong at the airport, and perhaps, not looked at kindly by many world leaders. How have you managed to persist in your work despite the repercussions?

None of these repercussions exactly changed my life. It's not like I had a huge portfolio in China or Russia that was suddenly devastated. It really didn't make any difference whatsoever. I'm perfectly willing to bear these kinds of token costs, to keep doing what I'm doing. And, I actually take heart from this, because if what Human Rights Watch was doing didn't matter, governments wouldn't bother to lash out at us. But, when we get to speak the truth about their repression, when the world listens, when it generates pressure for them to change, they lash out at the messenger, and I'm happy to play that role.

It's often said that people tend to be their own harshest critics. As someone that has been a part of countless decisions, written numerous articles, and has nearly one-hundred thousand tweets on Twitter, what is something that you tend to look back on and wish you had said or done differently?

As I look back over the years, there were certain false starts, one that I think of is the Responsibility to Protect. The concept was that there were certain mass atrocities that were so severe that they warranted military intervention. And Human Rights Watch did call for military intervention in a handful of situations in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia. I think those were all warranted. What we learned over time is that it's too easy for military intervention to take on more than a humanitarian agenda, that it often becomes regime change, as we saw in Libya. [Military intervention] is not a reliable tool because it so readily can yield chaos. While repression is horrible, chaos is often worse. So I think that we were chastened over time and have sort of ceased to use a military convention as a tool.

Now, you have been involved with the human rights cause for the vast majority of your professional life. You are even dubbed as the “Godfather of Human Rights.” Now you are departed from Human Rights Watch. So I think a lot of people are wondering, what's next for Ken Roth?

What's immediate is that I'm writing a book. I've given myself one year to write a book. The subject of the book is really the methodology of Human Rights Watch, explaining how we generate pressure on governments to force them to change. I'm going to illustrate that with a series of country cases that I've been involved in over the years. I've got most of [the] first draft done. I'm about to sort of disappear for a month and intensively try to revise and emerge from it with a decent draft that I can hand to an editor. But that's my big project right now.

But as I said to the staff when I left Human Rights Watch, I believe in the organization. I mean, at some point, you have to move on, but I'm not leaving the cause. I intend to stay very much involved, and indeed I stayed involved this year – it slowed down the book writing. I've been pretty actively involved with media appearances and writing in the like, and I plan to continue that.

As of September, I'm actually going to become a professor and teach human rights more formally. That's my immediate plan. I'm just going to kind of continue to find ways to be active. I'm fortunate that I now have a certain position within the field, where I have a voice even without the organization, and I plan to continue to use that voice.

Mete spoke to Roth on February 28, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.