Ken Roth

Watchdog of Humanity

Air Date: January 28, 2017

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, talks about securing the blessings of liberty at home and abroad.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we expand on our year-long exchanges about the future of democracy, human rights, and civil society. You can view these episodes on The Open Mind website with National Democratic Institute president Ken Wallach on the resilience of democracy, UN democracy head Annika Savill on the frontlines of grassroots reform, UC-Berkeley Human Rights Center director Alexa Koenig on global justice, International Refugee Assistance director Becca Heller on American liberty and the refugee crisis, and now we’re privileged to welcome the leading international voice on human rights. Ken Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch, the world’s largest global human rights organization, which operates in more than 90 countries. Welcome, Ken.

ROTH: Thanks, Alexander. It’s great to be here.

HEFFNER: Thanks for being here. The future of democracy: With the rise of what appears to be a new wave of totalitarianism, we might say fascism, how are we to grapple with this particular moment in our history?

ROTH: Well first, I wouldn’t go that far. Let’s not call it totalitarianism yet or fascism, I mean those are the ultimate fears, but what, you know,

HEFFNER: Why do you think that’s an exaggeration though?

ROTH: Well I think what we are getting today is the rise of a series of politicians, some gaining power, some aspiring to power, who are pursuing an anti-human rights agenda. Um, they typically say, you know, we speak for the majority. We may even win an election. And that gives us the power, they would even say the right, to trample on the rights of minorities or the disadvantaged or people they just don’t like. And that is dangerous. I mean taken to an extreme, you’re absolutely right, that’s where you get the fascism. Because you know, we’ve heard this in the past, we’ve heard about these, you know, totalitarian leaders who say, you know, I am the people and we are gonna just trample on you because you have a vision different from mine. So it’s dangerous but you know, we’re not there yet. I think we have warning signs but we can react to them. But yes, we are seeing that rise in the United States, in, in western Europe and in other parts of the world.

HEFFNER: Now there are some rather simplistic answers to the question of to what do you attribute the rise if not of fascism or totalitarianism, a demagogic instinct or impulse?

ROTH: Well I think that you know, why are these populists rising? Um, it’s partly a sense that, that government and the elites are not answering to certain needs of the people. And, and this is, you know, people who are left behind economically by the global economy and, and transformation technologically, automation in factories, things like that, a part of it is um, fear of terrorism, fear of fiscal security. Um, part of it frankly is cultural change, because we’ve seen in North America, in Europe much more multicultural societies and, and many people relish that, but some people feel threatened by it. And this combination of fears and concerns has um, given rise to people who are exploiting that for really anti-rights reasons, they’re pursuing an agenda that claims to be speaking for these left behind people, but doing it in a way that, that promotes Islamophobia, um, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-refugee sentiment, in this country anti-Mexican sentiment, and so it is, there’s an ugliness that, that is accompanying it.

HEFFNER: In this 90 countries, if you were to extrapolate on the American experience, the European experience, you see what we thought of as fully democratized countries undoing some of the rights-based methodology in principle and practice that we’ve come to expect, whether that’s voting rights in the US or immigrant rights in, in Europe. In those 90 countries, as the leader of an organization watching, monitoring human rights, what most concerns you?

ROTH: Let me answer that into two, in two parts, because you know, first of all there’s, there are the traditional threats to, to human rights. If we understand democracy in its fullest, it’s not just periodic elections, it’s also respect for human rights so people can organize together and, and make their voices heard, and it’s the rule of law, meaning that government is held to account under human rights standards. Now, if you are an autocrat, you don’t like human rights and the rule of law. You know, you don’t want your people banding together because you know, it just gets in the way of what you want to do. It gets in the way of your corruption, it gets in the way of your autocracy. You don’t want independent justices holding you to account. So you try to trample down on those, and so we, we see all the time pushback by authoritarian governments trying to stifle civil society, stifle the free press, undermine the independence of the judiciary. That’s almost like our day-to-day concern. And human rights movement is always pushing back against that. Now what is newer in the last couple of years is that even in democracies that were more established, where we thought that we had, you know, broad recognition of the importance of rights as an element of democracy, we are seeing the rise of what you might call majoritarianism. That is to say politicians claiming to speak for the majority but wanting to then act without the encumbrances of human rights, without the limitations of an independent judiciary. And that is extraordinarily dangerous, because if in the heart of, of democracy in the west we see this lack of respect for basic rights principles, you can imagine the ripple effect that that has across the world.

