Human Rights Watch World Report 2012 - Events of 2011
Human Rights Watch World Report 2012 - Events of 2011

Human Rights Watch World Report 2012

Apr 17, 2012

How have governments responded to the recent events in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and other countries such as Bahrain?  Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch gives a masterly analysis of international reactions, including those of the U.S., France, India, China, Russia, Turkey, and the Arab League.


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome our members and guests, and to thank you all for joining us.

Our speaker is Ken Roth, who is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. It has been a few years since Ken was here to discuss the Human Rights Watch report. Even so, many of the concerns raised then are still challenging us today, whether it is the plight of political prisoners, the silencing of dissent, the suppression of religious freedom, or torture.

It is a pleasure to have him at this podium once again. This morning he will be discussing the 2012 report, which reflects the extensive work carried out by a team of investigative reporters who worked diligently during 2011 in more than 90 countries to bring to light human rights abuses worldwide.

The past year has seen some remarkable changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. With each new protest movement, there is the potential for transforming this part of the world forever. It's not surprising, then, that this year's report would focus on the Arab Spring and highlight what we should be thinking about to ensure the transition to democracies.

Considering the number of oppressive governments in the Middle East, you may be surprised to learn that the first known record of the world's initial charter of human rights appeared in ancient Persia. Briefly, it all began in 538 BC, when the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon; but it was his next actions that marked a major advance for man. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and he established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked clay cylinder, which came to be known as the Cyrus Cylinder.

Knowing this, one can't help but wonder why the descendants of these enlightened Persians have had to struggle for so long to regain many of the freedoms that were once granted, but then lost or taken away.

As we mark the first anniversary of these movements, we have watched as the people of the Middle East stand steadfast in the face of untold adversity to realize their basic rights. Human Rights Watch, which has worked tenaciously for over 30 years to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change for people around the world, argues that the efforts of these brave individuals should be supported with firm and consistent international support. They believe that this is the best way to pressure the region's autocrats to end abuses and enhance basic freedoms.

For some time now, Ken Roth's name has been synonymous with defending and protecting human rights around the world. Under his stewardship, Human Rights Watch has persevered to bring our attention to human rights abuses no matter when or where they occur. No country is immune. As the world struggles to balance democracy's promise of human rights protection against negligence, violence, and abuse, it's gratifying to know that there is someone like Ken Roth leading the fight to bring justice for those oppressed.

For the much anticipated and historically significant progress report on the human race, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Ken Roth. Thank you for coming back.


KENNETH ROTH: Thank you. It's very nice to be back here again. I see we've become very high-tech. I think the last time I spoke here we didn't have this backdrop. It's nice to see the progress.

I am presenting this year our World Report, which we put out once a year at the end of January. Typically we hold a press conference in Washington, but this year we decided to hold the press conference in Cairo, given the subject of the report. This is actually my first presentation on the report on this side of the Atlantic. You can treat it as sort of a belated press conference here, I suppose.

The report traditionally looks at events around the world, and we work in about 90 countries. But the introductory essay, which I'll focus on today, looked this year at the international reaction to the events in the Middle East and North Africa. We looked at it both historically and up to the present: How were various governments responding to the dramatic events of the last year?

I have to say that a lot has happened since we wrote the report, so I will give you kind of an updated version of the report. I thought I would sort of do a tour du region and give a brief historical background, but then I thought I would run country by country, give you my quick sense of how things are going, how the world is responding, and then open it up for conversation.

Historically, as I thought about how you sum up the Western reaction to the Middle East, I thought the dominant value was one of containment. We're used to thinking of containment as what the United States did to the Soviet Union. But, in fact, the main concern of the West seemed to be to contain the Arab people. There was a big democracy agenda in most of the rest of the world, but when it came to the Middle East and North Africa, there was this Arab exception. The West seemed comfortable with the range of autocrats who reigned there.

There were a number of reasons for this, I think most of them pretty straightforward. One was a fear of political Islam, particularly as an insurrectional movement. The West was comfortable with political Islam in the Saudi version, where it was very much a status quo force. But insofar as it was going to challenge authority in the region, political Islam was to be feared.

You saw this historically in the Western reaction to the success of the FIS [Islamic Salvation Front] in Algeria, where the West basically closed its eyes to the military coup there, and a good decade of brutal civil war after that. You saw in the Bush Administration's response to Hamas's victory in the Palestinian territories, or even in Egypt, on the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in the parliamentary elections of six years ago, which led to a sudden end to Bush's democracy agenda in that part of the world.

It was clear that political Islam was not something the West was comfortable with. They would far prefer the autocrats who reigned.

