JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good evening. I’m Joel Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council. Welcome to all of you.
I have the privilege of introducing our guest this evening, Ken Roth, who is the distinguished and longtime executive director of Human Rights Watch, an organization that is well known to everybody in this room, about which I’ll say more in just a minute.
The topic that Ken has chosen this evening could not be more fitting for this occasion, which is the dinner for the second annual fellows meeting of the Carnegie Council. The topic that was given is “Promoting Ethical Behavior When It Is Contested.” I’m sorry you weren’t here this afternoon. I can tell you that there is a lot of contestation about all of these issues, all of it constructive and productive, I can assure you. [Editor's note: for a summary of the Global Ethics Fellows Conference, click here.]
At the Carnegie Council we believe that it’s imperative to incorporate ethical concerns into the study and the practice of international affairs. There are few organizations that align as closely with our core concern as Human Rights Watch. Too often ethics are seen as secondary to political stability and economic interests. Sometimes ethics are viewed as rules and standards set by powerful actors to dictate behavior to others. In our own ways, the Carnegie Council and Human Rights Watch try to correct for this kind of skepticism. As the Carnegie Council slogan goes, "Ethics matter."
The question Ken poses in his title is, in my view, the beginning of wisdom on this topic. Ethics is indeed a contested field. Ethical practice cannot be reduced to a static list of dos and don'ts. It cannot be considered as a list of simple virtues easily delivered. Rather, ethics is an arena for moral argument. It is also an arena where powerful actors make competing claims and often hold countervailing views.
I subscribe to the idea that we may not always find agreement on the maximal question of how we should live. There are multiple ways to live a good life. But we might be able to forge some agreement on the minimal question of how we should not live. Our common humanity demands an effort to call to account those who breach basic elements of human dignity and freedom. This calling-to-account is my understanding of the basis of Human Rights Watch. It is its focus on our common humanity, and the individual responsibility that goes along with it, that gives Human Rights Watch its moral power.
Over the past dozen years, Ken Roth has been a frequent contributor to the Carnegie Council, speaking here several times, always with originality and deep knowledge of current human rights challenges. Ken’s ideas go beyond just talking about human rights and stressing the importance of working towards equality and dignity for all. Ken is always challenging us and looking for practical ways to bring this debate beyond academic, political, and the nonprofit worlds. It’s not enough just to say you support human rights. If you’re sitting in this room or visiting our website, you probably already agree with that.
But what we can all do is make a difference. We can ask questions like:
• Who is leading the human rights movement internationally? • What can the human rights movement do better? • What are the strengths of the movement, and what are its limitations?
This capacity for self-reflection is admirable, and I’m grateful to Ken for bringing some of that self-reflection to us this evening.
Under Ken’s leadership, Human Rights Watch has become the first stop for students, policymakers, teachers, and also the general public when they are looking for real, usable information on the state of human rights around the world. Many organizations try to replicate the work of Human Rights Watch, but Human Rights Watch is in a class all its own.
There’s no one better than Ken to address the question of how we might promote ethical behavior, while understanding the contested nature of this enterprise. This is something we think about every day, and we are grateful to Ken and Human Rights Watch for doing so much to further this agenda.
With that introduction, Ken, thank you for coming.
KEN ROTH: Thank you very much, Joel. Thank you all for joining us this evening. It’s a pleasure to be here at the Carnegie Council again. It’s a real honor to get to address all of you.
I feel a bit jealous. Joel was describing to me what all you have been up to and the discussions of today and ongoing. I wish I could join you. So it’s nice at least to be able to spend an hour with you to talk through some of the issues that you have been discussing over the course of these few days—I guess over the course of the next year, is the idea, if this all works well.
I was given about 20 questions to answer. I’m not able to address all 20, but I tried to organize my talk around a few of them that I thought fit well together and would be an intersection between what I do at Human Rights Watch and the sorts of ethical issues that you all are considering. I thought I would do that, first, by placing the human rights endeavor in a historical context and then playing out some of the ethical challenges that are thrown in our direction. As you can imagine, when we criticize a government, it throws everything back at us. And that includes ethical challenges along the lines of “Who are you?” So I think it’s useful to address those.
Let me begin with a bit of history. It’s so easy to forget how new and novel the human rights movement is. Amnesty International, which really, in many ways, launched the modern human rights movement, was founded in 1961. What is that? It’s 50 years ago, basically. Even in those days, things moved very slowly. I think part of why we didn’t have much of a human rights movement until then is that when information had to move by boat; you couldn’t deal with today’s political prisoner. You could only deal with big, slow-moving issues—slavery, women’s suffrage—things that were there year after year, and they weren’t going to change that quickly, so you could gradually build a movement around them.
Amnesty was a product of the beginning of modern communication. I say the beginning because the way they operated at first was by writing letters. It was not simply the membership who wrote letters; it was the researchers who wrote letters: “Dear So-and-So: Is it true that your uncle is in prison?” Drop it in the mail; three months later you get an answer back. It was very slow. Fewer things were possible then, and it was a much more limited movement as a result.
I got started a little bit later. I remember when the big deal was the fax machine. If we could sneak a fax machine into Prague, that was really something. Suddenly we didn’t have to clandestinely talk on the telephone at outrageous fees in order to convey information, but we could actually send a piece of paper and get a lot of information out quickly. That was a huge leap forward.
Then a little bit later, email was introduced. Of course, the first big email campaign that we did was the landmines campaign, which ended up sharing in the Nobel Peace Prize. That, for the first time, made it possible cheaply, without using expensive international phone calls, to build a global movement, to link NGOs together to come up with a common strategy, to move information around rapidly among different people. That made new things possible.