HEFFNER: So as you look at the wave of dissent and the fact that in many of these countries, dissent is not possible anymore without retribution, criminal or otherwise, are you still very much focused on the aftermath and the ongoing repercussions of the refugee crisis?

ROTH: Yeah, I think a big reason why there has been this rise of anti-rights populists in Europe in particular is because of the flood of refugees that came into Europe in 2015. And, and there were reasons for that, you know, there’s these horrible atrocities committed by the Assad government in Syria. There were 4.5 million refugees, um, in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Many of them were not able to build normal lives, so they got on these rickety boats, risked their lives, crossed the Aegean, and went into Europe. That gave rise to a backlash where people were saying, you know, we don’t want all these newcomers particularly because they were Muslim. That was a big part of the, the reaction. And so yes, that has I think helped the anti-rights voices as well as you know, other voices such as the, the Brexit, you know, the anti-EU voices that you saw in the UK. Now, it’s, I think it’s, you know, it’s useful to look around the world and say well what would a country look like if you have an autocrat who claims to speak for the majority without concern about rights? And we have some examples very near Europe. I mean look at Turkey, where there was a, fortunately an unsuccessful coup attempt this past summer and the Turkish people rallied around Erdogan who said we’re gonna crush the proponents. They said it was these Gulenists, the people who were followers of the cleric in, the exiled cleric in Pennsylvania. And so at first, many citizens of Turkey said great, go after the Gulenists, you know, we don’t really like them anyhow. But of course, the autocrat never stops there and at this point, he is, Erdogan is shutting down the independent press, shutting down civil society, firing academics, devastating Turkish democracy. We saw something similar in Egypt. Um, after the Arab Spring, after Mubarak had been toppled, there was an election and, and President Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, was elected president. Many Egyptians didn’t like an Islamist president. There was a coup by the army and many Egyptians supported it, saying oh, this is gonna be better than being led by the Islamists. But of course General Sisi, now President Sisi, proceeded to shut down Egyptian democracy, throwing in prison journalists, human rights activists, anybody who dared dissent. So today, the repression is much more severe in Egypt than it ever was even under the long-term dictator Mubarak. So this is what happens when you have somebody who claims to speak for the majority, who for short term reasons says, you know, what we need is to ignore human rights, and it’s very rare than an autocrat says well I’ll just do a little bit of violations of human rights, you know, it may be the other guy whose vi—rights are violated today but very quickly it’s gonna be your rights violated tomorrow.

HEFFNER: So, as you look at the countries pre-Arab Spring and pre-refugee crisis, that already practice to a great degree intolerance, whether it’s Saudi Arabia, other Arab nations, or China or Russia, and I mean intolerance in response to any question of dissent, uh, it’s, it’s almost as if the, the problem has just exacerbated, become more complicated and we’re, we’re no longer as a society paying attention to maybe even the more devastating clampdown in these more stable countries?

ROTH: I think, you know, Alexander, what you’re, we’re talking about in part is that there has always been a certain double standard in US foreign policy. So you know, yes, the United States for a while was in favor of, of the Arab Spring in Egypt, but it never promoted reform in Saudi Arabia or Jordan or, or even a place like Morocco. You know, it was perfectly happy to have a friendly, um, king, a friendly monarch, um, even though they’re, you know, the, the democratic aspirations of the people in Saudi Arabia or Jordan were utterly unfulfilled, but this was an American ally, so we’re not gonna rock the boat. So there was always that kind of double standard. What we’re seeing now as there is a rise at this kind of anti-rights sentiment in the west is that many western governments that ordinarily we could rely on as being, you know, occasionally at least proponents of human rights are now so preoccupied by what’s going on at home that they’ve stopped being very effective abroad. And in part this is, you know, a failure to react to the, the serious backsliding in rights in places like China and Russia, in part it’s been, you know, the utter failure to stop the slaughter in a place like Syria, um, and of course you still get the double standards, you still get, you know, no attention to the rights of Saudis at home, and indeed the US is arming the Saudi military as it indiscriminately bombs in Yemen, so there are big problems and growing problems in US and western support for human rights around the world.

