The following is a conversation between Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: Most every citizen around the world is concerned about human rights and shudders at the thought of another person’s rights being violated. And that is why we should all be grateful that there is an organization solely dedicated to this – always vigilant, 24/7, 365 days a year, all around the world– exposing human rights abuses like torture, violence against women, and child exploitation. It is Human Rights Watch, and it is a great pleasure to have with us this evening their Executive Director, Kenneth Roth. Good evening, Ken, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Kenneth: Thanks for having me! My pleasure to be here.
Denver: Before we get into the work of the organization, tell our listeners specifically what are human rights? Their genesis? And source documents upon which they are based?
Kenneth: That’s a good question. In fact, they’re quite familiar to many Americans in that many of the rights are things you find in the Constitution. The right to free expression and free association; the right not to be mistreated or tortured; the right to a fair trial; the right not to be discriminated against – those are all in the Constitution. But also, human rights include other things that are not in the US Constitution like: the right to access to healthcare, the right to education, the right to employment. All of these are contained in a series of international treaties. The first founding document was something known as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is actually not a treaty. It was a declaration.
Denver: Of 1948, right?
Kenneth: Precisely. But that gave rise in 1966 to the two founding treaties. One is called the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the other: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And thereafter, there were other specialized treaties on women’s rights and children’s rights and the like. But these treaties are widely ratified, often by a hundred plus governments around the world. The US is a party to some of them, but not all of them.
Denver: Give us a bit more about the evolution of the modern day human rights movement. And I know you’re exactly the guy to ask because when you were at Yale Law School– late ‘70s to around 1980– they offered only one human rights course, and you dutifully signed up for it every semester… only to see it canceled because of a lack of interest. And there were certainly no jobs in the field when you got out. So, tell us how this field has evolved and grown over the past 35 years or so.
Kenneth: You’re right. It didn’t start off very auspiciously for me. But it began really with Amnesty International in terms of the big international organizations in 1961. But even Amnesty was pretty tiny by the time I graduated from law school. And Human Rights Watch at that stage, in 1980, had two employees. It had started just a couple of years before. But what we’ve seen is Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both have grown incredibly over the years and have been joined by many smaller groups around the world. And so, if you’d go to almost any country today, there is a local human rights organization or more that are our close partners in monitoring and defending human rights practice.
…we put public pressure on governments. And foremost, we shame governments, because in today’s world, most governments find it shameful to violate human rights. Almost everybody pretends that they respect human rights; they then fall short. And if we can highlight that discrepancy between pretense and practice, that embarrassing gap forces the government over time to change.
Denver: Well, your organization has an exemplary reputation for being “factually accurate.” In fact, some people might say you’re a little obsessive about all that. So with that said, Ken, how do you go about your work? How do you decide what countries to go into? How do you gather your information? And then, how do you make a determination whether something is a human rights violation or not?
Kenneth: We are meticulous with the fact finding, and we have to be because it’s the key to our credibility. But Human Rights Watch works today in about 90 countries around the world, basically every place where there are serious human rights violations. And in each place, we begin by conducting a very detailed investigation on the ground. We have what we call “researchers” who could be lawyers; they could be journalists; they could be academics, and many, many different nationalities. We have 77 nationalities on staff. They often live in the country, or if that’s not possible, they live nearby.
And their job is to go and talk to the victims of human rights abuse, talk to the eyewitnesses, talk to the government. So they get all sides and put together as complete and accurate a picture as they can of what actually happened. We will then analyze that fact situation under international human rights law to see “Were human rights violated or not?” If they were, we publish our findings. And that publication becomes the source of an effort to pressure governments to change.
Human Rights Watch doesn’t go to court. We operate in many countries where, frankly, the court systems are broken. They don’t restrain governments. So instead, we put public pressure on governments. And foremost, we shame governments, because in today’s world, most governments find it shameful to violate human rights. Almost everybody pretends that they respect human rights; they then fall short. And if we can highlight that discrepancy between pretense and practice, that embarrassing gap forces the government over time to change.
We also work with various powerful governments who care about human rights. And so, we will go to the U.S. government or the European Union or various governments around the world and say, “Would you help us put pressure on government “so and so” until they change their human rights practices?” “Would you condition your military aid until they stop executing people?” “Would you make sure that they don’t get the next state visit until they release their political prisoners?” You figure out: What does the target government want, and you try to pressure them until they change.
Denver: Looking at both sides of this now– both gathering the information and then trying to pressure the governments at the other end of it– how has technology or social media changed the nature of how you go about that work?
