In a recent interview with Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth, we discussed his latest thinking on the challenges and opportunities of the Middle East in transition, the role of non-profit, civil society and philanthropic sectors in accelerating the positive outcomes of the Arab Spring, his advice to President Obama on dealing with the unrest in Syria, whether or not the Kony 2012 Invisible Children viral video campaign was effective, and lastly, how they prioritize their organizational efforts to protecting human rights worldwide.
Human Rights Watch is a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization made up of more than 280 staff members around the globe. Its staff consists of human rights professionals including country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics of diverse backgrounds and nationalities. Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch is known for its accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy, often in partnership with local human rights groups. Each year, Human Rights Watch publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries, generating extensive coverage in local and international media.
Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch in 1987, Roth served as a federal prosecutor in New York and for the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington. A graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University, Roth has conducted numerous human rights investigations and missions around the world. He has also written extensively on a wide range of human rights abuses, devoting special attention to issues of international justice, counterterrorism, the foreign policies of the major powers, and the work of the United Nations.
Rahim Kanani: Having done a tremendous amount of work over the years on human rights conditions in the Middle East, what is your high-level assessment of the Arab Spring as it continues to unfold?
Ken Roth: No one thought it would be easy to transform the stultified, authoritarian governments of the Middle East and North Africa, so we should hardly be surprised that progress hasn’t been linear. Still, the events of the past year have been momentous. No longer can the region’s authoritarian leaders claim that their people’s enforced silence constitutes acquiescence to their rule.
Predictably, some revolutions have gone better than others. Tunisia has made the most progress, with a self-described Islamic leadership that, most of the time, has upheld pluralism and liberty. In Libya, a country that Gaddafi deliberately left bereft of institutions, the government has made many of the right noises on human rights but is struggling to assert authority over tribal militia and to build a functioning justice system. Egypt is at a perilous moment, with major questions about whether the military will subject itself and its interests to civilian rule, and whether the Muslim Brotherhood-led government that is likely to emerge will respect basic freedoms and the rights of women and minorities.
Reform in Bahrain has been stymied by members of the old guard who refuse to countenance real political change. As for the region’s other monarchies, they have allowed little if any democratic progress. Yemen suffered for months from an international promise that former President Saleh would be amnestied for his many political killings if he stepped down—which he took as license to kill without consequence as he tried to retain power. And then there’s the severe violence and emerging civil war in Syria.
Progress on all of these fronts will be led by the people of the region, but they require active international support in maintaining the political space to stand up to reactionary governments. Western assistance is also needed to deliver firm messages to key regional actors—to the Egyptian military, that it must allow civilian rule to proceed; to Saudi Arabia, that it must countenance the emergence of constitutional monarchies in the Persian Gulf states; and to the emerging Islamic governments, that they will be accepted so long as they respect the basic rights of all their citizens.
Rahim Kanani: At the same time, what role do you see non-governmental actors, such as the philanthropic community, playing in accelerating the positive outcomes of the Arab Spring?
Ken Roth: Much work remains to ensure that the Arab Spring yields positive human rights outcomes. Philanthropists can advance the cause by helping to build a stronger community of local human rights activists in key countries. In some places, such as Egypt and Tunisia, human rights activists are working to shape new Constitutions, laws, and government institutions. In Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, greater human rights pressure is needed to help nudge relatively enlightened monarchs in a more democratic direction. In countries like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, pressure is needed to counter entrenched and repressive monarchies. And in Syria, urgent help is required to monitor and alert the world to Assad’s violence as a step toward building the pressure needed for it to end. The international human rights movement has an important role in all of this, but there is no substitute for strong local groups and activists. They, in turn, need financial backing.
Rahim Kanani: Specifically with regard to the unrest in Syria, what would be your advice to President Obama on ending the violence?
President Obama should intensify pressure on Russia to allow tougher sanctions on Assad before thousands more lose their lives.
Ken Roth: Syria has been a very difficult case, in large part because Russia (backed by China) has stymied efforts to ratchet up pressure on President Assad to stop the killing. The United States and the European Union have imposed a range of sanctions whose bite is being felt by the elite who prop up Assad, but these take a frustratingly long time to have an effect—and meanwhile the killing continues. Tougher sanctions such as an arms embargo, or referral to the International Criminal Court, require approval of the UN Security Council, meaning that Moscow’s objections must be overcome.
Kofi Annan’s peace plan is a useful effort. The UN observers do seem to deter killing where they are immediately present, but there is little hope that enough observers can be deployed to stop the slaughter nationwide. As a result, some now are talking about arming the opposition or even sending troops into parts of Syria. Those are risky ideas, which I hope won’t be necessary. Instead, President Obama should intensify pressure on Russia to allow tougher sanctions on Assad before thousands more lose their lives.
Rahim Kanani: Turning to the home front here in the United States, what are your thoughts on the Kony 2012 viral video campaign, and do you believe the film’s reach will accelerate Kony’s capture? Or did it reveal something more fundamental about the pitfalls and perils of viral video for change?
Ken Roth: The video, about Joseph Kony’s ruthless Lord’s Resistance Army, has been criticized for over-simplifying the issues and allowing people to believe it was enough to register one’s outrage at the LRA’s atrocities by simply posting on Facebook or Twitter. The film was by no means perfect, but I think it played an important role in raising awareness about Kony and building public determination to end his rampage.
Last October, after a long campaign waged by many groups including Human Rights Watch, President Obama agreed to deploy 100 military advisors to help capture Kony and deliver him to the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for his arrest. That was a gutsy move—putting US troops in harm’s way for purely humanitarian reasons. The outpouring of broad public support for that mission because of the Kony 2012 video will make it easier for Obama to take the risks that might be needed to put an end to the scourge of Kony’s LRA.
Rahim Kanani: Lastly, with so many human rights infringements and violations around the world, how does Human Rights Watch prioritize its efforts to work on the highest-impact interventions and advocacy campaigns?
Ken Roth: Human Rights Watch works in some 90 countries, so setting priorities is more art than science. In selecting both the countries and the issues on which we work, we consider a number of factors—most notably the severity of the abuse, our ability to have an impact, and the opinions of our local partners. We also make an effort to focus on not only classic abuses—for example, high-profile political prisoners—but also neglected groups of people (such as women, children, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities) and issues (such as the right to health or the right to education where we have the capacity to make a significant difference). There are always far more demands for our work than capacity to meet them, but we regularly examine our priorities seeking maximum impact with what we have.
Rahim Kanani is a writer, advocate, strategist and entrepreneur for global social change. Follow him @rahimkanani and on Facebook. Have an idea for a great interview? Email email@example.com.
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