Ken Roth’s Legacy: Distorting and Exploiting Human Rights to Demonize Israel
In his 29-year reign as head of HRW (from 1993), Ken Roth has obsessively distorted and exploited human rights to demonize Israel. His language reflects a deeply personal hostility to Judaism and Jewish self-determination, regardless of policies, and he has hired many staffers who share this antipathy, amplifying the structural bias against Israel in the UN and other institutions. By abusing HRW’s power and $129 million annual budget (as of 2021) to systematically single-out Israel, and in applying double standards, Roth has caused major damage to the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For the past 20 years, I have documented and written extensively on Ken Roth’s powerful role as head of HRW, demonstrating his obsessive and deeply personal hostility towards Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the damage this has inflicted to the moral standing of universal human rights principles worldwide.
As head of HRW since 1993, Roth is among the world’s most influential unaccountable political actors, with massive funds, favorable media coverage, and direct access to the UN and world leaders. He also hired many other obsessive anti-Israel activists. Roth adopted and amplified the Soviet-led effort to equate Zionism with South African apartheid, as well as many of the methods, and in late 2001 and early 2002, he oversaw HRW’s central role in the blatantly antisemitic NGO Forum of the Durban conference. Building on this foundation, he led HRW’s political campaigns based on false allegations, including “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” to delegitimize Israel’s response to mass terror attacks. He has disproportionately channeled HRW’s resources into lobbying the UN Human Rights Council to create and conduct one-sided “investigations,” such as the discredited 2009 Goldstone report on the Gaza conflict. In parallel, he has pressed the International Criminal Court prosecutors to adopt false versions of international law in order to justify investigating Israelis, including using an invented version of apartheid. He has used the term “primitive” in the context of Jewish religion and tradition (2006), and among hundreds of tweets denouncing Israel, has blamed Jews for antisemitism. HRW’s April 2021 “report” claiming that Israel had “crossed the line into apartheid” is a reiteration of this 20 year history.
My work as an academic focusing on soft power, particularly in the Middle East, has included researching and publishing analyses of the unchecked power of the NGO industry, as exemplified by Roth’s behavior and impact. Beginning in 2004, I corresponded with and met Robert Bernstein, the founder of HRW, who expressed his intense disagreement with the political direction that Roth had taken the organization, specifically regarding singling out Israel. The frequency and intensity of our discussions increased and expanded to include other board members. Roth’s and HRW’s obsessive campaigns grew. In 2009, following the 2009 Goldstone report episode, Bernstein took the unprecedented step of denouncing HRW in a NY Times column and in a series of speeches, which repeated key points from our conversations. Also, many of HRW’s donors ended their support.
However, Roth is a very skilled fund-raiser, and after getting $100 million from George Soros, he added other secret donors, such as a Saudi billionaire whose 2012 “contribution” (the existence of which was denied for many years) was only revealed in 2020. Roth’s long time Middle East head Sarah Leah Whitson, another vitriolic anti-Israel propagandist, went to Saudi Arabia on behalf of HRW, and to Libya to tout the Ghaddafi family as “human rights reformers.” (In 2020, Whitson suddenly departed HRW when information on the Saudi gift was leaked.)
Long after Roth’s departure from HRW, no doubt to be accompanied by numerous orchestrated tributes, the damage to the integrity of human rights will remain.
Selected academic publications
- Gerald M. Steinberg, “Human Rights Watch’s anti-Israel Agenda”, Israel Affairs, 27:1, 2021 pp. 34-56
- Gerald M. Steinberg and Anne Herzberg, “The Role of International Legal and Justice Discourse in Promoting the New Antisemitism,” chapter in Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: The Dynamics of Delegitimization, Alvin Rosenfeld, Editor, Indiana University Press, 2019
- Gerald M. Steinberg, “International NGOs, the Arab Upheaval, and Human Rights: Examining NGO Resource Allocation” Journal of International Human Rights, Northwestern University School of Law, Vol. 11 no.1 (2012)
- Gerald M. Steinberg, “From Durban to the Goldstone Report: The Centrality of Human Rights NGOs in the Political Dimension of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”, Israel Affairs, 18:3, 2012
- Gerald M. Steinberg and Anne Herzberg, Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-Finding, Nijhoff Brill Publishers, Leiden, 2012