Kenneth: In the old days, you would hear about a problem in a distant country, and you might start off by writing a letter – remember those things? – and put them in the post. And two months later, you might get a response. Perhaps you could afford an international phone call, but they were outrageously expensive, so you didn’t do that very often.
Initially, the emergence of e-mail changed all that and made it possible to converse in real time around the world. And social media has made it that much easier because social media means that anybody with information to share can get it out into the public domain. And so we monitor social media as a way of getting leads about things we should investigate. We also use social media to disseminate our findings. And Human Rights Watch actually has the largest social media following of any NGO of our kind. We have over 3 million followers on Twitter, over 2.5 million on Facebook, and this is a great way to get word out directly to people who are interested in what’s going on.
But rights are not meant to be up for election. And the reason we have rights is actually to constrain elected government. And that’s why you have a constitution; that’s why you have a court system– to say there are certain things that governments, even if they’re elected, even if it’s popular, can’t do.
Denver: You got me on Twitter; you don’t have me on Facebook yet, just for the record. Well, you recently issued your 2017 World Report on human rights, and you usually do that in a place where you have a particular concern about human rights. And this year, it was done in Washington, D.C. That was because of the misgivings, in fact, the forebodings the organization has as result of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. So, tell us about what that report said, as well as maybe some additional thinking you’ve had on that matter since it was issued in mid-January.
Kenneth: Well, you’re right about the location. Two years ago, we released the annual report in Beirut to highlight the problem next door in Syria, which was devastating. Last year, we released it in Istanbul to highlight the refugee crisis. This year, we did in Washington. And the theme of the report—because the report looks at conditions in 90 countries, but it also has an overview that I traditionally write about: –“What is the big global trend?” And this year the global trend was the rise of populists, illustrated by Trump, but not limited to him by any means. And by populists, what I mean is: somebody who claims to speak for the people and uses that mandate to then trample on the rights of actual people, typically disfavored minorities at the beginning. But over time, it tends to include critics, journalists, anybody who is giving the populist a hard time.
And this is a danger to human rights because the populist is often quite popular, and it can be popular to dump on disfavored minorities. So if you look at what Trump is doing, he’s dumping on Mexican immigrants; he’s dumping on Muslim immigrants, and he’s got a lot of popularity behind that. But rights are not meant to be up for election. And the reason we have rights is actually to constrain elected government. And that’s why you have a constitution; that’s why you have a court system– to say there are certain things that governments, even if they’re elected, even if it’s popular, can’t do. And Trump seems to show very little appreciation for those limits on executive authority. And you see it in his denunciation of so-called “judges,” in his attacks on journalists as “enemies of the people.”
Denver: Which is a loaded term, I know.
Kenneth: Very much so. We saw that this was a term that even the Soviet Union, and then Russia, abandoned.
Denver: Khrushchev wouldn’t use it.
Kenneth: Khrushchev wouldn’t use it because it meant too much what Stalin did, and here, Trump’s reviving it. So we worry about Trump’s lack of appreciation for the checks and balances on executive authority. And that is a danger to democracy because democracy is not just about an election. Grant Trump his Electoral College win, but he is still supposed to govern within the constraints established by the constitutional system in the United States. And he seems not to really appreciate that. And we see similar tendencies in Europe—
Denver: Yes. I was going to ask you about that. I wanted to get into those because you said in the report, he’s not an anomaly. This is happening in different places around the world. If you would speak to that…
Kenneth: Well, in some places, people have already won. If you look at Viktor Orbán in Hungary, if you look at Jaroslav Kaczyński in Poland – these are people who are effectively already in power and are in the process of undermining the checks and balances on executive authority. There are other would-be leaders, political candidates right now– like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, like Marine Le Pen in France– who have very similar tendencies. And what’s dangerous about all these is that everybody has their particular disfavored category who they dump on. What they all they seem to have in common is to dislike Muslim immigrants, Muslim asylum seekers, Muslim refugees. And in today’s world, with significant mobility and with the terrorist threat, that Islamophobia has unfortunately become popular, and it’s all the more important to resist it.
Denver: And I think if you add Lenin to that group, it would be kind of the return of the strongman. And I’d be curious as to whether you were surprised at that because it just seems like it was a few years ago, because of social media and the internet, that the era of centralized power–whether it be an entity or an individual– that was a thing of the past. And the new model was going to be distributed power. But the places you’ve mentioned – the Philippines, China, others – it really does seem we’ve come to the return of the strongman. I was just wondering if that is a surprise or to be expected in this world these days.