HEFFNER: Are there particular regions or countries that you have your sights set on in this 2017 year where you really hope or are expecting progress?

ROTH: Yeah. You know, I think it’s important to ask that question, because it’s not like everything is a disaster. I mean there are parts of the world that are, are going better. And, and you can answer this in part by taking the, you know, the big picture, a long-term perspective and, and recognize that you know, two decades ago, Latin America was filled with military dictatorships and today it’s mostly democracies. And indeed, the trend is positive, I mean you ask, you know, where can we make progress in the next year? Um, one of the biggest impediments to democracy in a few places in Latin America has been this, um, this infatuation with sort of anti-imperialist governments that, that trampled human rights because they just stood up against the United States. And that could be Cuba, that could be Venezuela. Um, I mean there are a number of governments that fit into that category. We’re seeing really the, the decline of that model. Venezuela’s the perfect example of an autocratic leader who has stifled the checks and balances of a democracy. The, the opposition actually won the legislature but can’t get anything done because the presidency controls the judiciary and controls the electoral commission and is just, you know, blocking everything, but then Venezuela’s an economic basket case, I mean the, the country in the world with the largest oil reserves is in poverty because of utter mismanagement. The people want to get rid of the president, they want a so-called recall referendum and he won’t even let it happen. So you know, that kind of model, just being anti-imperialist is being sufficient for legitimization is, is, is waning. And we see, you know, other examples of that kind of mismanagement in other parts of the world. I mean look at Russia today. People like to lionize Putin as, as the strongman who gets things done, but in fact, you know, he has a one-horse economy, it’s all about oil and gas. He never diversified when he could, so when the price of oil drops, the economy’s a disaster. He then in order to change the subject and build nationalism, he, you know, takes Crimea, or engages in the war in Syria. That works for a while, but not for the long term, because people are getting poorer and they’re hurting.

HEFFNER: If you look at the most populous region of the world, the continent of Africa by and large there has been an absence of attention on what could be a real revolution of human rights in what was formerly known as more the, the continent of dictators. Uh, do you see potential there to counteract some of the trends in Europe and um, the Middle East?

ROTH: Well Africa is a real battleground today. Um, on the one hand, you get a series of presidents who are facing term limits, usually after two terms, and they’re saying, I like being president. I don’t want to have this term limit. And they rip up the constitution or they get it amended or whatever. And, and sometimes that has worked, a place like Rwanda where Paul Kagame is such a dictator that nobody dares oppose him. Um, where they tried it in say Burundi, um, or today in Congo, it, it’s led to massive violence because there’s protests and, and then the, the president shoots back. So there is, you know, that’s a struggle that’s very much underway. We’ve seen a separate manifestation of this around the question of the International Criminal Court, which is you know, and a global court designed to step in for the worst atrocities when national courts fail. And indeed, Africa was at the forefront of the creating of the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor is an African. Um, but a number of African leaders are saying we don’t like this court because it’s, it’s so far been focused only on Africans. They say you’re discriminating against us, but of course, they’re discriminating in favor of the African victims who without the International Criminal Court would have no recourse. Now several leaders, um, foremost the, the president of Burundi who’s shooting people who are protest—protesting his third term, and President Zuma of South Africa who has his own corruption problems, um, pulled out of the International Criminal Court. Um, the other person who did it was the president of Gambia who then was voted out of office a couple weeks later so they’re back in joining. But what I, what I found heartening is that hundreds of African civil society groups said no, we like the International Criminal Court. Many, many African governments said we’re proud of this, this is you know, we, this is Africa’s contribution to the global rule of law. So you see this, um, you know, this real debate, this real battle going on and it shows that you know, even if unaccountable leaders don’t like human rights because they get in the way of how they want to govern, people like human rights, because human rights speak to their aspirations, they speak to their freedom.

HEFFNER: Do you see the obstacle as being a lack of a free press, lack of uh, structural rigor in constitutions like you’re alluding to in Africa that would preclude, uh, the constitution from being ripped up and uh, giving…


HEFFNER: You know, so how, how, just for our viewers who want to become more familiar with Human Rights Watch and how you try to enforce that accountability on rights, how do you distinguish between countries where it’s just all-out abuse and incremental…

ROTH: Right.