Today we aspire to real-time reporting. It’s almost embarrassing to think that when I started, it was a big deal to send a delegation to a capital. You would send three or four lawyers or other colleagues. They would visit with people in the capital. They would come back. They would write their report. Six months later they would publish. It would be a big deal, because nobody else had done that.
It’s almost laughable and it’s embarrassing when I look back at some of these old reports.
Today, because of modern communication, we aspire to real-time reporting. If we see an atrocity that morning, our aim will be to get something out that afternoon so the atrocity doesn’t recur tomorrow. And it’s possible to do that. We can move from investigation to publication to being in the press to changing government’s conduct in the course of a 24-hour news cycle, which, of course, very much changes the endeavor. But it does mean that it’s possible for us to take on a lot of things that were inconceivable in the olden days.
If you look at Syria today, the conflict is being fought with guns, of course, but it’s also being fought with people’s video cameras, their handheld mobile phones that are recording the shelling or whatever it is and putting it on YouTube. That’s almost as much of a battle at this stage as the actual fighting on the ground, because that’s seen as the key to the possibility of some kind of international intervention down the road.
So it’s interesting how communication technology has been central to the evolution—in fact, the creation—of a human rights movement.
The effect of this is, I think, monumental. There have always been witnesses to atrocities. If you take the Holocaust, if you take the Khmer Rouge atrocities, it’s not as if there were no people around. There were always people there. But they had no way to communicate what they saw. That’s no longer the case. If there were a Holocaust today and people saw the trains going by, they wouldn’t have to just go home and grind their teeth. They could send an email. They could tweet. They could get word out very quickly. And so it becomes increasingly difficult for governments to hide atrocities.
With big atrocities, everybody tries to hide them. Even Saddam Hussein, in the midst of his genocide against the Kurds, was trying to pretend it wasn’t happening. The worst actors today, given modern values, try to conduct their worst behavior in secrecy because they feel that otherwise they can’t get away with it; the consequences will be too great.
The Internet, this linkage of everybody through modern communication, has not only made the world smaller, but made our values more powerful. It allows us all to shine spotlights on misconduct, and even the most ruthless governments have a hard time resisting that kind of pressure.
Obviously, governments fight back. China has a massive enterprise in place to try to censor this kind of communication. You see governments trying to shut down the Internet at key moments, although that tends to backfire, because people are very wedded to the Internet and they don't like losing their access. Indeed, often the police use it, too. When they shut down the communication among the dissidents, they also are shutting down communication among the police, which doesn’t work that well.
Ethiopia has a new law imposing 15-year prison terms on the use of Skype. There are other such efforts as well. But it’s an uphill battle for the censor, and overall I think the Internet is greatly empowering those who are trying to build a world that is more constructed around the values that we’re here to discuss.
I want to just say a word about social media. The enterprise of shaming, which is at the heart of the human rights movement, is one that, until very recently, still depended on the press. It could be a popular endeavor to highlight something, but if you couldn’t get it into the press, you really didn’t shame and you weren’t going to have much of an effect. Social media is beginning to change that. The press is still important. There can be a campaign in social media, but if the relevant politicians are not tuned into that, you’ll have much less effect than if you get into The New York Times or whatever it is that they are paying attention to.
Nonetheless, today anybody can stand on a soapbox and be heard, not simply by the people in physical proximity, but by anybody who follows them on Twitter, anybody who is their Facebook friend. With the linkages and the re‑tweeting and so forth, things can go viral very quickly. So if you have something important that you are witnessing, you have a decent chance of being heard without ever bothering with the press. That is democratizing this process of shaming in a way that I think has enormous relevance for the legitimacy of our movement and, again, begins to answer some of these questions about “who are you?”
There is a downside to this connectedness, and that is that our social values, our public values are not static. If there is an atrocity on the other side of the world and no one knows about it, it doesn’t undermine our public values. But if there is an atrocity and we suddenly all know about it but don't do anything about it, it does tend to degrade those values.
So the linkage of modern communication has this double-edged component to it. It very much empowers those who want to use these values to constrain governments, but it also means that there’s an added burden on us to then defend the values, because if you just let an abuse go, the values are going to change. People are going to accept this kind of abuse as the way things are done, and public morality will be that much weaker.
You saw a bit of this after 9/11 in this country with respect to torture. If you had asked people on September 10, 2001, “Do you think torture is a good idea?” everybody would have said, “No way. That’s just not done.” But within a month, people were saying, “Well, if torture is what it takes to protect us—I don't know. These are bad guys, and other things may not work.” Suddenly there was this acceptability to torture. For me, it was very scary. I saw for a while public values on this fundamental issue shifting.
Now, we fought back, and I do think that that sense that torture is wrong has been revived. But it is revived in a more precarious state than was the case 12 years ago, really because Obama hasn’t gone as far as he should have, in the sense that he has stopped the torture, but has not spent the political capital to investigate and prosecute the torturers. So we have been left with this very visible precedent that you can commit torture and get away with it—that’s what the Bush torturers did—which is worrying, because, even though I don't anticipate that the second Obama administration is going to revive torture, who knows who comes after that? Who knows what emergency in the future is going to lead some president to look at torture as “necessary”? Thinking back to the way Obama treated it, it’s as if it has become a policy option. It’s something that he decided he wasn’t going to exercise, but he didn’t make clear that it was criminal.
That’s an example of how the visibility of a crime, if it’s not addressed, can change our public values. Obviously everybody knew about the Bush torture. That may not be the best example. But you can think of situations where now, if there are comparable atrocities happening on the other side of the world, because we all know about them, that can become the new normal, unless we find some way to react. So these public values need tending. They are not given. We need to continue to bolster them or they can degrade.
