Kenneth Roth: ‘China is the greatest threat to human rights’

Kenneth Roth, the outgoing director of Human Rights Watch, photographed in Geneva on 10 August 2022.

Human Rights Watch’s acclaimed director Kenneth Roth is stepping down at the end of August after three decades at the human rights NGO. The 66 year-old American, who has spent the last five years between Geneva and New York, casts a sharp eye on the state of fundamental rights in the world.

Under his leadership, Human Rights Watch moved from its 42nd Street loft in Manhattan to floors 34 and 35 of the Empire State Building. Kenneth Roth is the longtime custodian of the human rights organisation, which he has led since 1993 and which he joined in 1987. The New Yorker from the Upper West Side has spent the last five years between Geneva and the Big Apple. As he prepares to step down, Roth shares his views on the human rights situation in the world.

Le Temps: After more than thirty years at Human Rights Watch (HRW), do you still believe in the defence of human rights, when they are being violated all over the planet?

Kenneth Roth: I am often asked if the world is better or worse than when I started at HRW. It is impossible to answer such a question. Defending human rights is an ongoing process because states are always tempted to violate them. There is always a need for a human rights movement to highlight abuses in order to make governments realise that in terms of cost-benefit, it is not in their interest to do so. I am not one of those who think that in some mythical future we will no longer need such a movement. There will always be abuses of fundamental rights. That’s just human nature.

Is the situation the same everywhere?

No. There are regions of the world where the situation has improved considerably. Take Eastern Europe for example, which for a long time was under the dictatorship of communist parties. They are essentially democracies now. In Latin America, military dictatorships have been replaced by democracies. The same is true in east and southeast Asia and in parts of Africa. On the other hand, there are places where human rights are still being violated. This is the case in the Middle East, in parts of Africa and in Central Asia. What is very different today is the strength of the human rights movement. There was a time when it was difficult to document human rights violations. It took a long time to access information. Human Rights Watch was originally called Helsinki Watch, whose mission was to protect human rights activists in the Soviet bloc. Today, human rights activists are everywhere. And if a country is too repressive, they act from abroad. Moreover, with the advent of social networks, it has become very complicated to hide abuses.

Is technology a big help in tracking down these abuses?

It is essential, but it is double-edged. On the one hand, anyone can use their smartphone to take photos and videos of abuse and post them on social networks. Once authenticated, these could even be used as evidence. On the other hand, autocrats around the world have quickly learned to use social networks to disseminate their disinformation or justify their repression.

Human Rights Watch started with 60 staff members. The NGO now employs 552 people and has a budget of nearly $100 million. How does HRW maintain independence from its funders?

Our independence has never been a problem. We do not accept contributions from governments and do not have to worry about losing funds if we criticise them. We have very strict rules regarding conflicts of interest. Our donors are primarily individuals and foundations. They know there is no point in trying to manipulate us. Our credibility is based on our ability to objectively determine the facts and to expose them.

Concerning the war in Ukraine, the UN and even the ICRC are struggling to make themselves heard. The violations of humanitarian law and human rights are massive. What’s your analysis?

The Kremlin is waging the same kind of war in Ukraine as it did in Chechnya and Syria: with total disregard for humanitarian law. It is a terrible step backwards. The Geneva conventions are supposed to protect civilians from the horrors of war. Russian forces are targeting civilians, hospitals. They are waging a total war. The consequences for the Ukrainian population are terrible. In the face of this, the most important target audience for HRW is the Russians themselves. Putin is terrified by the prospect of a revolution (Orange, Rose revolutions, etc.). He fears, as was the case in Ukraine in 2014, a popular uprising that would overthrow him, the autocrat. He is very sensitive to public opinion in his country. That’s why he tries to censor Russians, the media and spread propaganda. But this can be overcome. Putin did not shut down Telegram or YouTube. He couldn't stop people from using a VPN. As a result, there have been large anti-war demonstrations in over 100 Russian cities. Our policy is to communicate directly with the Russian people in their language, informing them about the atrocities committed in their name. This is our best tool.

