After Kenneth Roth, can Human Rights Watch be repaired?

Restoring their lost credibility, if it can be done, will require a major effort taking many years.

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. Source: Screenshot.
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. Source: Screenshot.
Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald M. Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University.

The head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), Kenneth Roth, recently announced that he will be leaving the organization after 29 years. For nearly three decades, he led HRW far from its founding principles, which were based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in the shadow of the Holocaust. Instead, HRW today is often considered a political organization with a highly selective agenda and an obsession with Israel. To restore their lost credibility, if it can be done, will require a major effort that will take many years.

HRW, originally called Helsinki Watch, was founded in 1978 as an independent organization to monitor and report on rights violations in closed societies, in particular the Soviet Union, China and other dictatorships. The NGO quickly gained influence as a credible source, and over time became the US-based counterpart to London’s Amnesty International.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, Roth transformed HRW from an objective watchdog into a champion of “the global left” and the post-colonialist ideology that blames the democratic West and capitalism for the world’s problems, even as it absolves the “victims” from any responsibility to protect human rights. After it joined this political movement, HRW was embraced by the UN and similar-minded academics and political influencers.

The short, pro-forma criticisms of dictatorships continued, but Roth and HRW got attention and funds by condemnations of American-led conflicts with terror regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq; condemnations that tended to employ distorted versions of international law and human rights principles. Among other absurdities, Roth attacked the Obama administration’s decision to kill Osama Bin Laden. Instead, he asserted, the arch-terrorist should have been arrested and tried.

Roth also showed a strong animus towards Israel. Over and over, he joined the shrill voices that demanded an end to American support for the Jewish state, and repeated false accusations of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”  HRW, in concert with Amnesty International and various Palestinian groups, was instrumental in the revival of the Soviet-led effort to equate Zionism with South African apartheid. In 2001, HRW was among the leaders of the antisemitic NGO Forum of the UN Durban conference, which was called to celebrate the end of South African apartheid. In response to critics, some of them from within HRW, Roth declared that “Israeli racist practices are an appropriate topic.”

To support this agenda, Roth filled HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division with people who engaged in relentless attacks on Israel, with only token publications on Syria, Libya, Iran and other authoritarian regimes. Roth lobbied the UN Human Rights Council to create one-sided “investigations” of the Jewish state, and pressed the International Criminal Court to adopt invented versions of international law in order to do so, including a fictitious description of apartheid. Roth also used the term “primitive” in the context of Jewish religion and tradition and blamed Jews for antisemitism. HRW’s April 2021 “report” that claimed Israel had “crossed the line into apartheid” is a reiteration of this 20-year campaign.

These activities were noted by Robert Bernstein, the founder of HRW. Although he had retired, Bernstein was strongly opposed to the direction in which Roth was taking the organization, in particular its demonization of Israel. (Full disclosure: I discussed these issues in meetings with Bernstein beginning in 2004.) In 2009, Bernstein took the unprecedented and painful step of denouncing HRW in a New York Times column and a series of speeches. As a result, many of HRW’s donors ended their support.

However, Roth is a very skilled fundraiser, and after getting $100 million from George Soros, he added other secret donors, such as a Saudi billionaire whose 2012 “contribution”—the existence of which was denied for many years—was only revealed in 2020.

It will be difficult for HRW to find a qualified successor devoted to universal human rights who is not inherently hostile to the West and to Israel, and will not sell out to corrupt donors. If it succeeds, however, the difficult process of repairing the damage and restoring the credibility and universality of human rights principles envisioned by HRW’s founders can begin.

Gerald M. Steinberg heads NGO Monitor and is emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates