Playing Hardball: Kenneth Roth on His Three Decades Leading Human Rights Watch
“It’s not enough to stand for the right things; anybody can do that. Our task is to change governments, to change their behavior, to stop abuses.”
Last week, Ken Roth, who’s led Human Rights Watch for nearly 30 years, announced that he was stepping down. Over the course of his career, Roth, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, has had a profound impact on the organization and the cause he serves. What was once a modest outfit of some 60 people with a budget of $7 million is now a major global operation of 552 staffers operating in more than 100 countries and with a budget of close to $100 million. But Roth’s tenure hasn’t just been about organization-building or fundraising. In the course of his years with Human Rights Watch, he’s met with dozens of heads of state and worked in more than 50 countries. Under his management, the group shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for working to ban landmines; helped the UN establish the war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and then the International Criminal Court; and fought against the use of cluster munitions and child soldiers, among many issues. Along the way, as you’d expect, Roth has made many friends and supporters but also enemies; at various moments, he’s been accused of anti-Semitism (despite being Jewish), been attacked by Republican politicians in the United States, and has been denounced by a long list of autocratic governments, from China to Rwanda. I’ve known Roth for many years and was curious to get his reflections on a career spent fighting for justice, as well as the state of the world today and how it compares to 1993, when he was first named executive director of Human Rights Watch. We spoke about all this and more on Tuesday.
Octavian Report: One of the things that I’ve long thought distinguished you as a human rights advocate is that, unlike some academics or more abstract thinkers, you seem to understand power and how it actually works in the real world. I’ve always assumed that that came from your background as a federal prosecutor, but maybe not. What do you attribute it to?
Roth: I was only a prosecutor for four-and-a-half years, so I don’t think that’s it. Being a prosecutor, and my legal training more broadly, certainly helped me know how to stand up on my feet and argue, how to marshal a case from the facts. But I’d always tried to run Human Rights Watch with an intense focus on impact. It’s not enough to stand for the right things; anybody can do that. Our task is to change governments, to change their behavior, to stop abuses. And that requires playing power politics: figuring out what a particular government cares about and how to deprive them of that until they change.
The first step is always to do an investigation. We are all about deploying facts, and facts are powerful if you can get them into the public domain so that the public exercises its moral judgment. It’s a process of shaming, and figuring out what audience a particular government cares about the most. The job doesn’t just involve undermining the reputation of governments that abuse human rights, important as that is. We also try to deprive governments of other things that they want, whether it’s arms sales, military assistance, economic aid, or just the ability to be invited to a fancy summit and get photographed with respectable leaders. Governments always want something, and if we can condition their ability to get that something on an improvement in their behavior, we can exert serious pressure on them to change. That pragmatism is what I’ve always tried to bring to Human Rights Watch and what I think distinguishes us. We’re not just a bunch of do-gooders who stand for the right thing. We play hardball and try to force governments to change.
OR: Joel Simon, the former head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has said, “We have to credit Human Rights Watch for changing the way journalists and the media as an institution approach the issue of human rights.” What do you think that means?
Roth: There has been a huge evolution in the human rights movement. Our ability to get information in a timely way has changed radically over the years. The human rights movement began in the steamship era, when information would chug across the ocean and get to you weeks or months later, and the only way you could really influence things was by looking at big-picture problems like slavery or securing women’s suffrage and running long-term campaigns. Even when I started at Human Rights Watch—and I’m dating myself here here—an international phone call was extremely expensive, so you tended to correspond with people by snail mail, which, again, took a long time. You would write, “Dear prison official, could you please give me the status of such-and-such prisoner?” and you’d wait for the answer. It was a slow process that limited what you could address.
Today, everyone has a mobile phone, everybody can take videos and pictures, everybody has immediate access to publication through social media. So today we can do real-time reporting, which means that if there’s an atrocity this morning, we can exert pressure so it’s not repeated tomorrow. That has completely transformed the movement. We’re seeing this unfold in Ukraine today, where Human Rights Watch and the many journalists there are engaged in real-time reporting, which has been quite successful in putting pressure on the Kremlin.
OR: Let’s talk a bit more about social media and other new technologies like smartphones. When they were introduced, the dream was they would make the world better, be an unalloyed good. But in fact, we’ve seen that they can cause a tremendous amount of real harm. Do you think social media in particular has been a boon or a problem for human rights?
Roth: Social media is obviously double-edged. It is important as a source of information and an organizing tool, because it enables people to communicate with each other and to get together and protest in a way that would otherwise be much more difficult. Today it’s much harder for abuses to be hidden.
