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. (more…)