Clearly there was also a concern with fighting terrorism. The region, obviously, gave birth to al-Qaeda. The West was very comfortable using the security services of the region to keep a lid on terrorist potential, including by outsourcing torture, by closing its eyes to the torture that was carried out by the security forces in the region—yet another reason why democracy and human rights were not at the forefront of the Western agenda in that part of the world.

The stability provided by the autocrats was also helpful to keep the oil flowing. It was helpful to keep Israel secure. It was helpful for Europe to contain the threat of large-scale migration, particularly from Northern Africa. The governments of Northern Africa cooperated both in trying to stem the flow and also to receive summary repatriation by various European powers.

All of these obviously had to do with Western concerns. They didn't have a lot to do with the concerns of the people of the region, and so it should have been no surprise that the people of the region didn't accept this deal with their autocrats. It took some time for the Arab Spring to be mobilized, but once it happened in Tunisia, it rapidly spread, and we saw that there was widespread discontent with authoritarian rule and a desire on the part of the Arab people for the same kind of democracy and human rights that everybody else wants around the world.

So that's kind of where we are. The West initially responded a bit slowly, with a bit of uncertainty, to the uprisings. France hung on to Ben Ali too long in Tunisia. The United States hung on to Mubarak for a bit too long in Egypt. But ultimately the West really has, I think, gotten behind the flow of events, with a few exceptions, which I'll get to.

I also, though, want to discuss the reaction of the rest of the world. I think it's important to talk not simply about the Western reaction, but really genuinely about the international reaction. There, the report card is a bit mixed. There are some very positive things to report, but also some ongoing troubling things. So let me, if I may, just go quickly country by country through a few countries in the region and talk about how I see it at this stage.

Let me begin with Libya, which was the first significant international intervention. Quite apart from being a manifestation of the responsibility to protect [R2P] come to life—this was the most difficult application of R2P yet—what I take from it is that it showed the significance of the emerging powers, the southern democracies, that are playing a much more important role in international politics these days.

In the case of Libya, the major Western powers were clearly against Qaddafi's atrocities. As Qaddafi was threatening Benghazi, he was threatening a massacre of the rebels, the West wanted to stop that. But the real question is, how do you convince the rest of the world? How do you get the Security Council to act? How do you get past the potential of a Russia and China veto?

The key to that was the three major southern democracies who at the time were on the Security Council—Brazil, South Africa, and India. They were right up to the end very uncertain about how they felt about all of this. I remember actually lunching with the South African ambassador to the United Nations the day before the first big Security Council vote was coming up—at that stage, whether to impose sanctions and whether to send Libya to the International Criminal Court [ICC].

He wasn't sure which way he was going to go. It was ultimately South Africa's agreement to support that resolution that then led Brazil and India to say that if the African government in this situation is going with this resolution, is willing to criticize a fellow African county, Libya, then India and Brazil would go along. Then Russia toppled. Finally, it was just China left standing alone. This was on a Saturday afternoon. They quickly asked for a three-hour adjournment so they could call back for instructions. By the end of the day, there was a unanimous resolution supporting the sanctions and the ICC referral.

What this showed was the cost to Russia and China of being isolated on the Council if the major southern democracies went along with a pro-human rights venture. That was, in many ways, the high-water mark. Even with the military intervention, the southern democracies abstained, as did Russia and China, rather than veto. So Libya went, from a political perspective, relatively smoothly.

This is when the problems started. Many people feel that then NATO overstepped its mandate, that the mandate was one of protecting civilians, but NATO went further, to regime change. There is an argument to be made that you couldn't protect civilians so long as Qaddafi was in power and that the two mandates were effectively the same thing.

But NATO has been troublingly silent in defending what it did. That lack of a defense, coupled with a broad feeling in the Global South that this was a power grab, that this was an inappropriate use of force, beyond the narrow force necessary to protect civilians, led to a reaction.

The reaction principally came up in Syria, where, even though military action, to this day, has not been on the table at the Security Council, and even though they weren't even proceeding under Chapter VII —there were all kinds of caveats and they were making clear that no one was talking about an invasion—nonetheless, the southern democracies, for the longest time, said, "Well, we're going to mediate this one. We're not going to use pressure."

You may recall that they sent a delegation to Damascus. They tried to talk it through with Assad. That went nowhere. But their kind of diddling made it possible for Russia and China—it gave them cover for the first veto. The second veto, even when the southern democracies sort of joined the West in putting pressure on Syria, in a sense, the pattern had been set.

Now, Russia and China are being more cooperative now, through a series of Security Council statements, as opposed to resolutions. But they have not joined in really ratcheting up the pressure. They have not joined in adding sanctions and adding an arms embargo, in imposing the sorts of measures that Assad would listen to. What Assad is left with is the sense that Russia and China, still significant powers, are behind him. A lot of that stems, really, from the mismanagement of the Libya effort—a cheap excuse, I have to say.