HEFFNER: Regression?

ROTH: That’s a good question. I mean let me take a step backwards first and explain how Human Rights Watch works, ‘cause it’s not obvious to people, you know, how can we affect human rights on the other side of the world with some awful dictator? Um, the methodology we use is we conduct very detailed investigations on the ground. Our staff is, the bulk of them are what we call researchers, who could be lawyers or journalists or academics but people who live in the country or are often of that country who conduct very detailed investigations. We publish their findings and we use these reports to, to shame the abusive government and to generate political pressure on them. Now…

HEFFNER: They’re essentially embeds, if you want to think of it that way, in these countries.

ROTH: They’re embedded in the country, yes.

HEFFNER: Chronicling, chronicling the experience with respect to…

ROTH: Yes, and we get…

HEFFNER: Governments, journalists, and human rights.

ROTH: And we have some 80 nationalities on staff, you know, they’re spread all over the world, and so these are people who are really immersed in their country, know it backwards and forwards, and are among the world’s experts in human rights conditions in those countries. So they’re well-positioned to know what the problems are and to help to generate solutions. Now, obviously they’re different kinds of problems. A place like Syria, you’ve got mass atrocities, and so there the aim is to figure out, you know, what’s our source of leverage? It’s, it’s not gonna be to shame Assad, the Syrian president, but we can shame Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, whose military support for Assad is essential for Assad’s survival. So how do we stop Assad from targeting civilians, targeting hospitals, targeting schools? Through Russia. So that’s been our strategy there. You get other places, you know, say like North Korea, which is you know, just a, an awful, brutal dictatorship. There’s no war, there’s just sheer repression. Um, there we have to use different techniques. We’ve been focusing mainly on the UN Security Council and its effort to, to generate pressure there. But then other countries where, you know, it’s not a basket case but you have limited civil society, governments that are trying to stifle the press, trying to undermine NGOs, trying to, you know, just make it harder for people to band together and make their voices heard, um, that’s a, a different technique, and there more traditional shaming works just fine, because most governments pretend to respect human rights. Many governments fall short, but by highlighting that discrepancy, you do shame governments, you delegitimize them before their people, before the public and, and that’s how we gradually push them to, to improve.

HEFFNER: I asked you that because Annika’s experience was creating an index and identifying aspects of um, government that she would classify as democratic or tendencies towards antidemocratic behavior. But increasingly, as we’ve seen this post-truth democracy era take, take shape in some, in some form, there is a question of you know, what is democracy and, and what are those basic human rights, uh, and to what extent are any lines drawn in the sand with respect to free expression? Um, in the wake of uh, president-elect Trump’s, um, victory, there are questions about looking inward at the American experience right now. How do you think, um, and what is Human Rights Watch’s role gonna be in ensuring that those norms are modeled here just as much as they are internationally?

ROTH: Well that, that’s a good question and I should stress that the United States is one of the major countries that we work on. Um, so while we work in 90 countries around the, around the world, the United States is absolutely one of them. And, and, the approach that Human Rights Watch takes is you know, there are excellent organizations like the ACLU that primarily use litigation, and if you can go to court to protect your rights, we essentially let the ACLU do that. Um, Human Rights Watch is not a group of litigators. We instead use this, this methodology of public pressure. And so we tend to focus on issues where the courts are not the answer, but you need public policy governmental action. So we tend to focus on, on mass incarceration and criminal justice, where, where nobody denies that these are actual crimes and people were convicted, but the question is, you know, is it right to be throwing so many people in prison, particularly when so many of them are African-Americans and other minorities? Um, we do a lot of work on immigration reform, where you know, the, there’s no question that the US is entitled to, to police its borders, but there are equitable questions that come up. Is it fair to have millions of you know, undocumented Mexicans who have made their lives here? Who have their families here, they probably have US citizen members of the family, they are members of the community, they work. Is it right to give them no route to legality, to have them living in constant insecurity? So that’s an area where our approach can be very effective. Plus we have a whole program on, on what we call national security, but the kinds of things that we fear Trump is going to implicate, again the way the Bush administration did. You know, we’re going to try to avoid a return to torture. We’re going to try to avoid reviving Guantanamo as a place where people are put. We’re going to try to prevent the emergence of secret detention facilities. We want to make sure that drones are used lawfully. We want to make sure that, that there are right to privacy limits on mass surveillance, so these are major issues where we’re quite concerned about the direction of a potential Trump administration.