That said, we’re all aware of the downside: just as ordinary people are no longer as dependent on the traditional media to get the word out, more nefarious actors—whether governmental or private—also can now circumvent the editorial function of the traditional media and spread hatred or disinformation. We’ve seen autocrats deploy this kind of propagandistic disinformation campaign very effectively, and I think that the tech companies and the social media platforms are way behind in addressing that. In the United States, they’re investing in trying to better police their platforms. But they are at first base when it comes to most other countries, where they’re not investing in the linguistic and cultural skills needed to play a moderating role on their platforms.
OR: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your tenure at Human Rights Watch?
Roth: They’ve changed a lot. First there was the Cold War, when proxy forces around the world often operated very abusively with the backing of the United States or the Soviet Union. Then we went through the withdrawal of those forces and the emergence of a lot of ethnic violence; that was a major challenge for many years. Then we went through what felt like the halcyon days when people thought that democracy had arrived around the world. But then a growing number of autocrats began to learn how to game democracy, to undermine the checks and balances on executive authority, and to manipulate the electoral system sufficiently to retain power without the rule of law, without the rights that are essential to democracy.
Today we have China, which represents a major ideological challenge to the whole concept of human rights. If President Xi Jinping had his way, human rights would be reduced to a measurement of the growth of gross domestic product. He doesn’t want you asking even about economic and social rights. This is not like the Soviet era, when the Soviets pretended that they were advancing economic and social rights while the West was advancing civil and political rights. Xi Jinping doesn’t even use that rhetoric, because talking about economic and social rights requires looking at how a government is addressing the lives of the worst off-segments of society. And the last thing Xi wants you to ask about is how the Uyghurs are doing, how the Tibetans are doing, even how rural Han Chinese are doing. In order to stop questioning and criticism of his increasingly repressive reign, Xi is using things like the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative to buy off votes at the UN. And he is actively trying to undermine the international human-rights system. So we have a very powerful economic force that is adamantly opposed to the international rights system that has been built up over the last 75 years. That’s the big challenge today.
OR: Today’s China seems to care less about integration with the West, and less about what the rest of the world thinks of it. Has that deprived human-rights advocates of some of the levers you once used?
Roth: Let me challenge the premise of that question. Xi Jinping cares desperately about his international reputation, because if you ask him why is he a legitimate ruler, he can’t point to an election. He can say, “Well, everybody’s happy because they’re getting richer,” but a big part of his legitimacy comes from the fact he’s accepted by the international community—which is why the Chinese government goes to such extraordinary lengths to try to censor criticism around the world, whether it’s by governments or private corporations or others. They have a massive censorship operation reaching into college campuses around the world. They went after the Houston Rockets’ general manager for tweeting support for the Hong Kong protesters. They are ultrasensitive. And we at Human Rights Watch have played on that.
Everybody’s afraid of economic retaliation by China. Everybody knows what happened to Australia, for example, when it had the audacity to seek an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19: Australia faced massive punitive tariffs. So our strategy has been to group governments together to provide safety in numbers, and we’ve been quite successful in doing that. The first time we did it was in parallel to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, when we arranged for 23 governments to band together to issue a joint condemnation of the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. That group has now grown to 44 governments that have issued periodic joint statements, and the Chinese government hates this. Each time, they organize a counter-statement with the thugs and murderers of the world, but that only shows how much the Chinese government cares about this.
I should add that we don’t just use shaming; we also try to apply economic pressure. The U.S. government has adopted a law that presumptively bans all imports from Xinjiang unless the importer can show that the product is not the product of forced labor. That’s a very powerful tool that is going to come into effect in June, and we’re now pushing the European Union to adopt similar legislation.
OR: Do you worry that economic decoupling and the emergence of a new cold war between the United States and other democracies on one hand, and China, Russia, and a few other autocracies on the other will make the fight for human rights more difficult, because the United States will become more interested in whether countries help it in its contest against China and Russia, and less interested in its allies’ human rights records?
Roth: Let me just say as a preface that I think it’s a mistake to lump Russia and China into the same category. Russia really is just a gas station with a military. It has zero soft power; there’s nothing attractive about the Russian system. Putin has no reputation left. China, on the other hand, has global reach and global ideological aspirations. While China may be moving away from the West, moreover, it’s still not divorcing itself from the West—not by any means. It is still tied economically to the West, and it still cares about its reputation. So I would put the two countries in different categories.
But I think your question—namely, as Western powers prioritize countering Russia or China, will they start compromising on human rights the way they did during the Cold War?—is valid and important. We’re already seeing signs of this happening. The Saudi crown prince has said, “You want me to pump more oil? You’ve got to start reselling me offensive weapons so I can bomb Yemeni civilians, and you’ve got to get rid of the lawsuits against me for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.” Fortunately President Joe Biden didn’t buy that deal, and I hope he sticks with his refusal. But the White House is doing things like proposing a summit with ASEAN leaders. Why is Biden inviting leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or President Hun Sen of Cambodia to the White House, shortly after hosting a summit for democracies? These are brutal autocratic leaders who are antithetical to the values the United States was just celebrating. The answer, of course, is that the White House is trying to reinforce the alliance against China. But it compromises the principles that Biden said would guide his foreign policy.
OR: Has U.S. hypocrisy on human rights and international law made your work more difficult?
Roth: Actually, because we couldn’t rely on the U.S. government as a credible promoter of human rights—particularly during the George W. Bush and Donald Trump years—we changed Human Rights Watch so that it is no longer principally a U.S. organization. It’s now genuinely global. What I did more than a decade ago was to start building an advocacy presence outside of Washington, D.C. Today we have a significant advocacy presence in London, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Geneva, São Paulo, Johannesburg, Sydney, Tokyo, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. We now have the capacity to deploy information and to reach media and governments around the world.
And very frequently, the governments we look to foremost to exert pressure on a target government are not the U.S. government. Indeed, during the Trump years, the U.S. government was almost worthless when it came to promoting human rights. Trump was much too busy embracing autocrats. So we had to build an alliance for human rights elsewhere, and we did so very successfully, with many European but also just smaller and medium-sized democracies around the world. We would make a very explicit case to them: “We need you to take a leadership role in this or that country because no one else is doing it.”
Now, obviously, Biden is much better than Trump. He’s rejoined the UN Human Rights Council. He’s re-embraced the Paris Climate Principles. He’s re-embraced the World Health Organization. He’s using pro-democracy rhetoric. He removed Trump’s sanctions on the International Criminal Court. Now the United States is pushing for ICC prosecution of Russian abuses in Ukraine even though Russia is not an ICC member, which represents a big evolution.
But there remain significant inconsistencies in the U.S. government’s support for human rights. Foremost is the Middle East, where Washington continues to back Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, despite his overseeing the worst period of oppression in modern Egyptian history. The United States continues to service the Saudi aircraft that are bombing Yemeni civilians. It continues to refuse to criticize Israeli abuses in the Occupied Territories in any meaningful way.
Of course, the United States is not alone in being inconsistent, and I could make a similar critique of France or Britain or Germany. So the lesson I draw is we cannot depend on one government; we have to push all governments to be more principled in their support for human rights. And we’ve got to be very pragmatic about building coalitions of governments that are able and willing to exert pressure.
OR: Let’s go back to the Trump administration for a second. Do you feel that it did permanent damage to the United States’ standing and effectiveness as an advocate for democracy and for human rights, as well as to U.S. credibility?
Roth: In human rights terms, Trump was worse than Bush, but they were comparable in the sense that here was a president just ripping up human rights standards. Where I think Trump harmed U.S. credibility more is in the security realm, where if you look at Trump’s attitude toward NATO, for example, European governments now say, “How can we rely on the United States? Yes, we’re happy with Biden, but what if Trump or a Trump-like figure comes back?”
OR: The Biden administration came in promising to make human rights and democracy touchstones of its foreign policy. How do you grade its performance so far?
Roth: I think that they have been good with respect to the global human rights institutions, where they really have reengaged. Biden is a genuine multilateralist. But when it comes to bilateral relations, he’s been inconsistent. He’s been strong on China, as he should be. He’s been good on the broad rhetorical level about the importance of democracy. But if you look day-to-day, it’s not clear how different his positions are from the traditional Democratic Party positions. There isn’t a radical difference between what Biden is doing and what President Barack Obama did.
OR: You’ve been attacked by autocratic governments throughout your career, but you’ve also been attacked by democratic ones. And you’ve been accused of anti-Semitism on multiple occasions, despite the fact that you’re a Jew. How have you dealt with those kind of personalized attacks?
Roth: To be attacked by democratic governments makes me proud, because it shows that we are applying the same standards to all governments, which is absolutely essential. With respect to Israel, the charge of antisemitism is almost ridiculous. When they resort to that, I realize that they don’t have a lot else to say, because the idea that I—a Jew whose father fled the Nazis—am antisemitic is laughable. What the accusation really is about is the Israeli government using base name-calling to try to deflect criticism of its various abuses, whether it’s the settlements in the West Bank or the imposition of apartheid over millions of Palestinians. And I feel like I have a responsibility not to submit to this kind of name-calling, because when they’re accused of anti-Semitism, a lot of people hide. So when I hear it, I just continue doing what we do, which is to apply the same factual methodology and the same legal analysis to Israel as we do everywhere else.