With that by way of background, let me address a few of the ethical challenges that are thrown my way as I try to do the work of Human Rights Watch.
The first, which I understand you talked about a little bit today: Is the process of defending rights an imperialist imposition? Is this the new colonialism? Who are we to insist on anybody respecting rights? There are various answers to this. I have traveled to a lot of countries around the world, and I have never met anybody who wants to be tortured. I have never met anybody who wants to be summarily executed or who wants to be arbitrarily imprisoned. There are various rights which—when you start getting concrete about it, who are these governments to say these are not universal values? Everybody does want them. A handful of governments find it convenient not to respect them, but if you start looking around the world, that’s not where most people are.
That actually is an adequate answer for many rights—not for all, though, and I’ll get to that in a moment.
There is another answer, the positive law answer, which is, “You ratified the treaty. Don't complain to me. You signed it. This means something. I’m just holding you to what you said you would do.” That also gets you part of the way there, not all the way, because a number of the human rights clauses are vague. Particularly when you are pushing to have a broad understanding of the right, governments can come back and claim a narrow understanding. But that gets you part of the way.
But what people are usually talking about when they challenge the right of human rights groups or the public to uphold certain values are the contested areas, which are women’s rights, sexual rights, religious freedom—certain rights where there are significant segments of populations and parts of the world that don't buy into them. Who are the human rights organizations to try to uphold these rights?
One thing that I think is worth saying at the outset is that—let’s take the realm of women’s rights—the human rights movement is not saying to women in a conservative country, “You must lead a modern lifestyle.” We’re not saying there’s anything wrong with choosing to stay in the home, to subordinate yourself to your husband’s desires, to live under these kinds of restrictions, if you choose. What we’re saying is that if you choose not to, you should be free not to do that.
Understood that way, we’re not imposing a lifestyle. Rather, we’re recognizing that within these societies there are powerful forces and weaker forces. The powerful forces tend to be saying, “You have to lead the subordinate lifestyle.” Our job is to come in and just say, “Well, no. We’re not buying this imposition of one person on another. We’re going to stand with the weaker person and let him or her lead the lifestyle that they want.” Within certain limits, within the limits that they are not doing active harm to others, we are going to uphold their right to live the way they want to live.
I think that, philosophically, is the right way to look at it. But the practical challenge is, how do you convince governments to recognize those principles? They require a certain empathy. They require a certain Kantian perspective. If you are a dominant male of the majority religion in a society, you have a hard time imagining yourself in another position, so these arguments of equitable treatment don't necessarily resonate for you because you don't see how it’s going to come back and haunt you.
There are other things—for example, when we’re dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood today in Egypt and we say, “Of course you have to enforce the norm against torture. You guys were just being tortured yesterday.” They can remember that. They can envision a change of the politics. They realize that, yes, if they don't have a strong norm against torture, this could definitely come back to haunt them. Whether that’s the case in the realm of women’s rights or religious freedom or gay and lesbian rights remains to be seen.
Here the difficulty that we have is that our usual tools, which are tools of shaming, do depend on the relevant public agreeing with us. When people say, “Who are you, a small group, Human Rights Watch, to be imposing your values?” We can stand back and say, "Wait a minute, what are we really talking about here? We are simply shining a spotlight."
When we shine that spotlight on somebody being arbitrarily imprisoned, if the public applauds, there’s no shaming. We don't get anything done. The only way we get things done is if the public disapproves when we shine the spotlight. So our power is entirely a product of our ability to reflect the public values of the relevant audience.
Now, we obviously try to shape those values. We’re not indifferent to the results. So we will try to highlight sympathetic cases. We will try to present the matter in the best possible light. But in the end, our ability to get things done is dependent on the public disapproving of what we spotlight.
In that sense, there is nothing undemocratic about what we do. Indeed, what we do is completely dependent on the public views—you could say the democratic views—of that society.
Sometimes people will say, “But you guys are unelected. You are the unelected guardians of this. Who chose you?” Here again, I think there is a misconception of the role that civil society plays. Elections are obviously important, but elections are a very blunt instrument for governing. We just went through an electoral exercise yesterday in this country. Your choices were, basically, Obama or Romney. You had to sum up your views about a gazillion different things into that binary choice.
The Lee Kuan Yew theory of government is that now you should go home and shut up and let the government do its thing. That’s not my view of what democratic governance is about. I think the way you make up for the limited nature of that one vote every two or four years is by finding other ways to influence government in between. Part of that is through the press, but part of that is through civil society. The point of civil society is not simply to replicate the democratic process, because that would not be an alternative voice. The idea of civil society is its diversity, that you allow people to gather together for whatever reasons they may have and then try to influence that political process based on the adherents that they can attract.
That again is the way I conceive of what Human Rights Watch and the human rights movements do. We are a relatively small group of people who have banded together because we care about human rights. We’re not elected, but we’re not supposed to be elected. The democratic check on us comes from our ability to persuade a large number of people that what we’re talking about is for the good. Again it comes down to the public reaction to the shining of that spotlight. As we get more people who are unhappy with what we’re shining the spotlight on, not only is there more pressure put on the government that we’re focusing on, but there also tend to be more people attracted to Human Rights Watch, which means we can shine a brighter spotlight next time.
So there’s a certain cumulative effect that is still very much dependent on the ability of a particular civil society organization to reflect a broader set of public values.
The one way in which I do recognize that power politics plays into this is that what we do is not simply shame, but we also try to generate other forms of political pressure. Traditionally we have done that by going to the major Western capitals and saying, “Could you please use your influence on behalf of our values? So when you are dealing with dictator so-and-so, would you please make clear that good relations, in whatever form, will depend on an end to political imprisonment or torture or summary execution or what have you?”