Why should the Syrian people suffer for an alleged transgression in Libya? Nonetheless, this is international politics. That has been a big part of what has been driving a disappointing Security Council response to the atrocities in Syria.

Just one more thing on Libya. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the West itself has been disappointing. I don't need to tell you, in post-Qaddafi Libya there are still big problems. The interim authorities don't have a monopoly of power over the security forces. There is still a range of militia. Each has its own security forces, its own detection facility, its own fiefdom. It has been a challenge to create a national structure, whether it comes to a monopoly of the police, a monopoly of the military, or even the rule of law.

The whole debate about Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, Qaddafi's son—he's not even in the central government's grasp at this stage. He's being detained by a militia in Zintan, and they can't get their hands on him, let alone work out what to do with him.

So there are big problems there. Nonetheless, at the UN Human Rights Council, the West decided to drop any serious scrutiny of Libya and to just say, "Success story. Time to move on." That makes it easier for the opponents of human rights enforcement to say, "Oh, this whole thing in Geneva is just politicized. They're very happy to go after their enemies, but when it comes to their friends, they'd just as soon avoid scrutiny." So that was an ongoing disappointment in the Western reaction in Libya.

Coming back to Syria, there are a few developments that I would like to highlight there. One is the impressive role played by the Arab League. I highlight that just because, a year ago, who would have ever thought of the Arab League as playing any kind of human rights role? They were sort of at the heart of those who felt that human rights was just a problem, and they would do anything they could to avoid it.

I don't pretend that the Arab League is acting for noble reasons. They are sort of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. A lot of what's going on here is the Saudi-Iranian competition. Saudi Arabia suddenly feels that Syria is in play, it could be shifted from the Shi'a column to the Sunni column, and it could help undermine Iran. That kind of geopolitics is what's driving certainly the GCC, the Gulf Cooperative Council, and therefore the Arab League.

But that said, the Arab League has been useful in terms of isolating Assad, in terms of at least articulating sanctions, although they have been frustratingly vague about whether those sanctions are actually being implemented or not, in terms of briefly deploying monitors, who were not terribly successful, but who, while they were on the ground, did curtail the killing to some extent.

In a sense, they have given us some lessons to learn now, if these joint UN-Arab League monitors are now about to be deployed. I say "if" because it's very unclear that Assad is going to abide by Kofi Annan's plan. But if there is any progress to be made here, I think it will be in the realm of monitors.

I have no illusions that Assad is going to kind of negotiate his departure. But he may have to acquiesce on the deployment of monitors. We have now learned from the Arab League experience the importance of the monitors having their own security, not being dependent on Syrian security forces to move around, having the independence to go where they want and to report on what they want to see, which is the way they would be able to curtail violence, should they be given those freedoms. But the Arab League has suddenly become a very important player.

Turkey as well, to our surprise, has emerged as a regionally important player. Now, it is a compromised player, in the sense that it still has not fully cleaned up its act at home. It represents a positive model in a certain respect because it is an Islamic democracy which has not used Islam as an excuse to crack down. It uses other things as an excuse to crack down. I don't want to pretend that there is complete freedom.

There are still huge problems with the Kurds. There are big problems with journalists. There are problems with demonstrations. Erdogan has been going after the military, subjecting it to civilian control, which is good, but also seemingly prosecuting people in an almost random way in this Ergenekon trial, where it's as if the entire country was plotting a coup, and so they have been picking up people left and right and detaining them for long periods.

So Turkey has big problems in terms of using it as a model in the region. But that said, it has been quite courageous in the case of Syria. It has been really opening its borders to refugees coming across. There is, frankly, a real possibility that the fighting is going to spread. There were just reports yesterday of shootings across the border. It's very possible that Turkey is going to set up some kind of protective zone within Syria close to the border, which could easily be the beginning of a military intervention.

I see in this case, not a decision to send in the troops, but rather an incremental process, which, to some degree, is already under way in the arming of the rebels. I think the likely next step is that there are going to be certain safe zones that will be created. We all hope that these are not safe zones à la Srebrenica, but rather something that would actually provide safety.

This is a dangerous process. I think a lot of people have real qualms about the international militarization of the conflict. But as the other efforts are not bearing fruit, I'm hearing more and more people talking about this military option.

Short of that, I would come back to the Security Council, which so far still has not been willing to impose an arms embargo. It has not been willing to internationalize the sanctions that have been imposed by Europe or North America. It has not internationalized the oil embargo. These are steps that would bite, that would make a big difference in Damascus.

I don't think we'll ever convince Assad to give up the throne, but if it becomes clear to the entourage around him that there is no future with Assad, we could see some kind of palace coup and then an effort to negotiate some kind of compromise. I think that probably is the best-case scenario at this stage.

