The Russian war against Ukraine is the big topic during the UN summit week. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch has been researching and documenting the war crimes for months.
Vladimir Putin wants Ukraine’s civilian population to suffer as much as possible from an all-out war.
Your outgoing boss Kenneth Roth: “During his war, Putin is tearing up the Geneva Conventions on the humanitarian international law of war. Killed or wounded civilians are not collateral damage here. They are targeted: cities, hospitals and other civilian facilities are bombed. Vladimir Putin wants Ukrainian civilians to suffer as much as possible from all-out war.”
Focus on Russia and China
In the past, human rights organizations focused on countries such as North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Eritrea. “It is bitter that two UN veto powers now pose the greatest threat.”
For a lifelong human rights advocate like 66-year-old Kenneth Roth, Russia is an acute problem. In the long term, however, his main concern is China: “Russia is not a role model: Nobody wakes up in the morning and says I would like to live in Putin’s autocratic kleptocracy.”
Unlike China. Many governments emulate the authoritarian and economically successful model. Beijing has enormous influence in the UN.
Kenneth Roth on China and the Uyghurs
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“It is all the more important that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has finally published its well-founded report on the crimes against the Muslim Uyghur minority after a long hesitation. But what next? How do you increase the pressure on China in the UN? Or will China get away with it once more?”
According to Kenneth Roth, a majority in the Human Rights Council is needed to decide on investigations against China, which condemns China: “It would be the very first time in the history of the UN.”
Things are not looking good for human rights worldwide at the moment, setbacks are far more common than progress. So is Kenneth Roth stepping down in frustration? No, he thinks he has achieved a lot: “But if I had waited until everything was in order, I could never leave Human Rights Watch. Because the fight for human rights never ends. It’s the nature of governments to violate human rights, everyone tends to do it.”
The struggle for human rights never ends. It is in the nature of governments to violate human rights, everyone tends to do so.
And without influential organizations like Human Rights Watch, the situation would be even worse if those in power were even more repressive.
bullying and criticism
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The fact that governments repeatedly attack and denigrate Human Rights Watch shows that one has influence and is annoying to them: “First they deny the allegations, then they try to put their critics in a bad light. My reaction is always the same: If you think we’re wrong – prove it with facts. Governments almost never manage to do that.”
Kenneth Roth himself has not been allowed to enter China for years. He’s not proud of it, he sees it as a handicap in his work. The Human Rights Watch office in Moscow was forcibly closed. He and his comrades-in-arms have also been criticized in the West, for example by Israel and the USA, primarily from the right, because the Israeli occupation policy in Palestine is also documented.
Kenneth Roth is concerned about developments in his American homeland, both personally and professionally: “The movement against US democracy, led by ex-President Donald Trump, is to be taken very, very seriously. We must remain vigilant.” For the time being, the democratic institutions held their ground. Still.
If you want to know how important human rights are, you shouldn’t ask governments, but people.
Kenneth Roth doesn’t believe in countries like China trying to redefine human rights away from liberties. And they argued that the rights of individuals vis-à-vis states are a purely Western concept: “Anyone who claims such things should speak to their own people. They want human rights, freedom rights. In every single country in the world. If you want to know how important human rights are, you shouldn’t ask governments, but people. I have never met anyone who wanted to be executed, tortured, arbitrarily arrested or discriminated against.”
For governments, human rights are tedious; they limit the scope for action. But people want human rights. That’s why Kenneth Roth is committed to it. In the future simply without his chief post.