Kenneth: Well, it’s an unfortunate development, and it’s the product, I suppose, of the sense that democracy is inherently messy. It’s by design slow-moving and has checks and balances. And so you find people like Trump who seem to admire strongmen who simply cut through all of that. And that’s why Trump speaks so fondly of Putin, because Putin has decimated what there was of democracy in Russia.
But this preference for the strongman is dangerous for a number of reasons. First of all, because once you start moving down the path towards strongman rule, it very quickly goes from the disfavored minorities to all critics. If you look, for example, at what Erdogan has done in Turkey. Last July there was a coup attempt, and he initially went after the so-called Gulenists who were largely unpopular in Turkey because they were seen as a cult group. But he quickly moved beyond that and has now been locking up journalists, academics, Kurdish leaders, opposition activists. He has decimated what was a fairly vibrant Turkish democracy.
Denver: Well, nobody’s going to travel there, that’s for sure.
Kenneth: Another example is the general-now-president Sisi in Egypt. When he overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, Egyptians came into the street to applaud. But very quickly, he went beyond killing 817 Muslim Brotherhood protesters in a single 12-hour period, locking up tens of thousands. But he then went beyond those atrocities to actually decimate the independent press, civil society, anybody who was a potential critic of his rule.
So we have to be very careful about applauding the strongman because (1) they rule ruthlessly, (2) they tend to be corrupt. If you look at Putin, he has utterly mismanaged the Russian economy. It is plummeting quickly and meanwhile, his cronies are zillionaires. Or if you’re taking more extreme cases, look at somebody like Maduro in Venezuela or Mugabe in Zimbabwe. They’re certainly strongmen, but they have decimated the economy. I mean, Venezuela, which should be an oil-rich country, is an economic disaster case.
Denver: It’s a mess. Absolutely. Well, let me go back to Donald Trump for a moment and the case against him. You obviously have expressed your misgivings. But I think the case is being made against him each and every day – cable news, late night shows, these award ceremonies, women’s march, New President is not my President, Thanksgiving dinners for that matter – and the country remains more or less evenly divided. So the question I have for you, Ken, is twofold: (1) What specific or unique element is Human Rights Watch trying to bring to this conversation? (2) What is your organization’s theory of persuasion? Because that really is a million-dollar question–how to get people who do not think like this to change their mind. And, boy, we know how hard that is.
Kenneth: Well, let me take your questions in reverse order. In terms of whom we’re trying to persuade…obviously, we want to reinforce our base. We want to reinforce people who believe in human rights. But our primary target, frankly, is what you might call the movable middle, the persuadable middle. Because while this country is deeply divided—
Denver: What is that, 10% to 15% maybe?
Kenneth: It may be 20. But the truth is, though, that those swing votes, those changeable opinions switch elections one way or the other. And so, when we think about who is our target, that’s our target foremost. Just as in Washington, we’re focusing on the handful of Republican senators who show some independence. We’re focusing on allies with the administration– people like General Mattis, now the Defense Secretary, who are decent people and who have already shown themselves willing to stand up to crazy ideas like reintroducing torture or bombing the families of supposed terrorists. So, that’s where we’re aiming.
In terms of Human Rights Watch’s strategy within the United States, we’re not a litigating organization. There are very good groups that do litigation like the ACLU. Our job is, again, to use the same methodology we use elsewhere in the world, which is to do these detailed investigations. We focus on immigration issues. We focus on criminal justice issues, particularly mass incarceration and the drug war. We focus on a series of national security issues from Guantanamo, to the potential return of torture, to mass surveillance, to these drones. And in each of these cases, we do very detailed investigations.
Take the immigration debate. We are able to, on one hand, personify the problem. So if Trump says, “Oh, these are just a bunch of criminals and what have you,” we can show that, in fact, the significant majority of the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States have well-established family and community ties. They have jobs. They often have U.S. citizen spouses or children. They really have developed an equity to stay in the United States, even though they have no legal right to do so. And to treat them all as if they can just summarily be deported is wrong. America has built an economy around these people. They are key parts of what it is to be American today. And it’s simply wrong to treat that as irrelevant and empower the immigration agents to pick them up randomly and send them back to Mexico.
So that ability to personify a problem, and also to show how it works over in a pattern, if you will. If you look at how it plays out in different states and different regions. We’re looking very closely, for example, right now at the U.S.-Mexican border where the border patrol agents have now been empowered to suddenly, summarily return people. Are they giving people a chance to apply for asylum if they’re fleeing, for example, the Central American gang violence? Are they abusing people physically? These are the kinds of things that we’re investigating on the ground, and we will closely scrutinize to try to avoid some of the excesses that the Trump administration seems to be permitting, if not encouraging.
