Kenneth Roth said he first learned about human rights violations from his father, whose Jewish family ran a slaughterhouse near Frankfurt in Hitler’s Germany. His father, Mr Roth recalled, would describe how the Nazis forced the Jews into separate schools, a precursor to much worse in the future.
While Nazi Germany was radically different from Mr. Roth’s own childhood in Deerfield, Ill., He said, “I grew up with this awareness of what evil governments can do.”
Now, after nearly three decades of leading Human Rights Watch from an obscure network of a few scattered offices to a well-funded organization that reports on rights violations globally, Mr. Roth, 66, a Yale-trained lawyer and former prosecutor. he stops in August to write a book.
The word of his impending departure, which is expected to be officially announced soon, is likely to resonate through the world of human rights collection and advocacy, with the group he has led being a powerful force.
“I felt it was important to leave when things are going well at HRW,” said Mr. Roth in a telephone interview.
Mr. Roth has been a tireless annoyance to authoritarian governments, and has exposed human rights violations with documented research reports that have become the group’s specialty.
The reports have been a catalyst for media coverage and advocacy involving topics from the Ethiopian conflict that has forced millions to flee their homes, to serious attacks on Yemenis by opponents of Yemen’s protracted war, to how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, historically a leading grain. exporter, exacerbates hunger throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Joel Simon, former head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group that once shared offices with Mr Roth’s organization, described him as the “godfather” of the human rights movement.
“We need to credit HRW for changing the way journalists and the media as an institution approach the issue of human rights,” he said. Simon.
Mr. Roth described the beginning of his career as “unfortunate”. After six years of volunteering at Human Rights Watch, Mr Roth became Deputy Director in 1987. He was appointed CEO in 1993. “I had never raised a cent of funds in my life,” Mr Roth said of his appointment. .
Under Mr. Roth’s management expanded an organization with 20 employees and regional committees in Europe and America to 450 employees with activities in 100 countries.
With the power of a lawyer in the courtroom, perhaps derived from his previous career as a federal prosecutor in New York and for the Iran counter-investigation, Mr Roth has antagonized many autocrats.
This month, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s government shut down the group from operating in the country as part of his widespread repression of disagreement over the Ukraine war.
In 2014, Mr Roth was denied entry into Egypt because of a report involving senior officials, including Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in the “widespread and systematic” killings of protesters following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi.
In 2020, Mr. Roth declined at Hong Kong International Airport on arrival from New York. He was there to release his organization’s annual report, which summarizes human rights violations. The main essay – written by Mr Roth – claimed that China, which controls Hong Kong, undermines international human rights.
Mr. Roth said China’s behavior will remain one of his biggest concerns long after his departure from his group.
“China is trying to assert its model as a superior model in terms of democracy by saying ‘We have expanded the economy, we have fought Covid,'” he said. “They do not want you to ask, ‘How did Covid start?’ They do not want you to ask how the most disadvantaged sections of society are doing, because they do not want you to ask how the Uighurs, Tibetans or even rural Han Chinese are doing. “
Mr. Roth has also angered the leaders of Western democracies. He was an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s isolationist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim actions and the violations of rights and surveillance that grew out of the so-called War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks.
After four years of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration was not a means, Mr Roth said. But he said that under President Biden, who declared that his foreign policy would be governed by human rights principles, U.S. attitudes were improving.
In December, the Senate voted unanimously to approve legislation that would ban products made in China’s Xinjiang region, due to concerns about forced labor from persecuted Muslim minorities.
Russia-Ukraine war: key developments
The United States wants to see Russia weakened. The United States sharpened its messages about the Ukraine war, saying that the American goal was not only to thwart the Russian invasion, but also to weaken Russia so that it could no longer carry out such military aggression anywhere.
The United States has also rejoined the UN Human Rights Council, revived membership of the World Health Organization, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and restored funding to a number of UN agencies.
But, Mr Roth said, “the Middle East is a loophole in this declared willingness to be led by human rights.”
He pointed to the US government’s commitment to Saudi Arabia despite its internal repression and the arbitrary bombing of Yemenis. And he said there had been “no development” in US policy regarding Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
The Israeli government reacted angrily last year to a Human Rights Watch report claiming that it pursues a policy of Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The report said that this policy met the legal definition of apartheid.
Roth has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticism of Israel.
“During his 30-year reign as head of HRW, Ken Roth has obsessively distorted and exploited human rights to demonize Israel,” said Gerald M. Steinberg, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel who wrote Op-Eds about Mr. Roth and Jerusalem Post.
Israel also played a role in internal frictions in Mr Roth’s group. Its founder, Robert L. Bernstein, wrote a statement to The New York Times in 2009 in which he distanced himself from the organization because of what he called its portrayal of Israel as a “pariah state.”
Mr. Roth has rejected such criticism. Implicit in their arguments, Mr Roth said, was the flawed assumption that democracies are immune to committing human rights violations. He pointed to former President George W. Bush, whose administration set up the Guantánamo detention facility for 9/11 suspects, and tolerated waterboarding as an interrogation technique.
“The idea that human rights groups should ignore Guantánamo and the torture just because it was committed by a democracy was absurd,” Mr Roth said.
Sir. Roth’s wife, Dr. Annie Sparrow, an Australian pediatrician and other human rights activist, remembered the first time she saw him debateMichael Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor and Canadian lawmaker who had supported the US invasion of Iraq. Mr. Roth, she said, “destroyed” his opponent.
“I was impressed enough to think if I ever wanted to get married, I could marry that man,” she said. The couple married in 2011.
It is still unclear who will succeed Mr Roth.
“I never think I have met anyone who could lead an iron-clad argument and beat dictators with the clarity, confidence and capacity that Ken has,” said Dr. Sparrow. “Who is going to beat the dictators now?”