HEFFNER: And Ken, you are trying to channel the Athenian precedent, you were the recipient of the first, uh, the annual Athens Democracy Award, congratulations on that.

ROTH: Thank you, thank you.

HEFFNER: Honor, which you received last year, September 2016. Uh, you said in your acceptance speech, “Certain demagogues today are appealing to majority fears of economic, cultural, and physical insecurity.” Um… The, I think that there is a, a reality that we don’t want to accept right now with respect to um, the trajectory. Um… There’s been a lot of discussion about safeguarding and a safety net for a pluralistic society today. But there is a strong pervasive wind that is opposed to the very definition of what we might think is an Athenian virtue. Um… What, what do you think, from your experience as a federal prosecutor and now leading this organization is the, the counsel that we ought to share with our, with our friends, family, peers, fellow practitioners that will leave them with inspiration as opposed to dejection at what appears to be a, a crucial moment in our history, as I said at the beginning?

ROTH: I think the important lesson to send, Alexander, is that human rights are not an a la carte menu. You can’t say well, you know, I like my rights but you know, yours, we don’t need those. Um, because when you start picking and choosing among rights, you undermine the edifice that ultimately you’re gonna need. And we all know about, you know, governments that started off going after the unpopular minorities, you know, gays often play that role in, in various societies or, or the Roma in Europe, the Gypsies. Um, there’s always somebody unpopular that nobody really cares about and they don’t focus on them when their rights are violated, but little by little, you see governments then violating others’ rights, and I think we have to recognize that you know, the reason we have human rights is because there’s a basic premise that um, we want to be treated, uh, you know, we have to treat others the way we want them to treat us. And if we, we start deviating from that principle, if we say well we’ll mistreat you but we still expect you to treat us well, you undermine the basic principles that stand at the heart of human rights.

HEFFNER: And would you say that that definition of reciprocity is really what is most fundamental to, to a definition? When, when we could get stuck in the weeds to defining is, you know, is healthcare is a human right? Is, is… clean air a human right?

ROTH: Right.

HEFFNER: Your definition is one we might more conveniently coalesce around.

ROTH: I mean there are, there’s a legal answer to your question. Human rights are enshrined in various treaties that most governments have ratified. There’s a US Constitution answer…

HEFFNER: Right, and I’m talking about the persuasion argument more than the legal one.

ROTH: But at the basic level, you know, you gotta ask, you know, what kind of society do you want? And most people say well I want a society at least where my rights are respected, but you can’t get that if you don’t also respect others’ rights, because…

HEFFNER: But what is the link there in terms of the realization that reciprocity matters?

ROTH: Well in the sense that the, um, you know, rights are about approaching governance in a principled way. If you go, approach governance by just saying, you know, I want what I want and I’m gonna push it to the limit, you know, tomorrow somebody else is gonna want something different and you’re gonna be on the wrong end of that stick, so the only way to ensure that you know, your rights are not really trampled over the long term is to operate with some self-restraint, and that self-restraint is a principled one, it’s saying I’m not gonna do something to you that I ultimately don’t want you doing to me.

HEFFNER: And finally Ken, how much confidence do you have alongside your partners at the ACLU and elsewhere that states and cities and townships, these localities are going to be effective in um, standing up against whatever may be federal abuses in the coming four years?

ROTH: Well I, I think it, you know, one interesting aspect of the US federal system is that it does give very substantial autonomy to states and, and indirectly to cities and municipalities and so um, if indeed say the federal government radically cuts back on, on healthcare and Obamacare, that doesn’t mean that states have to do that. You could have, you know, follow the Massachusetts example, which had Obamacare before there was an Obama, you know, or you could have states, you know, enacting higher minimum wages, better respects for minority rights, there are lots of things that the states can do even if the federal government falls back, and I think we may have to start looking to that and in a sense creating state by state models that over the long term we hope the federal government will then reengage with.

HEFFNER: Ken, thank you for being on the program today.

ROTH: My pleasure, thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews, and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.