It’s important to get people to understand why you can’t just violate the rights of the unpopular and think that your rights are going to be secure in the long run.
…the essence of human rights really is you treat the other person the way you want to be treated. And if you break that golden rule, it’s very difficult to resurrect it at a time when your own rights might be in jeopardy.
Denver: Very interesting. Well, I know you believe, Ken, that at this perilous time, the best way to combat these strongmen is to reaffirm the value of human rights. But I was wondering how you go about doing that. What form do you see it taking? Do you see these marches and protests as effective? Or are there other things you are advocating for?
Kenneth: Well, by all means, I think the mobilization of civil society that we’ve seen is good. And the fact that we’ve seen many lawyers go to court. We’ve seen many people protest. We’ve seen many people speak out through social media, journalists to the press. This is all for the good, and that’s all to be encouraged.
But when I say it’s important to reaffirm the value of human rights, I say this because I recognize that some of what Trump is proposing, even though they are human rights violations, are popular. And it’s important to get people to understand why you can’t just violate the rights of the unpopular and think that your rights are going to be secure in the long run. It very much is a slippery slope. We’ve seen this play out around the world, and it’s a lesson we want to reaffirm– that the essence of human rights really is you treat the other person the way you want to be treated. And if you break that golden rule, it’s very difficult to resurrect it at a time when your own rights might be in jeopardy.
We need people to appreciate that and to take a principled approach to these problems, even if it may be popular to violate somebody’s human rights because Trump says that’s the supposed solution to some national problem.
Denver: Let me focus on your organization for a minute. What is your funding model at Human Rights Watch? And I’d be curious whether you’ve seen any spike in contributions in recent months like Sierra Club or Planned Parenthood or ACLU.
Kenneth: Human Rights Watch, I should say, takes only private money. As a matter of principle, we will not take anything from any government around the world. We also are a global organization, so even though we are U.S.-based and started here in the United States, 40% of our funds now come from people overseas. And that’s a strength; that’s a number we’re trying to increase over time. But still, 60% comes from within the United States, and we have seen an increase. People understand the threat represented by the Trump administration and want us to make the important contribution that Human Rights Watch can and does make in trying to resist some of these potential incursions into our basic rights.
Denver: I know a number of years ago, you received $100 million pledge from George Soros, and certainly he has some pretty pronounced political leanings. And I’ve looked at your work pretty carefully, and I have detected no change in the way you go about it– other than you’re doing more of it. But I would be curious as whether it has had an impact on the way that some of the things that you report is received. Do people begin to look at it and say, “Well, this organization has a political agenda.”
Kenneth: Well, it was, I guess, six years ago that I went to George Soros, and I said, “This is what we would like to do to globalize Human Rights Watch. We want to put more of our researchers in the fields, in the countries where they work. We want to build advocacy centers, not simply in the West, but outside the West as well, and in influential countries, whether it’s Japan or Brazil or South Africa.” And George had been supporting Human Rights Watch for many, many years, and he bought this, and he pledged $10 million a year for 10 years. That was a huge gift. He has also a challenge grant, and our donor-base responded to it, because at the point, we were roughly a $45 million organization on an annual basis. We’ve now grown to over $80 million in the course of just a few years.
Kenneth: And so the vision that George helped to underwrite is one that ended up being shared very much by our donors around the world, and it has made us a much more global, but also a stronger and more effective organization. We have not changed our methodology. It still is based on this careful investigation, this exposure of abuse to public shaming, and using that public pressure to force governments to change. We just do that more effectively because when you’re on the ground in more places, you’re better able to respond quickly and accurately.
When you can deploy that information in capitals around the world– not simply in the West– you’re also able to figure out: What are the pressure points that a government really cares about? In Zimbabwe, Mugabe may not care about Europe and the United States anymore, but he really cares about South Africa. Or Sri Lanka may not care about the West, but they care about Japan, their major donor. So, we are now able to get more leverage points and put more pressure on target governments to change.
Denver: You know, I’ve read a few of your reports… or I’ve gone through them. If you don’t mind me saying so, they’re a little bit dense. So I’m very happy that you can engage people in a somewhat different way… and that is through film! Tell our listeners about the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival.
Kenneth: Well, first, I should say: Even though our core reports are dense because we want facts out there, we always have summaries. And indeed, these days every report that we put out, we do short videos with them– which are hugely popular. But you’re talking about a different kind of film, which is that: once a year in New York… and then it travels really around the country and around the world… we put on a film festival. And these films are different from the ones that we ourselves produce about our work. These are independent films put on by filmmakers about some human rights issue. And we have a small staff that selects 20 or so films from many, many submissions, and it’s a great forum. And we get people who come in and just love it because it’s a way of bringing to life human rights issues, not through a report, not through anything dry, but through this very emotional depiction of what life is like in a situation of serious human rights abuse.
Denver: You know, I often check out the Glassdoor ratings of guests who come on the show, and that indicates how the employees feel about working at a certain place. And for your organization, they are quite exceptional. In fact, there’s a category called “Approve of CEO” and you only received a 100% rating. That’s quite impressive! Congratulations!
Kenneth: Thank you.
…I want each employee to feel empowered. I want them to wake up in the morning and to say, “This is my country. I have to figure out what to do.” And that’s how you get the most out of people; that’s how the jobs are most satisfying, but that’s also how we’re more effective.
Denver: So tell us a little bit about the corporate culture of Human Rights Watch and some of the specific things that you have done to make it such an outstanding place to work.
Kenneth: Well, first of all, it’s a pleasure to work there because we attract such fantastic people. My colleagues are smart, dedicated, multi-lingual, multi-national…it’s a very nice place to work. My theory has been that the more decisions I have to make, the worst off we are. I want to kick decisions down the hierarchy to the experts. I want the researchers in the field who know their country and know their issue better than anybody else to make as many decisions as possible. And we do that within a framework. We have basic principles the organization goes by. We have a review structure that vets things to make sure that they’re accurate and the like. But I want each employee to feel empowered. I want them to wake up in the morning and to say, “This is my country. I have to figure out what to do.” And that’s how you get the most out of people; that’s how the jobs are most satisfying, but that’s also how we’re more effective.
Denver: Sure. They’re going to make better decisions than you are because they’re right on the front lines. That’s for sure.
I actually look at human rights as something that can ultimately bring people together because we may disagree about policies, but most people will agree with the right to articulate your view… And that in essence is what human rights is about. It’s defending that space so each individual can have his or her own point of view and can live their own life according to their own conception of human dignity. And I think we can all come together around that.
Denver: Let me close with this, Ken, if I can. Why do you think everybody is so mad and so angry these days? I had on the show the chairman of Weber Shandwick a few months back, and they issue what they call the “Annual Civility Index.” And the most recent one, he said, indicated that 75% of Americans believe that incivility has reached crisis proportions. And it was spiking in the last few years, well before Clinton and Trump. To what do you attribute this hostility and this unbelievable anger we have for each other these days?
Kenneth: I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. Clearly, cable TV has made a big contribution because many of the shows, particularly on Fox News, seem to thrive on that kind of divisiveness. Social media in some ways has accentuated the problem because you see– partly through organized trolls, partly through just ordinary people– a similar lack of civility that sometimes enters the conversation. But I have not given up on the ability to have a real conversation. I just know on my own Twitter account… which I’m a bit addicted to…. Yes, I have certain trolls who attack me, and I just ignore them. But there are many, many more people, hundreds of thousands of people, who are just interested in what we’re reporting and who believe in human rights.
And I actually look at human rights as something that can ultimately bring people together because we may disagree about policies, but most people will agree with the right to articulate your view. And I think even in today’s world of rising populists, there’s a real hesitation to give government the power to censor, to give government the right to say, “You only get to believe what I believe and nothing more.” And that in essence is what human rights is about. It’s defending that space so each individual can have his or her own point of view and can live their own life according to their own conception of human dignity. And I think we can all come together around that.
Denver: I hope so. Tell us about your website, Ken, the kind of information people will find there, and how people will become involved, or maybe even help support the organization, if they’re so inclined.
Kenneth: The website is hrw.org, HRW for Human Rights Watch. It’s easy to find. And everything we put out is on the website. So at the home page, we’ll have the latest news. But you can go to any country in the world. You can go to various issues. We have special programs on women’s rights, on children’s rights, on refugee rights, on LGBT rights, et cetera. And so whatever your area of interest is, you can go there, and you can find as much as you possibly want to have. You can sign up for various newsletters by topic, by issue.
It’s easy to follow us on Twitter, too. Just go to @hrw for the institutional account. My personal account is @kenroth. And that’s a great way to just catch up very quickly with what’s going on. If you want to donate, there’s a very easy-to-find donate button on the Human Rights Watch website, which I encourage you to exercise.
Denver: Your site is very nicely curated, I must say. Well, Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us this evening. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show, Ken.
Kenneth: The pleasure is entirely mine. Thank you!
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter and at facebook.com/business of giving.