There’s always something that that dictator cares about. One of the things that our advocates try to do is to figure out what that is. It could be the next tranche of military assistance. It could be access to preferential trade benefits. A lot of times it’s just an invitation to a fancy summit so they can get photographed with Obama or whomever and use that back home to gain legitimacy with a subjugated populace.
But the aim is that, whatever the dictator, whatever the abusive government wants, we try to condition their obtaining it on an improvement in their rights practices. There clearly are power relations involved in that.
One interesting thing about the past decade is that power has been shifting away from the West. While what happens in Washington or Brussels or Paris or London or Berlin is important, it is becoming relatively less important. If you are Robert Mugabe, you’ve already given up on all those capitals that I just named. What you care about is what South Africa does. Or if you are Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president, again you have lost the West. You care about what India and Japan and China think about what you have done.
So one thing that we at Human Rights Watch have had to do in order to reflect this shift in global power is to set up the capacity to project our findings, our research from around the world, not simply to Western capitals, but also to Brazil and South Africa and India and Japan and China and Russia and the various other power players in this equation. It still is a game of pressure politics. I don't want to pretend it isn’t. But it is one that is involving a much broader range of countries than traditionally had been the case.
I guess one final thought and then I’ll open this up for questions and conversation. The question is, what responsibility do we all have in this venture? I do this for a living. My responsibility is clear. I just go to the office and it’s sort of set before me. But for people who don't do this day to day, what responsibility do we have, in light of the evolving nature of the human rights movement and, frankly, the precariousness of public values? I think we do all have to recognize that these values need tending, that they are not givens, and that, while you can do all the philosophizing you want about what the ideal justification is for this or that conduct, the truth of the matter is that these values are the product of a dynamic process.
So I think our core responsibility as individuals is to recognize that none of these values is given and that, while we all have other jobs and nobody is expected to spend full time on human rights, everybody does have their way of tending these values. It can be speaking with your friends. It can be tweeting your reaction to an article you read. It can be contributing to a human rights group or volunteering your time. It can be writing. There always are things that can be done.
But I guess the thought that I want to leave you with is that, much as the human rights movement has professionalized and grown in stature and recognition and the like, our ability to get anything done is, in the end, still dependent on the strength of those public values. If, because of inattention, those values are weakened to the point that exposure doesn’t yield shaming, then this whole venture is gone, then we’re in trouble, and these values that may be written into nice treaties are not going to be enforceable.
So I think that is, at a very personal level, something that everybody who cares about these issues has to think about. Once you think about it, there is always some way to help tend those values and to keep them alive and vibrant. But it is important, I think, that all of us find our way to do that.
I’ll close there. I welcome your comments and conversation.
QUESTION: I had two questions when I started listening to you, and I think you answered one. That question was whether you feel that a greater part of your power as Human Rights Watch is the impeccable methodology of your content or whether it is your ability to speak for global conscience. I understand that it is the latter.
But that makes my second question even more pertinent. If you are speaking for a global conscience, then is it not time to revisit Human Rights Watch’s resistance to speak on the legality of certain wars, and only on the way that they are conducted? You said you have traveled around the world and have never found anyone who wants to be tortured. In your travels have you found anyone that supports you to take President Bashir to court, but is okay with you not taking former President Bush to task for the Iraq War?
KEN ROTH: There are a number of things you brought up there. Let me try to address those.
First, in terms of our methodology, I didn’t dwell a lot on our fact finding. Crucial to everything that I described here tonight are the investigations that we do on the ground. The largest part of the Human Rights Watch staff is what we call researchers, the people who are based in 90 countries around the world, who very carefully investigate and document human rights conditions. That’s a prerequisite to getting anything done. If what we reported wasn’t accurate, people would just start contesting it, and we wouldn’t get anyplace. It’s the fact that people accept it as an accurate account that then we have the capacity to shame.
You also said that we speak for the public conscience. That’s not the way I would describe it. I would say we speak to the public conscience. It's a big difference. If you speak for somebody, you are representing them. You then need to have a democratic system of the sort that I don't pretend we have. We are still a small group of people who do the best we can under the circumstances. But we do try to speak to the public conscience, and if we have hit that conscience accurately, it’s reflected in shame, and governments then have to respond to it.
Now, your question about war—first, for those who don't know, Human Rights Watch is, in this sense, very similar to the International Committee of the Red Cross, in that in the context of war, we apply the Geneva Conventions and what’s known as international humanitarian law, which, in essence, addresses how war is fought—whether you do everything you can to spare noncombatants, but not whether it was just to go to war or not. The reason for that is that the rules on how war is fought are quite clear. They are all subject to interpretation, but you can take the Geneva Convention, lay it against an army’s conduct, and make pretty fair and universally accepted judgments as to whether the conventions were adhered to or not.
On the issue of whether going to war was just or not, it is a deeply contested issue. Even with something like Bush and Iraq, which it's easy in retrospect to oppose, at the time a lot of people thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and he couldn’t be trusted, and it was ultimately going to be a mass problem. I’m not going to justify the war. But I just want to bring us back to 2003, at a point where many of the world’s leaders actually bought that. They thought that was the case. For us to say that this was a crime, that this was an act without justification—I could argue that case. But there’s another side to it. It’s basically a political debate, which is very different from whether one adhered to the Geneva Conventions or not.
Because we have made the decision that our primary role is in trying to enforce the Geneva Conventions and spare civilians, as much as possible, the hazards of war, we fear that we would undermine that effort if we were seen as partisan on these broader political questions as to whether it's fair to go to war or not. Even if Iraq was the easy case, you could think of a lot of cases where it’s very difficult to say who’s the aggressor and who’s the defender. People are vehement on both sides that they are the innocent party and the other side is guilty.
