Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of HRW
As executive director for more than 15 years, the development and approaches taken by Human Rights Watch are closely tied to Ken Roth’s personal ideology and agenda. He joined HRW as deputy director in 1987, and has been executive director since 1993. Roth was formerly a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York and is responsible for greatly expanding HRW’s agenda and claimed expertise to include international humanitarian law, which HRW distorts and uses inconsistently in seeking to criminalize warfare.
Roth claims expertise in “issues of justice and accountability for atrocities committed in the quest for peace; military conduct in war under the requirements of international humanitarian law; counterterrorism policy, including resort to torture and arbitrary detention; the human rights policies of the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations; and, the human rights responsibilities of multinational businesses.”11
Under Roth’s leadership, HRW’s activities have shifted towards an emphasis on reports, allegations, and campaigns that criticize democracies, rather than addressing the systematic violations of basic freedoms and human rights in closed, totalitarian societies. This change was in part a response to the end of the Cold War. But it also reflects Roth’s post-colonial ideological framework, as shown by the prominence HRW gives to questioning the responses of democratic societies to mass terror and asymmetric warfare, including the human rights policies of the United States and the European Union. This ideological filter has been expressed in publications and interviews, including cases in which Roth attempted to justify HRW’s overemphasis on Israel on the grounds that it is “the most powerful actor in the conflict.” Roth has also acknowledged the application of double standards, which he excuses as a “tendency to judge Israel as a Western democracy,” and “while the international human rights standards are the same, the expectations of compliance with those standards are higher for Western democracies than some tin-pot dictators” (Krieger 2004). Roth’s direct involvement in HRW campaigns that condemn Israeli responses to terror include media interviews, publication of letters and op-ed articles, and participation in press conferences.
Roth’s personal agenda is also evident both in his rhetoric with respect to Israel and his recruitment of the staff detailed in this section. He often cites his father’s experience fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938, and the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981, as motivating factors for his involvement in human rights activism.12 In defending his condemnations of Israel, Roth frequently refers to the Holocaust (Roth 2006), his family history, and Jewish themes in order to bolster the credibility of his claims. In one revealing response to a critique of HRW’s reporting of the Lebanon War (Roth 2006), Roth states: “An eye for an eye – or, more accurately in this case, twenty eyes for an eye – may have been the morality of some more primitive moment. But it is not the morality of international humanitarian law…” The New York Sun (2006) decried this statement as a
slur on the Jewish religion itself that is breathtaking in its ignorance… To suggest that Judaism is a ‘primitive’ religion incompatible with contemporary morality is to engage in supersessionism, the de-legitimization of Judaism, the basis of much antisemitism.
In this context, Roth and HRW have demonstrated little interest in addressing antisemitism,13 and Roth turned down an invitation from former Israeli Minister Natan Sharansky to participate in the Global Forum on Antisemitism in 2004, writing:
…we tend to focus on violence. We have sort of decided not to get involved around attitudes per se…For [antisemitism] to be a human rights violation one would need to see governments in Europe either embracing antisemitism, condoning antisemitic violence, not genuinely trying to stop the violence…
This position ignores the promotion of antisemitism by Hamas and by the governments in Iran, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and the Gulf States, and ignores significant work done by other human rights organizations in this area.
Roth’s attitude toward antisemitism reinforces the concern that under his leadership, HRW has been motivated primarily by goals other than universal human rights. His recruitment of many of the staff members described below, most with strong pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist positions, indicates a disregard for the most minimum standards of impartiality and universality.