Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, on the State and Future of Human Rights Philanthropy and Policy

In advance of the 2011 Global Philanthropy Forum starting tomorrow, April 13th, in Redwood City, CA, I interviewed Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, on the state of giving today, George Soros' recent $100M gift to his organization, the International Criminal Court, President Obama's foreign policy, the future of human rights, and much more.

Rahim Kanani: Having served as the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch for nearly two decades, how would you characterize the trend in human rights awareness, advocacy and action with respect to philanthropic dollars?

Kenneth Roth: Human Rights Watch has experienced a very positive trend. We began with a funding base principally in New York. Today, we have major supporters across North America and Europe, and growing numbers in Asia. A third of our support now comes from outside the United States, and that percentage has been steadily climbing. Similarly our budget has grown some 20-fold in that period and continues on an upward trajectory.

I would attribute that expansion principally to a growing awareness of our impact. A major problem facing the human rights movement is explaining to would-be donors how we are capable of moving abusive governments that might be located on the other side of the world. Once people understand how we are capable of putting intense pressure on those governments to respect rights, they contribute. Indeed, as we have become stronger and our capacity to exert pressure grows, philanthropists give more. Some 80 donors invest $100,000 or more each year in Human Rights Watch -- sums they wouldn't be making available if they didn't see substantial impact for their investment.

Another factor is a growing appreciation of the importance of human rights to a broad range of issues that philanthropists care about. Obviously no one wants to see people raped, tortured or arbitrarily imprisoned, but many philanthropists are focused mainly on other issues, such as humanitarian assistance, economic development, the environment. Yet I've noticed an increasing awareness among philanthropists that these other issues can't be so easily separated from human rights. Abusive wars fuel humanitarian crises. Dictators stifle economic development. Environmental degradation flourishes when governments are unaccountable to the people affected by environmental hazards.

This interconnectedness of issues doesn't mean that philanthropists should abandon their concern with humanitarian aid, development assistance, or the environment. Rather, they should take a more holistic approach by investing not only in these other important issues directly but also in building the basic human rights conditions that allow these other issues to be productively addressed.

Rahim Kanani: What does George Soros' recent $100M gift to Human Rights Watch mean to you as an investment in both your leadership, and as an investment in the organization's efforts to expand?

Kenneth Roth: Human Rights Watch approached George Soros on the basis of a strategic plan. Human Rights Watch investigates human rights practices in some 90 countries, but we have traditionally deployed our findings in key Western capitals to generate pressure on offending governments to respect rights. However, as everyone knows, global power is shifting. For example, the government with the most influence over Zimbabwe is not the United States or Britain but South Africa; the governments with the greatest influence over Sri Lanka or Burma are Asian neighbors such as China, India and Japan. To sustain and enhance our impact, Human Rights Watch must adjust to this new reality by increasing our capacity to enlist powerful actors outside the West. That doesn't mean dropping our work in Washington, London, Brussels, Paris and Berlin, which remain important sources of pressure on behalf of our cause. But it does mean we must expand so that we have similar press and advocacy offices in key non-Western countries. We have already begun the process, with new offices in Johannesburg, Delhi, Tokyo, and Beirut, and others are planned in Nairobi, Bangkok, and Sao Paolo.

In addition, Human Rights Watch must deepen our capacity to conduct the careful, on-the-ground investigations for which we are known. Although we are expected to have people in every country with an abusive war or a repressive government, the truth is that we often must ask one researcher to cover several countries, which invariably means a process of triage and missed opportunities. We need to significantly bolster our research capacity.

To make these programmatic changes, we hope to grow over the next five years from our current budget of roughly $48 million to one of approximately $80 million. George has been a generous donor to Human Rights Watch for decades -- since the early days when few had heard of him. He was excited by the vision behind our strategic plan and agreed to fund it with $10 million a year for ten years. Our challenge now is to raise the remaining funds, which we are actively trying to do.

The recent extraordinary developments in the Middle East and North Africa reconfirmed for us the importance of seeing this vision through. For example, Human Rights Watch has served as a key source of information about attacks on demonstrators throughout the region because we had already been working in so many of the countries and had developed a deep reservoir of contacts with local activists and partners. Many journalists parachuted into these countries knowing very little about them, so they naturally turned to us as a key source of information and analysis. The ability to broadcast our findings about abuses almost instantly through the press was enormously helpful to our ability to generate timely pressure for abuses to stop.