But it will come only if there is really greater unanimity in the international community. So long as China and Russia, occasionally covered by the southern democracies, are willing to equivocate as they have and block any serious measures in the Security Council, I don't think we will be able to get the progress that we need in curtailing the killing.

Let me move on to Egypt. Here I have to say that the Western response to the Muslim Brotherhood's rise in Egypt has been hearteningly mature. I contrast that with the last time around. The Muslim Brotherhood has been popular for a long, long time.

The last chance we had to see that popularity at the ballot box was in, I think, the elections of 2005, where the Muslim Brotherhood, in typical fashion, didn't even run candidates in all the constituencies, but ran maybe a third or so, and won overwhelmingly wherever they ran. That so terrified the West that Bush immediately stopped his democracy agenda for Egypt.

This time around, the Muslim Brotherhood has been very careful to try to reassure the West. It has done a number of things to stress its moderation, including, for a while, promising not to run a presidential candidate, making clear that it would maintain a very pro-business policy, being clear that it wouldn't interrupt the peace treaty with Israel. Clearly what the Muslim Brotherhood had in mind was the FIS's plight in the early 1990s in Algeria. Nobody wanted to go through that. So they were not going to provoke a military coup.

This fear of a military coup has actually, I think, if anything, led the Muslim Brotherhood to be too accommodating with the military. What has become clear to me, both with meeting with the military leadership in Egypt and watching them, is that they are completely not ready to run the country. They are very happy to run their fiefdoms, and what they are looking for is a guaranteed hands-off with respect to their budget, their economic interests, and, of course, they don't want any judicial accountability for any crimes that they may have committed, whether corruption or human rights abuse.So they are pushing for that kind of autonomy.

But the mess that Egypt has become, whether the turmoil in the streets or the economic difficulty, they just don't even know how to handle. Their instincts are so kind of wooden and backwards that I think that this threat that they really want to run the country is overblown.

Nonetheless, I fear that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to give in to the military and kind of create a huge democratic exception for them and give them their autonomy as a way of avoiding interference in their governance of what's left of the government.

But the biggest thing that I worry about with the Muslim Brotherhood is not so much accommodating the military as it is the pressure from the right, from the Salafist. That, I think, is the reason why they just decided to reverse their pledge and to run a presidential candidate. As you all know, the Salafist won about 25 percent of the parliamentary vote to the 47, 48 percent that the Muslim Brotherhood won. That in and of itself is a big chunk.

If you assume that any governing party gradually loses support, I think there is a real fear that they will be eclipsed on the right. That worries me in terms of whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to model itself on something like the AKP, Erdogan's party in Turkey, which is one that does largely at least speak the democratic game, or whether it is going to be kind of pushed more in the Saudi direction.

This challenge from the right I think is what is going to push them. If they feel that their support is moving to the right, that the Salafist are kind of a viable challenge, I fear that we may get restrictions on religious freedom, on the rights of women, on the rights of various minorities. Those are really the danger points here, not to mention tolerance of dissent, of demonstrations, and the like.

There are certain moderating factors at play with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood that I think will keep it tending toward the right path. But none of this is a guarantee. We really are going to have to be scrutinizing them closely.

The factors that I would cite would be, first of all, the dismal state of the economy. There was nobody in the hotel when I visited recently. The tourists are not coming. Foreign direct investment has stopped. The economy is in terrible shape. If they are going to reverse that, they need to keep Egypt as an internationally friendly place, which militates against a "Saudiization" of Egypt.

Another factor that is limiting them is the liberals, the Tahrir protesters. Even though the liberals really did poorly at the ballot box, they do have a significant presence in Cairo, and they have the capacity to demonstrate that things are not going well by occasionally reoccupying Tahrir Square. Again, because that signals that it's not safe for the tourists to come back and it's not a great time for international investment, there's more leverage there than their electoral members would suggest. Those liberals, I think, will continue to be a moderating influence on the Brotherhood.

Finally, I would just point to the younger generation of the Brotherhood itself. We're beginning to see splits within the Brotherhood even around the different presidential candidates. The younger generation, which was more influenced by Tahrir Square, more likely to be Westernized, more likely to use the Internet, doesn't necessarily share at all this Salafist vision.

While the leadership, too, is, for the most part, established businesspeople, they are not radicals, and they really have a stake in the economy, they don't have the same kind of liberal exposure as the younger generation. I think the Brotherhood's fear of a generational split is going to keep them from going too far to the right.

This is obviously just speculation—maybe a bit hopeful speculation. But I do think that there are significant factors at play that could keep the Muslim Brotherhood within the democratic realm and potentially turn Egypt into another positive model. I consider Turkey largely positive, despite the serious problems that I outlined. We'll have to see. This is, in many ways, the most important country at play in the region, and it has big problems before it.