I can’t see a way around those questions being highly politicized. I think it would discredit us to get into that business.
By all means, peace groups, other groups can look at that. But I don't think it's something that would be productive for, at least, Human Rights Watch or human rights groups like us to get into.
DEVIN STEWART: You look at American practice, too.
KEN ROTH: Oh, absolutely. I don't mean to be exempting the U.S. here. In fact, our largest program is in the United States. We do extensive work on Guantanamo and on torture and on immigration issues, on over-incarceration and injustices in the criminal justice system. We apply the same principles in the U.S. as elsewhere. We look at international human rights law and international humanitarian law, but we don't get into political questions about whether going to war is correct or not.
QUESTION: I’m Deen Chatterjee, from the University of Utah.
First, Ken, just our gratitude to you on behalf of the academicians, what you do that makes us go in an academic pursuit, because we know that you are there.
As a watchdog group, your task, you said, is primarily to shame the public conscience so that perhaps they will wake up and take action. Suppose the public conscience is hardened and numb these days. It has changed over these years. We can see, for example, as we have seen during the Republican nomination debate, how much they were into letting a person die who may not have health care, how much they were for the death penalty and all that. In that case, don't you think that perhaps you have to also take the dual project of not only shaming, but also educating the public, too? They have to be taken out of that slumber so that they can be shamed if they are sensitive enough. Perhaps they are numb right now. So what do you do there?
KEN ROTH: That’s a very good point. There clearly is an important role for public education. I don't want to denigrate the importance of that.
At Human Rights Watch, given our staffing limitations—we’re a sizable organization, but we still, when you start scratching the surface, tend to have one person assigned to each country as a researcher and one person in each key capital. We are a very thinly staffed organization. We don't begin to have the capacity, in addition to the investigations we’re doing, in addition to the advocacy, in addition to the press work, to do the sort of education that would involve, say, going into schools, which is very, very time-consuming.
We do think of ourselves as doing public education through the work that we do. First of all, everything is on our website. Many, many students come to our website to learn about this or that country or issue. We are a very public organization. We’re in the press—typically there will be, say, 35 unique articles about our work each day. We’re getting a lot of attention to our work, and people learn about the world and learn about how they should respond through the press.
We obviously do things like social media. We have 450,000 followers on Twitter. We have another 250,000 on Facebook.
So we reach out. Nonetheless, while that is all education, I recognize that it is probably different from what you are talking about. For us to start going to schools would be a massive endeavor.
Just to put this in perspective, Amnesty has a global budget that is, I think, between four and five times our size. Amnesty puts something like 75 percent of its money into a version of public education, which is mobilizing and educating its membership. And that’s still a drop in the bucket. For us, with a relatively modest size, to divert resources from investigation and from advocacy into that kind of public education would be hard to justify, given how stretched I feel we are in the core of our mission.
I would love to be able to do it, but we’re just being pragmatic. We have to pick and choose. At this moment, it’s not our highest priority, other than the indirect way that we do educate through our day-to-day work.
QUESTION: David Rodin, from Carnegie Council and also Oxford University.
Thank you very much for your presentation. I’m a longtime, huge admirer of the work of Human Rights Watch.
This question, I think, follows on from Deen’s. I wonder whether in your remarks you haven’t somewhat sold short the task that you are performing. You gave an account of your work as very much one of shining a spotlight—almost placing a mirror against the values that we find in a population. You said, for example, you have traveled around the world and you have never met a person who wanted to be tortured. Well, that’s fine, but I’ve never met a criminal who wants to go to prison either. Yet every state in the world incarcerates prisoners.
So there’s a question about why we condemn one but not the other. You could say people are shocked when they see torture and massacre, but not when they see the imprisonment of criminals. But again, as you say, perceptions can change. They can degrade. So there’s a really crucial task, it seems to me, there for the case to be made about why we should condemn the one and not the other.
The question, then, is—and I think this is slightly different from the education point. It’s not about going out to schools, but it’s about who is going to be that person in the vanguard who makes that case. I’m a moral philosopher by profession, so I have a particular account of how I think that case can be done, which is essentially about the employment of public reason and a kind of public discourse. But in some of your remarks at the end, you seemed to be a little bit disparaging about the prospects of that project. If not through the kind of thing that people like me do, who is going to play that role? How do you do it? Is that a role that you recognize Human Rights Watch as engaged in?
KEN ROTH: I don't want to disparage that at all. I think it’s very important. The way we address this kind of line-drawing—and we do it all the time. Yes, I'm maybe being a little simplistic in describing us as just holding up a mirror. We are strategic in where we place the mirror. We obviously focus on situations that we feel will give rise to public disapproval.
If you take, for example, the situation of incarceration in this country, this is actually a problem that we’re taking on, because, in our view, this country is much too dependent on incarceration and is sending away too many people and sending people away for too long periods of time. We are picking on sympathetic parts of that problem. We have been very involved, for example, in the problem of children who are sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, and have won a series of victories on that, just arguing that a child doesn’t have the judgment of an adult and you should never assume that they can’t ever be redeemed, and so give them a chance to show that they have reformed.
We did a report recently on elderly prisoners, who are completely not a threat to anybody. They are costing the state huge amounts of money in medical care. Why are these people still in prison? There are certain elements of the population where you can selectively focus the mirror.
We’re doing the same thing with nonviolent drug crimes, which is a big part of the problem, demonstrating how racial discrimination plays a huge role in that. There are shocking disparities between the percentage of whites and the percentage of blacks who are incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes.
