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Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth: ‘SA epitomises the quest for freedom, even though it may not be perfect’

Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth: ‘SA epitomises the quest for freedom, even though it may not be perfect’
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of the US-based international Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) 'Human Rights Watch', speaks at a press conference during which he presented the annual report for 2019, in Berlin, Germany, 17 January 2019. EPA-EFE/ALEXANDER BECHER

Ken Roth, who has led Human Rights Watch for almost three decades, announced on Tuesday that he is stepping down from the post. During Roth’s 29-year tenure at the top of the global watchdog, he has seen both progress and regression worldwide – and warns that the current greatest threat to human rights comes from autocrats who fear the will of the people.

Since Ken Roth took the helm of Human Rights Watch in 1993 there have been global achievements in the quest for freedom and democracy which once seemed unimaginable.

“South Africa epitomises that, in the transition from apartheid to a democratic government – even though it may not be perfect,” Roth told Daily Maverick on Tuesday.

He points to “similar positive evolutions” in Latin America, other southern African countries, and “vigorous democracies” now functional in parts of Eastern Europe. But any mention of Eastern Europe inevitably leads to Ukraine, where recent events have forced the realisation of how precarious these democratic advances can suddenly seem in the face of external aggression.

Roth is the first to concede this.

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Governments don’t respect rights

“I have never believed that we are [globally] moving towards this paradise where people will respect human rights,” he says, adding: “I think it’s in the nature of government to disrespect human rights.”

In his three decades at HRW, the former US federal prosecutor has seen countless examples of countries regressing into autocracy or merely remaining repressive. Some of the world’s most significant powers, like Russia and China, Roth describes as currently “going through an intense period of internal repression”. It is impossible to make the case that we are witnessing a smooth international evolution towards more open societies.

“The defence of human rights is a constant struggle, and we always have to be attentive,” Roth says.

Roth’s time leading HRW has seen the organisation grow into an advocacy behemoth which works in more than 100 countries and boasts an annual budget surpassing $100-million.

The reports it issues on areas of human rights concern have sometimes seemed to have an uncannily prescient aspect. In August 2011, for instance, HRW released the results of an investigation into the working conditions of Western Cape farmworkers, titled “Ripe with Abuse”, which warned that the “overarching failure to protect and promote the housing, health and labor rights of farmworkers and farm dwellers in the Western Cape” was creating an untenable situation. Almost exactly a year later, an unprecedented series of strikes and violent protests over the issues pinpointed by HRW would cripple Western Cape agriculture for months.

Putting pressure on Putin

Under Roth’s leadership, HRW shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its work campaigning to ban landmines and the use of child soldiers. Roth says, however, that this type of “global treaty work” is fairly unusual for the organisation, which prefers to hone in on country-specific issues in a more detailed way.

He told Daily Maverick one of the achievements of which he is most proud is the role taken on by HRW in pressuring Russian president Vladimir Putin to cease attacks on civilians in the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria in 2020. Roth played a personal role in meeting French president Emmanuel Macron and German leader Angela Merkel to enlist their help to convince Putin to cease Russia’s deadly air strikes on the city – ultimately with success.

That’s an interesting case to cite at the moment, with Putin’s assaults on Ukraine showing no sign of easing, but to Roth it offers hope. “Putin does respond to sufficient pressure,” he maintains, though he also acknowledges that the situation in Ukraine is “much, much more difficult”.

This brings us to the topic of South Africa’s controversially “neutral” stance over the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

“I understand that the Soviet Union was an ally in fighting apartheid, but the lesson from that should not be to stand with Russia [in this situation],” Roth says.

“I would hope that South Africa should recognise that it should stand for vibrant democracies [like that which South Africa] has become.”

Because much of HRW’s approach involves criticising governments, Roth has made enemies of numerous global leaders. But his tenure has also seen other concerns raised about HRW’s methods and focus. Roth’s supporters laud him for embracing social media and giving voice to the issues of ordinary citizens, but his critics suggest that the organisation is too credulous of civilian accounts with hard-to-verify testimony.

For his part, Roth described social media to Daily Maverick as a “double-edged sword”, paying tribute to the technology’s ability to gather evidence of human rights violations, while condemning the manner in which “abusive governments are instrumentalising social media” for disinformation and propaganda purposes.

The Saudi Arabia and Israel questions

Roth has also been embroiled in a number of controversies regarding HRW’s acceptance of Saudi Arabian funding, reportedly in exchange for soft-pedalling advocacy in the Middle East around gay rights and for targeting Israel for condemnation. In 2009, HRW founder Robert Bernstein wrote a New York Times op-ed slamming the organisation under Roth for publishing “far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region”.

Roth is Jewish, and in a press release announcing his departure from HRW this week, the criticism he has received around these matters was glossed as par for the course for someone vocally criticising powerful regimes.

The same press release also quoted some of Roth’s many ardent supporters highlighting the role he has played in fighting for international peace and justice. Anthony Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, asserted: “No organization and no leader have had a greater impact in human rights on a global scale.”

Although Roth is stepping away from HRW, he is quick to stress he is not leaving the work of defending human rights. His next move is to write a book drawing on his 30 years of experience in a struggle that is still nowhere close to complete.

Human Rights Watch said Tirana Hassan, chief programmes officer, would serve as interim executive director and it would conduct an open search for a successor.

For those taking up his mantle, Roth has a word of advice on where to focus scrutiny: “The biggest threat [to human rights] today is from autocrats who are fearful of their people”. DM

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