One last thing I want to say about Egypt is with respect to Israel. I don't see the treaty at risk at all, but I do think we should watch what happens in Gaza. That is because the truth is that the current Egyptian policy toward Gaza is indefensible. Most people think about Israel as imposing a siege on Gaza, but, in fact, it's Israel and Egypt that are imposing the siege. If Egypt were to open the border, there would be no siege. People would be able to travel freely. There would be open commerce.

But because Egypt has technically left the border closed—true, the tunnels exist—that is what has stifled the economy. People are not starving in Gaza, because humanitarian aid comes in, but the economy is devastated because exports are basically prohibited, unless you can go through the tunnels, which is obviously not a great way to maintain international commerce.

That could change if the Rafah border were opened. Obviously everybody has an interest in keeping heavy weaponry out of Gaza. So this is not about letting anything in. But blocking heavy weapons is very different from blocking all commerce.

The fact that, here it is, a year after the revolution and Egypt is still a partner with Israel in blocking commerce is difficult to explain to Egyptians. So I don't think that's going to last. Particularly as the Brotherhood gains power—and it is, after all, a fellow Muslim Brotherhood party, Hamas, that is running Gaza—I would see an easing of the siege with respect to Gaza.

There may be some positive influence on Hamas in terms of stopping the rocket attacks into Israel. I don't think that's terribly in the Muslim Brotherhood's interest. So this could cut both ways. But I'm hopeful that there will be, in both respects, a positive influence of the greater ascendancy of the Brotherhood into setting Egyptian foreign policy with respect to Israel.

Let me just conclude with a few areas where the West is not doing terribly well in the region.

One is Bahrain. It's particularly appropriate because one of the leading activists in Bahrain is actually on a hunger strike and, by all accounts, is very near death. He has been put into a military hospital. He's incommunicado. Nobody is in touch with him. He's a dual Bahraini-Danish citizen. The Bahrainis are refusing a Danish request to send him to Denmark. They seem determined just to let this guy die, which is going to be explosive, if that happens. But this is just the latest manifestation of an ongoing, very repressive situation there.

To some extent, there is a conflict between, on the one hand, the king and the crown prince, who, in the scheme of things, are relatively moderate, versus the prime minister, who clearly is a hardliner, clearly in the ascendancy.

The king did a decent thing by creating this Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, led by a respected Egyptian jurist, Cherif Bassiouni, to look into what had happened. He put out a very good report, making all kinds of recommendations about releasing political prisoners, bringing the torturers and the killers to account, reinstating the students who had been expelled, returning people to their jobs. Some of that is being implemented, but a lot of it has not been.

You can see the tensions within Bahrain playing out by what has been accomplished and what not. They won't even let us in for any kind of serious visit. They said, "We'll give you a five-day visa," which is sort of designed to prevent us from being there on a Friday, when anything might happen, and also to ensure that they can keep us occupied with official meetings and we don't get much time to really look around the country. So we're negotiating that.

The factors in terms of the poor Western response here I think are pretty clear. Saudi Arabia is driving Western policy toward Bahrain. Saudi Arabia could not tolerate the prospect of a Shia-led, more democratic government sitting immediately off of its shore. It didn't want the precedent of Shia rule, given the significant Shia population in the Saudi Eastern Province. It certainly didn't want a democratic precedent. It talks about fear of Iranian influence, although I actually think that that is the least real of those fears.

Of course, there's the Fifth Fleet Base in Bahrain as well, and the United States is eager to use that if it has to go to war with Iran.

All of these factors have come together to make Bahrain, I think, the most glaring exception to Western support for the pro-democracy movements in the region, and one that is all about geopolitics, not about principle.

Looking more broadly at the monarchies in the region, I think one thing that is notable is that the monarchies have largely avoided this kind of strife. The Moroccans have made some modest concessions to preempt the democracy movement. In Jordan, there is much more turmoil than usually meets the press. Obviously Saudi Arabia is using its usual tactics to prevent anything significant from happening.

But even in supposedly moderate states, like the UAE [United Arab Emirates], they have been cracking down and they have been imprisoning activists. And there has been very little Western response to this. There seems to be the sense that these monarchies are our friends; let's just kind of leave them alone and not talk too much about the democracy movements there.

Finally, in Yemen, where we have seen a transition of sorts, in that President Saleh has stepped down, although his relatives are still very much in control. The most disturbing aspect of Western policy there was this crazy idea of announcing way before Saleh had stepped down that he and his entourage would be amnestied for any atrocities that they committed. This was a GCC initiative, one that the Security Council never explicitly endorsed, but never disowned either.

The effect of this policy was essentially to tell Saleh, "You can kill as many demonstrators as you want. If you succeed in staying in power, you obviously won't prosecute yourself. But if you lose, we won't prosecute you." So it was just a license to kill. And that's how he took it.