To take an example outside this country, let me talk for a moment about our work on gay rights in Egypt. It’s a good example of how we have tried to shape public perception. The first time we tried to speak about attacks on gays, which must have been almost a decade ago, there was a gay bar/nightclub called the Queen Boat, which was literally a boat on the Nile in Cairo. It was tolerated. For whatever reason, one night the police raided it and beat everybody up. It was very ugly. So we put out a protest.
Our allies in Egypt, the mainstream human rights groups, were very upset with us and said, “This is not a human rights issue. This is an issue of morality. You shouldn’t be speaking about this. This is immoral conduct.”
When we probed a little bit, sometimes that reflected personal views; a lot of it reflected fear that if the Mubarak government at the time was able to tar human rights groups as defenders of gays, it would undermine their broader human rights effort, and they just didn’t want the two connected.
So we realized that we had a problem of public morality within Egypt. We decided that we needed to not address gay rights head-on, but we had to do a better job of linking them with other rights that people would be more sympathetic to. We decided to focus on a series of reports looking at torture. We did something on tortured Islamists. We did something on torture of secular dissidents. We did something on the torture of gays. In this case the Cairo police were using the Internet to solicit gay men, and when they would show up, they would beat them up.
That was the third report we did. I actually went to Cairo for the press conference. Because we were able to portray it as part of this pattern that did, in fact, affect more people, it was easier for the public and the Egyptian government to see the principle involved. And the attacks by the Cairo police stopped the day of the press conference.
It showed that it was a matter of, you could say, framing, but it is really a way of illustrating the principles involved. Yes, we very consciously do that in these situations where the right may be unpopular, until people have reflected on it a bit.
It’s not sophisticated moral philosophy. It’s not what you’re doing. But nonetheless we’re conscious of the need to encourage people to think in broader Kantian, more principled terms.
Just to follow up on your question in terms of public views and norms hardening, in my perception, those don't harden on their own and are intricately linked to the government and policies. If I understand the work of Human Rights Watch correctly, part of what you do is address individual cases, but you also try to shape policy and, perhaps in some cases, litigation. I’m actually not sure on the latter point. My question is, do you see a cause and effect throughout the time that you have been doing this work between policies that you have been able to influence and the shift in attitudes that followed, in the U.S. or elsewhere?
KEN ROTH: First, let me respond to your narrow point. We actually don't do litigation. There are many good groups that do litigation. We define our domain as being essentially where litigation isn’t working. If you can go to court to vindicate your rights, bring in the local version of the American Civil Liberties Union, and they do a great job.
But there are many areas where either the judicial system has been destroyed through corruption or violence or what have you, or even in the West there are areas where the courts don't work very well. The rights of prisoners in this country are a good example, where if you’re a woman who is raped by her jailer, you are going to go and complain and they will say, “What are you talking about? You’re a criminal. This is a law enforcement official. We’re not going to believe you.”
So you need to come in and not take the case-by-case approach of litigation; you need to demonstrate a pattern. At one point when Human Rights Watch came in and had scores of interviews with women who had been raped by their jailers, suddenly it was a real issue. You couldn’t discredit all of those testimonies. That’s when a political solution was initiated, not simply litigation.
In terms of the bigger question you asked, the relationship between policy and values, they are intimately connected. Let me describe the landmine campaign, which I briefly talked about earlier. The Geneva Conventions proscribe indiscriminate warfare—basically using a weapon in a way where you’re not able to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. That’s a nice, clear clause, but it’s vague.
That clause coexisted with the pervasive use of landmines. Every military in the world used landmines. Human Rights Watch, through our operations in war zones, kept running into people, often long after a conflict had ended, who were injured or killed by landmines. Landmines are the classic dumb weapon. They have no idea who’s stepping on them. It could be a soldier, but it could be a child, it could be whoever.
We began asking, how do you reconcile this use with the prohibition on indiscriminate warfare? The truth is you can’t, but people hadn’t really focused on it. When we went to the Pentagon and said, “Hey, guys, you’re not behaving properly,” they would say, “Well, that’s not what that provision means. Go home. We don't want to hear from you.”
So it wasn’t enough to simply point out this contradiction; we needed to build public pressure. It took a campaign, a bunch of reporting, a bunch of press work, getting people broadly to understand that landmines were indiscriminate weapons—at least were a problem—and building up the public values, at which point, then, the governments responded. Government after government finally changed, and you got out of that the landmine treaty, which has now been ratified by something like 140 nations. Still not the United States, but the United States would have a very hard time getting away with using landmines. They have effectively become a prohibited weapon.
So that’s an example where you had to change the values in order to change the policy. That often is what happens.
QUESTION: My name is Adee Braun.
I have a question about how you work with other international NGOs. You mentioned Amnesty and Red Cross. Do you ever find that you come up against the same issues? How do you work with local groups as opposed to other international groups? How does that affect how you might shine that spotlight or not?
KEN ROTH: We work, in the first instance, very, very closely with local groups when they exist. There are certain countries that are just too repressive, and so there aren’t local groups. But in most places there are. Even when there are, though, it may be too dangerous for them to do much publicly, in which case we have to play more of a public role. But depending on safety, they will do everything from helping us identify the issues that are most important to helping us do the research, to helping us do the advocacy ultimately, to strategizing about how to move things forward.
It’s a very intimate partnership. We feel in many ways that they are our closest partners. If you were to say that we have a client, in many ways it’s the local groups more than anybody else because of the intimacy of that relationship.
At the international level, we obviously work in coalitions all the time. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch are the two big global groups. We have very complementary methodologies, in that they focus primarily on mobilizing their membership. As a result, we haven’t really devoted a lot of attention to that kind of mass mobilization. We focus, as I described, much more on working through the press and working through powerful governments to get things done. So it’s very complementary.