Similarly, we saw the importance of conducting human rights advocacy outside traditional Western capitals. For example, in convincing the UN Security Council to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court, the key question was how to prevent a veto by China. At first the major non-Western member states of Brazil, India and South Africa were on the fence, but their ultimate support for the ICC referral left China isolated, convincing it to support the referral as well. Changing the foreign policies of such key Southern powers isn't easy, but we are confident that the same tried-and-true methods that work in Western capitals will work there: building alliances with local civil society partners, forming relationships with sympathetic government officials, and encouraging greater coverage of such issues by the press. Nearly every government, we have found, behaves better when watched. We want to make sure that key Southern governments are watched as intensively in their foreign policies as we currently do for the traditional partners of the human rights movement in the West.

Rahim Kanani: What are some regions of critical concern that the world should start paying attention to before it's too late?

Kenneth Roth: Today, everyone is focusing on the exciting developments in the Middle East and North Africa. Human Rights Watch researchers have been posted in all of the key countries to monitor whether governments respect the rights of their people to speak out and protest peacefully. Our aim, through internal and external pressure, is to increase the costs to governments of cracking down on peaceful demonstrators. But we're also deeply concerned about the future of countries that now seem to be in transition from authoritarian to more democratic governance. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, the president was removed but much of the old power structure remains in place. Many of its members want to offer enough reform to appease popular discontent but not enough to provide a genuine popular say in how the country is run. Continued international attention is essential. In Bahrain, the U.S. and EU have taken a soft-gloved approach to the brutal repression -- a reticence apparently induced by the Fifth Fleet's base in the country and the Saudi government's horror at a democratic movement next door. That reserve threatens to signal to the region's Shia communities that the West will not support a protest movement outside Iran in which they figure prominently -- a dangerous signal.

There are many other places deserving of attention as well. With the Congolese government having finally accepted the creation of a mixed tribunal, we now have the best chance ever to begin establishing the rule of law in eastern Congo to rein in the epidemic of sexual violence there. The Ivory Coast may be near the end of a dangerous and contested political transition, but we must ensure that the authors on both sides of massacres and other atrocities over the last few weeks are brought to justice to avoid laying the groundwork for more large-scale ethnic violence in the future. In Afghanistan, there is much talk of a peace process that would reconcile with Taliban leaders; the U.S. insists that reconciliation won't be at the expense of women, but they have yet to offer firm assurances that people responsible for atrocities and severe repression of women will not be granted positions of power. In China, the government's fear of its own Jasmine spring has sparked the most intense and widespread crackdown on independent political voices in more than a decade. In Ethiopia and Rwanda, leaders are using the promise of economic development to shield themselves from pressure to end the brutal repression that ensures their grip on power, setting a dangerous precedent that certain other African leaders are all too eager to follow.

I could go on. As you'll see, there are plenty of places in the world that need our attention.

Rahim Kanani: How much confidence do you place in the future of the International Criminal Court to deliver on its mission?

Kenneth Roth: The ICC is an enormously important institution. Justice for those responsible for mass atrocities is essential as a way to pay respect to the victims, punish the perpetrators, and avoid a climate of impunity in which further atrocities flourish. Until the ICC, ruthless leaders could avoid justice by killing or compromising their own judges, but because today dictators can't reach to The Hague, even the most repressive leaders must worry about finding themselves in the dock. At least some of the time, that will cause them to think twice before committing atrocities. That deterrence saves lives.

Recently the ICC has been criticized because all of its cases so far have in Africa. Some of that is not its fault -- most of the cases were initiated by African governments or the UN Security Council -- but the court could be more vigorous in pursuing cases elsewhere. That said, there seems to be growing appreciation of the court's importance. The Security Council unanimously referred Libya to the ICC and endorsed the court's jurisdiction over Ivory Coast. Among the governments supporting these moves were two of the African giants -- Nigeria and South Africa.

However, because the ICC has no police force of its own, it depends on governments to deliver suspects for trial. The Democratic Republic of Congo has surrendered several suspects, and six Kenyan suspects recently appeared voluntarily. However, the DRC has not surrendered Bosco Ntanganda, a deputy commander of its forces in eastern Congo who is wreaking havoc there (Kinshasa fears retaliation from Rwanda if it surrenders Bosco, a former rebel leader and Rwandan ally). Western governments speak of helping Uganda capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, but so far that's just talk, not action. And not enough pressure is being put on Sudan to surrender its suspects, especially President Omar al-Bashir.