I think this amnesty, ostensibly done in the name of hastening a democratic transition, made the transition much more violent, with much more bloodshed, than would have been the case otherwise. You often hear in these contexts this supposed tension between peace and justice or between a democratic transition and justice. Yemen, for me, highlights how not only are they not in contest, but they, in many ways, are compatible.

If you ignore justice in this, if you throw justice out the window, you're going to make the transition much more difficult. The truth of the matter is, no dictator ever steps down voluntarily. They only step down when they have lost the capacity to cling to power. By the time that comes along, the offer of the amnesty is superfluous. They're running. So why formalize this in advance? Why suggest that there is no price to be paid for the killing? You're just going to encourage more killing.

This has real significance for us today as we contemplate Assad. Fortunately, nobody is offering Assad an amnesty in advance. But I fear that there will come a time when people start talking in those terms. I think it's very important to distinguish between the kind of formal amnesty that the GCC offered Saleh in Yemen and, as a more practical alternative, the possibility of perhaps delaying justice if it's necessary to get the dictator out.

If the issue is, should Assad fly off to Moscow just to get rid of him, fine. But don't give him a formal amnesty. Leave open the option of prosecuting him when you can, because that's the only way of minimizing the bloodshed today and also avoiding a precedent tomorrow, that any dictator can just kill as long as he wants and then negotiate for an amnesty at the end and the international community will give it to him.

We don't want to be sending that signal.

Let me stop there. I would welcome your questions and comments.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Warren Hoge, International Peace Institute.

Ken, I want to ask you about what you were talking about at the very end, which is the famous peace and justice argument. In the case of Syria, there are a lot of people saying that Assad ought to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Of course, that could be difficult because it takes the Security Council to do it. But just theoretically, if you did that, that would forestall a resort to the Yemeni solution, as faulty as it was. Saleh left because he knew he would not be prosecuted. If you referred Assad to the ICC, that option is sort of off the table.

Just philosophically, does Human Rights Watch have a view when the peace and justice things come into conflict as they have in the past? In the specific case of Assad, obviously in the human rights toolkit is reference to the ICC. Do you think that would be a smart thing to do in the case of Assad in Syria?

KENNETH ROTH: I actually think that if we could get past the Security Council roadblock of the Russian veto, by all means we should be referring Syria to the ICC. I say that, first of all, because the crimes against humanity are clearly at the level that would warrant ICC involvement. I also think that it sends a signal, not just to Assad, who's hopeless at this stage—he's going to be clinging to power as long as he can—but to the people around him.

The signal is, if you give up now and you find some kind of accommodation—you defect, you stop shooting demonstrators, whatever—you are less likely to find yourself in The Hague. Those people who may not be all that known right now don't want to make themselves known. I think that's where the focus should be. There could be real deterrent value to bringing the ICC in.

Would that create a tension with the prospect of a democratic or some kind of transition? I don't really think so.

Even in the case of Saleh, he knew that despite the GCC amnesty, the ICC always could be brought in. The GCC amnesty is actually legally worthless when it comes to the International Criminal Court. He just had to sort of bank on Russia preventing that from happening or the West not even pushing for it, which is what happened in the case of Yemen. Obviously, if the referral were to already have taken place, the dictator no longer can say, "Maybe Russia will protect me." It's clear that Russia didn't protect you. That maybe closes the door a little bit more.

But again, my experience around the world has been that dictators are clinging to power regardless of the prospect of prosecution. They don't need the added fear of prosecution to cling to power. That's just what dictators do. Assad is not going to step down until basically the people around him say, "You are too much of a cost for us."

I think Western policy should be aimed at the entourage, to make it clear to them that there's just no future with Assad, and if they want their oil sales back, if they want to be able to travel, if they want their bank accounts, if they want an economy that functions, they had better find some solution.

I don't think ICC involvement impedes that at all. Indeed, if anything, it, I think, hastens it by signaling that there's an additional cost at stake. If they don't want to end up in The Hague, they had better find a solution.

QUESTION: David Hunt.

Mr. Roth, how is the decision of the Obama administration to continue the subsidies of the military in Egypt viewed in Egypt, particularly by the younger people?

KENNETH ROTH: I'm not sure I could speak for the younger people there. I have to say, first of all, the decision to attack NDI [National Democratic Institute] and IRI [International Republican Institute], sort of the government-funded NGOs—sometimes with quotes—was, I think, driven by two things. One was the government funding. Second was the fact that they were seen as having a political agenda.

Even though, from our perspective, the political agenda was just training people how to be good politicians or good civil society activists or good journalists, nonetheless they were seen as for participation in politics rather than simply defending rights. That seemed to be kind of a line that they had in mind. The fact that, for example, Human Rights Watch was left alone had to do with the fact that we don't take any government money and that we clearly are investigating and reporting on rights abuses. We don't have a broader political agenda.