OR: Thinking about your career, do you have any significant regrets, in the sense of things you wished you’d seen coming earlier or choices that you wish you’d made differently?
Roth: I had greater hopes for international justice. I put a lot of effort, personally and institutionally, into building a system of international justice. We were very much behind the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, and played a central role in pushing for the International Criminal Court and fending off the U.S. government’s efforts to exempt itself from ever being subject to ICC jurisdiction. I feel like we established a good foundation, but since, then it’s proceeded very slowly. And if we’re going to be honest, we don’t have enough to show for the effort yet. I’m not sure I’m directly answering the question, but I regret we didn’t do better in this area.
OR: Does the lack of progress show that perhaps you got out ahead of what the world was actually willing to support?
Roth: Well, we had broad support for the creation of the ICC; two-thirds of the world’s governments have ratified it. That support is reason we were able to push it through even though the United States, China, and Russia all opposed. But justice is not an abstract proposition, it has to be applied in particular cases. And what we have lacked is sufficient governmental commitment to seeing justice done in particular cases. Sometimes that’s a matter of the permanent members of the UN Security Council exercising their veto, but more often it reflects a broader lack of political support.
OR: I want to ask you a question that I’ve been asking a lot of the people that I interview, which is, as you look back over the last three decades, do you feel like the world has gotten much better when it comes to actually protecting and respecting human rights and preventing abuses?
Roth: If the question is, “Is the world better or worse?,” then it’s too complicated to answer with a simple yes or no. You have to look region by region. In the time that I’ve been a human-rights activist, I’ve seen enormous progress in Eastern Europe, which has gone from communist party dictatorships to mostly vibrant democracies. Latin America has been transformed from mostly military dictatorships to mostly meaningful democracies. Apartheid is gone in South Africa, and much of southern and western Africa is in a lot better shape than it used to be. Much of eastern and southeastern Asia is vastly improved. But other areas have stayed the same or backtracked. Significant parts of the former Soviet Union have either treaded water or are now retrenching. China is going rapidly backwards. It’s probably in the worst period since the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Middle East has been remarkably stable in its repression. So it’s a mixed bag.
What I can say is that the human rights movement today is much stronger than it was. There are significant human rights groups in virtually every country. The capacity to collect and deploy information is vastly superior to what it was before. Leaders have learned how to game democracy and undermine it, to maintain the electoral form but not the substance. But even there, I think time is on our side, because in country after country—whether it’s Hong Kong, Thailand, Myanmar, Sudan, Uganda, Belarus, Russia, Cuba, or Nicaragua—people are taking to the streets to defend their democracy. There’s been an outpouring of public support for democracy in the face of these negative trends. The people are with us, and if you put yourself in the shoes of an autocrat, it’s an increasingly hostile world.
There has also been a growing sophistication among anti-autocratic forces, which have begun to build grand coalitions from left to right, where the only thing they share is antipathy to an autocrat. Such coalitions have been successful in elections in the Czech Republic, in Israel, and recently in Slovenia. It’s what happened in the recent French election, where people rallied behind President Emmanuel Macron against Marine Le Pen. Even the selection of Joe Biden—who was probably nobody’s first choice but was seen as the best way to beat Trump—as the Democratic candidate was an example of this.
Meanwhile, what we have ended up with in many places is autocrats who used to manipulate elections and have now given up on even trying. It used to be that they would try to tilt the playing field just enough so that they could win; maybe shut some of the media or detain an opposition figure or two, but that’s it. But now they don’t risk that anymore. What you see instead are these total charades, whether it’s what President Alexander Lukashenko did in the Belarus election or what Putin did with the recent Duma elections, or what Daniel Ortega did by arresting all the leading opposition figures in Nicaragua. In all these cases, yes the autocrats stayed in power, but they lost all the legitimacy that a more genuine electoral contest would’ve confirmed. And that is a sign of weakness. The strong man may prevail, but not in a way that’s sustainable.
This is a good article/interview - thanks for publishing it. I suspect Kenneth's leadership will be difficult to replace.
A lot of territory was covered and it is difficult to get into too many specifics but there was nothing about India in the article. India is a very large democracy going through some significant challenges right now and it is still partially aligned with Russia for practical reasons (e.g. oil imports, military equipment) as much as anything else.