But we also work with the International Crisis Group, which, even though it’s a conflict resolution group, not a human rights group, tends to work in the same direction 80 to 90 percent of the time.
With something like the International Committee of the Red Cross, we are almost the opposite organization from them, working in the exact same direction, in the sense that they have given up their voice in order to gain access. They will go into prisons—governments will let them in on the condition that everything is confidential. We do the opposite. We will give up our access in order to maintain our public voice, figuring out that we’ll find some way to get the information, but we want to be able to speak about it. We play very useful complementary roles in that sense, clearly pushing in the same direction of enforcing humanitarian law.
In many situations we will work with international development or humanitarian agencies, which tend to be impeded from speaking publicly because they need to maintain the safety of their operation in countries. But they have a lot of information. We will encourage them to share the information, knowing that our operations are much more mobile, and if we need to operate clandestinely in a country, we will. But we’ll maintain our public voice.
These are very pragmatic, different forms of partnerships, but they are quite important for what we do.
QUESTION: Helle Porsdam. I’m a Global Ethics Fellow from Denmark.
We were talking this morning about the core of human rights, and I was just wondering whether your opinion on the core of human rights has changed within your time in heading Human Rights Watch. Are there human rights that you think are more important than others today, and has your view changed?
The other thing I wanted to ask you is, what are you the proudest of during your time as head of the Human Rights Watch?
KEN ROTH: Those are hard questions.
I don't know that I would say the core values have changed. Human rights law is quite broad. Obviously you can say that the most important thing is not to summarily execute people or whatever. A lot of the time you are focusing on basically rights that have to do with the accountability of government, the ability of civil society to operate, the ability of the press to operate—things that make it possible for people to express their views and to hold the government accountable.
That has clear implications for economic and social rights as well. You find the biggest violations of economic and social rights when governments are unaccountable. So even a lot of our work in that realm has to do not so much with second-guessing whether the government should be spending more money on agriculture or on health care or on education or whatever, but rather, is the government opening the process that allows the people in need to have a say in how available resources are distributed?
I don't know that that has shifted. There is this interrelationship. The most important thing in a given country may well change. But it’s hard to speak globally, because for every Syria where there’s a crisis and people are being slaughtered, there’s another place where there is awful poverty caused by corruption or unaccountable government. It’s all important in different ways. You can’t say, “This is more important, and we’re only going to focus on Syria.” You have to deal with the range of things."
It’s really hard to say what my proudest moment is. I have to say, I take a lot of pride in having played a role in building an organization that can do what Human Rights Watch does today. I have to say also, that’s not why I came into this. I started the work because I believed very much in the values and I liked the on-the-ground work. I started off, effectively, as a researcher, doing research and being deeply involved, mainly in Haiti, the first country I got completely immersed in after the fall of Duvalier. That was very satisfying, because I was dealing with the local groups; I was dealing with the victims. I really get to know the country. I saw how I could help to move things along.
I don't get to do that kind of in-depth work anymore. But I nonetheless have developed a lot of satisfaction out of building an organization.
I’m a lawyer by training, and I still get into the battle. When there’s a government that is fighting back and is being really obnoxious, I like those situations. I throw myself into them. I like making it hard for governments to get away with that kind of stuff. And I feel privileged to be able to have the information at our disposal to be able to fight those battles effectively.
QUESTION: I’m Angela from China, Shanghai International Studies University.
Last year I read the report by Human Rights Watch about our state-owned enterprises in Africa. It said that the Chinese laborers there were interviewed by Human Rights Watch and they are tortured, compared with other enterprises in Africa.
There is another case, also by a Human Rights Watch report, about a Foxconn factory, one of the Apple products factories, in China, and the laborers are ill treated. They even commit suicide.
My question is, you just now mentioned that no one wants to be tortured. But the point is, what is “tortured”? For many young laborers, they still want to go abroad to Africa, because they just find their treatment is much better than that at home, even compared to the Foxconn factory. Now there are even the undergraduate students, after graduation. They swarm into these factories because they find there the treatment is better than other factories.
My question is, how do you select those samples or cases for your Human Rights Watch report? Another question is, besides your published reports, how do you supervise the local government or even central government to improve human rights?
KEN ROTH: Let me first say I don't think we use the term “torture” in describing working conditions—and I don't think we did something on Foxconn. I think that may have been other groups.
But we did do a report, for example, on the mining industry in Zambia, in Chinese-owned mines. In that case a lot of the workers were actually not Chinese who were brought in, although that often happens. These were mostly Zambian workers. One of the things we found was that China had so much economic clout in Zambia that the Zambian government was reluctant to enforce its own laws on worker rights. It feared that China was too powerful a player. And you did find that the Chinese supervisors were mistreating the workers in a way that an ordinary mine or factory in Zambia wouldn’t have allowed, but that went on in the Chinese-owned mine because Zambia feared the repercussions of criticizing the Chinese company.
That is a problem. We don't advocate China pulling out. We think the investment is overall positive. We’re just pushing for Chinese investment in Africa to be governed by the same rules as are applied to other workers. That was the point of that.
In terms of how we choose, it’s a difficult process. In any given country, the researcher will begin by consulting with local groups and will ask the local groups, “What do you see as the most serious problems? What do you see as the problems that we’re most able to do something about?” We’ll put together a list. It’s more art than science. We try to figure out where we can make the most difference, given our limited resources, which as I mentioned, tends to be one researcher per country. That will lead to our agenda.
In terms of how we make sure that things change, one is, we keep following up and do subsequent reports if necessary. But in addition to putting out the report, we meet with the government. Some governments are reasonably well intentioned, and once we do the report, they will then start to fix things. Sometimes they need to be pressured. Then we’ll have to get more press attention or get powerful external governments to help.