I say that not to justify what was done, because I think what was done was wrong. It takes chutzpah for a military that is receiving $1.2 billion in aid to object to international funding of a handful of NGOs. But nonetheless those were, I think, the factors.

What I think many people objected to in Egypt—and it's not just the young people; I think it's across the spectrum—was that the way that this problem was solved was through what was understood to be interference in the independence of the judiciary. That's a fair criticism. Given the way Egypt was structured, it wasn't enough to simply tell the political attorney general to stop the case. There's enough independence to the prosecutorial process that this was seen as an intrusion. And that generated resentment.

In the aid going forward, I can't really speak to that. I'm not sure of the answer to that. Do Egyptians think that this huge support for the military should continue or not? I would suspect that over time people would like to see a better distribution of that, aiding more the Egyptian people as a whole rather than just the military. I'm not sure that this moment is the right moment to do it.

What was disappointing was the fact that Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration kind of ignored the congressional criteria, which were not met. Rather than use those criteria as leverage to push for sticking with human rights and democratic principles, they just said, "Okay, we've solved our little, narrow, parochial problem. Now the money can go forward," when, in fact, the conditions were about much, much more.

QUESTION: Richard Valcourt, International Journal of Intelligence.

Alan Dershowitz, in his book The Case Against Israel's Enemies, very strongly criticized President Carter, Human Rights Watch, and you personally regarding views toward Israel itself and its security policies. What are, in fact, Human Rights Watch's views toward Israel and its security policies and domestic policies?

KENNETH ROTH: I think the list is actually a lot longer than that, as I recall. I think Dershowitz had pages and pages of enemies.

Let me just say, to give you a simple answer, Human Rights Watch applies the same standards to Israel as to everybody else, which drives the Israelis crazy. They like to pretend that we only criticize them because we must be anti-Semitic or we must be holding them to a different standard or we must have some kind of bias.

Look at our work. When there's a war, we report on both sides. We reported extensively on Hamas and Hezbollah. When there is a war, we're applying Geneva Convention standards. When it comes to other issues, we're applying traditional human rights standards. We do it as carefully and objectively in Israel as we do everyplace else—in fact, probably more carefully, because we're so scrutinized by the likes of Dershowitz et al.

I'm not sure there's a whole lot more to say to it than that. It's all on the website. Take a look. I personally can stand behind this and say we're fair, we're objective, and we have the same standards as everyplace else.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

Can you tell us a little about Iran?

KENNETH ROTH: What I can't do is talk about the nuclear question, because that's beyond our competence.

In human rights terms, maybe the most interesting thing is to ask, what would have happened had the Green Revolution occurred last year? When it did happen, it was brutally crushed by the Basij and various security forces, and crushed with enough severity that it hasn't resumed. I don't know that it could have been as easily crushed had it been happening with the momentum of the Arab Spring around it.

I also don't think it's crushed for good. I think there's enormous discontent, not to mention splits within the rulers themselves, the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad split.

I think that Iran remains a very dynamic situation, but one where, for the moment, the government has the upper hand, through very severe repression, which most recently we're seeing in its efforts to control the Internet, which I think is an impossible effort, but is one they are undertaking. They are trying to create almost like an Iranian intranet and divorce Iran from the rest of the world. I don't think that's terribly doable. But that's their quest at the moment.

Sadly, I think this whole nuclear controversy helps Ahmadinejad. In an odd way, there would be no greater gift to him than to have Iran attacked, because it would allow him to play the nationalist card. But obviously the considerations there extend well beyond the human rights domain and get into security issues, which I'm just not expert on.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

Could you comment a little more on the political motivation and back story of Russia and China's obstructionism against the sanctions? Is it really because of a fear of dissent within their own countries or is it because Iran is a client and Syria is a client or Iran, et cetera?

KENNETH ROTH: I think there are two different factors going on. In the case of China, they are terrified at the prospect of the Arab Spring coming into China.

You may recall, about a year ago, there was this effort to launch the so-called "jasmine" rallies, which were very cleverly done. Everybody knew that if you just held a rally, you would be crushed. So a call went out in, I think, 12 cities on Sunday afternoons to go to the main shopping area and to walk up and down, which was brilliant, because the police didn't know who the shoppers were and who the protesters were.

It drove the Chinese crazy. That led to what has really been the most intense crackdown in well over a decade in China, with long, long prison terms being imposed, people disappearing. It has been ugly.

Yes, China is enormously worried. As it is, by their own count, there are something like 100,000 incidents of public unrest every year in China—mostly local issues having to do with corrupt local officials seizing land or polluting the environment or engaging in corruption. People have no recourse to the courts. They can't get on the Internet anymore. So they protest. But these are kind of local things. What China is terrified of is that these local disputes would somehow nationalize and become another Tiananmen.

