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The head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Ken Roth, recently announced that, after 29 years, he will be leaving the organization. For nearly three decades he led HRW far from its founding principles, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in the shadow of the Holocaust. Instead, the group is often considered to be a political organization with a highly selective agenda and an obsession with Israel. Restoring their lost credibility, if this can be done, will require a major effort taking many years. 

HRW, originally called Helsinki Watch, was founded in 1978 as an independent organization to monitor and report on rights violations in closed societies, particularly the Soviet Union, China and other dictatorships. The NGO quickly gained influence as a credible source, and eventually became the US-based counterpart to London’s Amnesty International.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, Roth transformed HRW into a champion of “the global left” and the post-colonialist ideology that blames the democratic West and capitalism for the world’s problems, while absolving the “victims” of human rights responsibilities. After joining this political movement, HRW was embraced in the UN and by similar-minded academics and political influencers.   

The short, pro-forma criticisms of dictatorships continued, but Roth and HRW got attention and funding by condemning American-led conflicts with terror regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, citing highly distorted versions of international law and human rights. Among other absurdities, Roth was very vocal in attacking the Obama Administration’s decision to kill Osama Bin Laden, asserting that the arch terrorist should have been arrested and tried. 

Roth also showed a strong animus towards Israel, repeatedly joining the shrill voices demanding an end to American support and repeating false accusations of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”  HRW, in concert with Amnesty International and Palestinian groups, was central in reviving the Soviet-led effort to equate Zionism with South African apartheid. In 2001, HRW was among the leaders of the blatantly antisemitic NGO Forum of the UN Durban conference, ostensibly called to celebrate the end of South African apartheid. In responding to critics, including from within HRW, he declared that “Israeli racist practices are an appropriate topic.”