But the aim of this is not just to be a publishing company; the aim is to improve respect for human rights. So we keep the focus on the impact, not simply on our publications.
QUESTION: My name is Ivan Rebolledo. I’m with TerraNova Strategic Partners here in New York.
You mentioned how certain—I don't want to use the word “rogue,” but rogue nation-states have preferred relationships with non-Western powers, getting away from Paris, Washington, and looking at South Africa, China, Brazil. Specifically in the case of these countries, how helpful are they to you in addressing questions—for example, Brazil in relation to Cuba, and China in relation to North Korea—how active and engaged are they with your organization in trying to assist in those areas?
KEN ROTH: Let me answer your question in general terms first and then focus on the specifics.
We have been in the process of opening up press and advocacy offices in a series of powerful non-Western countries, particularly Brazil, India, South Africa. Also Japan, which is slightly different, but the same idea. And we’re talking about possibly Turkey coming up.
What I think it’s safe to say that all of these have in common is that they are democracies at home, but they have foreign policies that have not traditionally promoted human rights, for somewhat different reasons—with Japan, having much more to do with the reticence from the war and the sense that the purpose of foreign policy is much more mercantilistic; with Brazil, India, South Africa, I’d say, much more the G77 mentality, the view of human rights as being imperialistic. There’s a reflexiveness that that’s not what foreign policy should be about, that foreign policy should stand up against efforts to enforce human rights.
The theory we have been following in these countries is that there is a disconnect between domestic values and the behavior of the foreign ministry. That is a disconnect that exists largely out of public ignorance. Most people have no idea what the foreign ministry is doing. If we can get people to be more aware of what the foreign ministry is doing, we may be able to get the foreign ministry to act more in accordance with domestic values.
That involves encouraging local NGOs to address the foreign policy of the Brazilian or South African or Indian government. It involves getting the Brazilian or Indian or South African press to write more about this, which means feeding them information about what’s going on in Syria and then what was South Africa or whoever was doing when, say, it was on the Security Council. Once the press has that information, they tend to write about it. But typically they don't have much of a foreign staff, and it’s not easy to get this information.
That’s one thing we can do. We have people in these places. We have found that—it’s a theory behind everything we do—people behave better when they are watched. A foreign ministry, even if it’s filled with people who are completely immersed in the Non-Aligned Movement ideology, is forced to behave better once people are looking over their shoulder and the public says, “Why is it that we’re voting with Assad?” or, “Why do we not care about what’s happening in wherever?”
So that’s the theory behind what we’re doing. It’s a work in progress, but we have made some tentative progress. Frankly, even within these governments, even within the foreign ministries, you find allies and adversaries. We often can work with allies and try to bolster them as they fight their internal policy battles.
In terms of Brazil and Cuba, Lula was not going to touch Cuba. Dilma is not eager to take that on either. I think the Dilma government is more sympathetic to a positive kind of human rights policy. Patriota, the foreign minister, is somebody we have and can work with.
But it is a work in progress. We’re finding Brazil being helpful in some situations, but I wouldn’t put Cuba at the top of the list.
Similarly, even China, which has been very difficult on human rights issues, will sometimes move. The classic example was what happened with Darfur, where, once they were being beaten up sufficiently for being the principal arms seller to Sudan, the principal oil purchaser from Sudan—all of this underwriting mass murder in Darfur—they finally realized that, with the Olympics coming, the reputational cost was too much, and they sent their UN ambassador to Khartoum, who played a useful role in getting Khartoum at a critical moment to accept UN peacekeepers. So it’s possible to move China, but it’s not easy.
On North Korea, I think their primary goal is just that it not collapse. They don't want either South Korea to take it over, to have South Korea on its border, or to have a massive refugee problem. They are content with the status quo, and even though it’s a miserable status quo, they are not going to push in a way that changes things significantly.
QUESTION: Thank you. That was very interesting. My name is Linda Eggert. I’m a student at Bard College of Liberal Arts in Berlin, Germany.
What you said about the nature of values was very interesting. You mentioned the danger of how easy it is for people’s values to change, like in the example of 9/11, when people suddenly started thinking that maybe the ends justify the means—the ends of national security justify immoral means, such as torture and so on. But at the same time, you seem to think that it’s a good thing that people’s values can change. You mentioned how important it is for Human Rights Watch to be able to actively influence public values, for example.
How should we deal with the nature of values, and how should we define it? To what extent does the end justify the means for you?
KEN ROTH: I think it’s just a fact that values are malleable. We shouldn’t take values as a given. While there is a certain commonality about values, even very important values, such as the one against torture, can change, for better or worse. There are opportunities and dangers in that fact. The danger is that the values degrade through inattention or through a perceived threat or what have you. The opportunity is that we can also shape those values in a positive direction. That’s what the landmines campaign was about. I think that’s reality.
People often ask me a related question: Is the world getting better? Are governments more respectful of human rights? You can make the case, in some parts of the world, yes, in some parts, no. My view, though, is that every government is tempted sometimes to violate rights. I’m not worried about the human rights movement going out of business. You always need people pushing back, you always need people raising the cost of abuse, to force governments to resist the temptation to violate rights.
This is just reality. Values exist in a political realm. None are given, and so we shouldn’t take them for granted. We should recognize that if we ignore them, things are going to get worse, but if we push, we can make things better.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I just want to add my thanks to Ken. We like to think of ourselves here as idealists, but with a realist’s disposition. That was a perfect blend of both. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. We really admire the work that you do. You have really made Human Rights Watch an amazing institution. All of us know about it and admire it. Thank you for coming.