That, I think, is China's major preoccupation at the moment, particularly at a moment of leadership transition, when they are trying to pretend that everything is going smoothly.

With Russia, I think it's different. Yes, Putin suddenly has figured out that there's an opposition. He's not forever popular, that's clear. But Russia, in Internet terms, in civil society terms, is relatively open compared to China. People are getting arrested and so forth, but with much less severe prison terms and the like than what happens in China.

I think what's driving Russia is more geopolitical competition with the United States, or with the West, still. If they look around the Middle East, Assad traditionally was their closest ally. At this point you could argue that Assad is their only ally in the Arab world, a major purchaser of Russian arms. I guess the only Russian base is there.

There are a lot of traditional geopolitical interests, which Russia is not eager to give up. They felt that they were kind of hoodwinked with Libya, and things went too fast for them in Libya. There was a weaker ally, and Qaddafi was never as reliable as Assad. But I think that's the main thing that's going on.

The only way to change this is really to kind of change the public relations costs to Moscow of sticking with a mass murderer. We at Human Rights Watch have been putting a big effort into this. We have held a series of press conferences in Moscow. We have been really targeting the Russian press with a lot of our Syria work, just so the Russian people, at least, will know what's going on.

But I think that's what going on there, and it's quite different from the Chinese concerns. I don't think the Chinese have any direct interest in Syria. If Russia were to crumble, the Chinese would not hold it up on their own. The key is really Moscow.

QUESTION: Ugoji Adanma Eze.

The Arab Spring has demonstrated just how uncertain the world can be. What role do you see women playing in these emerging democracies?

Secondly, on another point, is there a possibility of the Arab Spring spreading to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa?

KENNETH ROTH:Women have tried to play a major role in the Arab Spring so far. I think you still find the usual biases, the usual constraints on women. I think that is one of the real litmus tests going forward. One of the things we're all worried about with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood or their equivalents in other countries is, what does that mean for women?

I was just in Afghanistan two weeks ago. Talk about a problematic place for women when you have the rise of Islamic forces. Even under Karzai, he's so worried about his future, he's making all kinds of deals with conservative Islamic forces. I was there to deal with this crime that they have created of running away from home for women who are fleeing domestic violence or a forced marriage. It shows you how bad it can be, and this is not even under the Taliban.

I certainly hope that we don't move in that direction. I don't see any evidence of anything that severe with the Muslim Brotherhood. But I think the real litmus test will be, how do they treat women? How do they treat the Copts, religious minorities? How do they treat sexual minorities? There are a series of issues where they are unproven, where they have not made firm commitments. For us, that's a critical thing to scrutinize.

But to answer your question directly, there is so far a disappointingly limited role for women in, say, the new Muslim Brotherhood—very few parliamentarians, no women in leadership positions. That's a problem, and that's something that I think we have to keep pushing on.

In terms of sub-Saharan Africa, I think people were inspired by the Arab Spring. If you take a place like Uganda, in many ways, that came closest to replicating what was happening in North Africa. You had the walk-to-work movement, which was designed to protest government corruption and mismanagement of the economy. That was quite brutally crushed. Museveni got away with it because he has been very useful in Somalia and very useful in fighting terrorism. The Western support for the Arab Spring didn't extend in any significant way to sub-Saharan Africa.

Obviously, in a place like Zimbabwe, where Mugabe arrested a group of people for watching film of the Arab Spring, it was easy to contest that, because Mugabe is already everybody's enemy. But in a place where the autocrat is a little more useful, I haven't seen big Western support for democratization there. And that has been a problem.

QUESTION: Burt Siegel.

Would you discuss the importance of Iran in preserving Assad and his power position and how much influence it really has over him?

KENNETH ROTH: This is getting into an area where I don't think anybody really knows for sure. Clearly Iran is providing important financial support. The major source of arms seems to be Russia, not Iran. But it wouldn't surprise me if Iran is somehow still getting material in there.

Given that Iran already has pariah status, I don't think it's playing a significant political role. Russia is leading the political charge in terms of Assad's defense. If Russia crumbles, Assad is in trouble. I think he would be under serious pressure, even assuming that Iran continues to stand behind him. Yes, Iran supports him, but I don't think it's a decisive factor at this stage.

QUESTION: What role did the United States play militarily in toppling Qaddafi? More than they like to admit?

KENNETH ROTH: I think the United States was decisive there. It was a NATO operation. The Europeans played a bigger role than they traditionally do. But I think a lot of the air support was the United States. I haven't studied this closely, but my impression is that it wouldn't have happened, maybe at all but certainly not as successfully, without the U.S. involvement.

JOANNE MYERS: Ken, once again, thank you for your brilliant remarks. It's so nice having you back.

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