You have followed the Xinjiang issue closely. We are still waiting for the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on this region where nearly one million Uighurs have been detained in “re-education centres”. In Geneva, everyone is talking about it. Have the OHCHR and the HRC handled the Chinese case well?

So far, the Human Rights Council (HRC) has not been able to gather the necessary votes to condemn the Chinese government, not even for the crimes against humanity committed in Xinjiang. That is why HRW is working to build a coalition of states to one day support a UNHRC resolution on this. There are already more than 45 states on board. But for such a resolution to pass, the support of the high commissioner is needed. This is a key element in convincing Latin American and African states. As for Michelle Bachelet’s visit to China, it was a disaster. The high commissioner bears much of the responsibility, but she is not alone. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres is also responsible. Returning from the Beijing Olympics, after meeting with Xi Jinping, he came back with a visit in his pocket for Bachelet. The high commissioner was stuck. But she made matters worse during this “friendly” visit by accepting conditions dictated by China, having pre-calibrated conversations with the Chinese president or using the language of Chinese power to describe the "terrorist problem" in Xinjiang. Now, it is her responsibility to release the report on Xinjiang even if the Chinese government is trying to stall the process so that she leaves without doing so. The only way the high commissioner can restore her reputation is to issue a solid report. I don't know if she is willing to do that.

Michelle Bachelet’s predecessor, Zeid Ra'ad Hussein, was not afraid to speak his mind. With the Chilean, we went from a public diplomacy to a very secret diplomacy...

To have influence in human rights matters, a high commissioner has no choice. He has to investigate and talk about it publicly. There is no bargaining. A high commissioner must speak his mind publicly. If Antonio Guterres wants someone who does not make waves with powerful states like Russia, China and the United States, then he has to choose some kind of diplomat.

Which states do human rights defenders worry about the most?

Even if Russia has thrown out the Geneva Conventions, the biggest threat to human rights is China. China has the economic means and the ideological inclination to undermine human rights. For the Chinese government, China is the model to follow. All that matters to them is to improve the country’s economic situation. China reduces human rights to economic growth. It is not even interested in the economic rights of its citizens because it does not want them to use their resources for purposes that are not in its interest. It uses its economic power to force states to support its vision at the UN. Discussions about fundamental rights should, according to Beijing, be limited to conversations between states.

The United States has always presented itself as a beacon of democracy. But it has its own problems and American democracy is in real danger...

It’s clear that the US has long had problems with respect for human rights. No one has been indicted for the practice of torture in the war on terror, there is the Guantanamo prison... There is the turning away of asylum seekers in Mexico, racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, police violence. There is no shortage of problems. Democracy is now in danger. There are a lot of Trump supporters who are ready to put an autocrat in the White House even if it means turning their back on democracy. That is very dangerous. But I have faith in the American people that they will not accept such a model in future elections.

What about Joe Biden?

Although President Joe Biden is a very honourable man, he came to the White House saying that human rights would be at the heart of his foreign policy. His recent trip to the Middle East, however, was a disaster on that front. There he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmane, leaving out the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the massacre of Yemeni civilians. All this in an attempt to reduce inflation and fuel costs that may threaten the strength of the Western coalition against Moscow and the Democratic base in the run-up to the midterm elections. But in the end, he only got a few thousand barrels of oil. It will have no impact. It’s absurd. The Europeans didn’t do any better. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has made agreements with Egypt led by a president Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who is imposing the worst repression in the country’s modern history.

You were very much involved in the creation of the International Criminal Court, which came into being in 1998 and began its work in 2002. Two decades later, are you disappointed with its record?

I am disappointed by its limited results. The big test will be Palestine, for which an investigation is underway. The case seems relatively clear: the establishment of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories is a war crime. The sending of rockets by Hamas into Israel are also serious violations. I would be disappointed if the investigation stalled because of political difficulties.

This article was originally published in French in Le Temps.