Rahim Kanani: As you look ahead into the next decade, and if you were to serve as the chief human rights investment officer of a major foundation, what areas of human rights work would you resource the most in hopes of achieving the greatest impact?

Kenneth Roth: It is essential that human rights be seen as universal values, not impositions from the West. We know they are -- I travel widely and never encounter anyone who wants to be tortured, arbitrarily detained, subject to discrimination, or deprived of his or her basic freedoms. However, abusive governments have an easier time portraying human rights as external concerns if there are not strong Southern voices behind the movement. I would invest in those local voices, especially in places where they can help to enlist powerful regional governments on behalf of the rights not only of their own citizens but also of others.

I don't pretend that it's easy to invest wisely in faraway places. But for various reasons, some of the big institutional foundations are cutting back, so there's an urgent need for smaller foundations and individuals to step in. Human Rights Watch is happy to provide guidance in helping donors know which local groups are worthy of support.

Rahim Kanani: At the recent White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao, you had a lengthy discussion with China's ambassador to Washington, Zhang Yesui. How serious is the Obama administration's human rights policy towards China?

Kenneth Roth: It is becoming more serious. The president made a mistake in his first year by thinking that a low-key approach on human rights would be more effective. In the lead-up to his November 2009 summit in Beijing, Obama refused to meet the Dalai Lama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that human rights "can't interfere" with other U.S. interests in China. The administration hoped this soft approach would win points that could be cashed in at the summit, but instead it looked weak and unprincipled.

At the Washington summit this past January, the administration took a tougher approach. Before the summit, Clinton gave a strong speech defending civil society and internet freedom, and Obama met with human rights experts for advice. During the summit, Obama stood at Hu's side and stressed the "universal rights of all people." Mentioning freedoms of speech, press, association and religion, he anticipated the false claim that these rights are foreign impositions by noting they are all "recognized in the Chinese constitution." The administration's decision to extend me an invitation to the state dinner, and to seat me at a table in the main dining room along with the Chinese ambassador, reflected this new and more assertive approach -- another statement that human rights should be a normal part of the U.S.-China conversation.

This tougher approach didn't torpedo the US-China relationship. To the contrary, while President Hu did not announce prisoner releases or offer concrete reforms, he did repeat the party line that "a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights."

The tougher approach is particularly important now. As I mentioned, China is in the middle of the largest crackdown on independent voices in more than a decade. Changing things in China isn't easy, but it essential that Beijing realize that there's a major cost to its global reputation and standing if it continues to reverse so dramatically the modest human rights progress of recent years.

Rahim Kanani: More broadly, has President Obama genuinely made human rights issues and reform a central pillar of his foreign policy? And if so, does the rhetoric match the reality?

Kenneth Roth: Human rights are suddenly front and center in Washington--more so than in a long, long time. As I've noted, the Obama administration is now obliged to deal simultaneously with democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, brutal armed conflicts in Libya and Ivory Coast, deepening repression in China, and a morass in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the counterterrorism issues of Guantanamo, military commissions, and long-term detention without trial.

His rhetoric has often been excellent. Not surprisingly, his actions have sometimes fallen short. In Bahrain, as noted, his protests have been tepid for fear of losing a base for the Fifth Fleet and upsetting Saudi rulers. He has largely ignored ruthless repression in Uzbekistan out of a desire to maintain a separate resupply route for Afghanistan. He has refused to preclude handing Afghanistan over to Taliban leaders with awful records on the rights of women. With the exception of a brief protest over Israeli settlement expansion, he has tended to defend Israel from criticism of its human rights record at the UN. He has capitulated to Congressional pressure to maintain the use of military commissions and long-term detention without trial, and refused to investigate the Bush administration's use of torture.

That said, he has done much right. He took the lead in protecting the people of Libya and authorized tough protection for the people of Ivory Coast. After some initial hesitance, he came down firmly in favor of democratic change in Egypt and Tunisia. He has, as noted, toughened his rhetoric on China. He has begun cautiously to criticize the dictatorial rulers of Ethiopia and Rwanda who until now have been beyond US rebuke. He has embraced important if flawed multilateral institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council. He ended the use of torture and so far resisted Congressional pressure to enshrine long-term detention without trial as a permanent feature rather than a narrow necessity to deal with certain legacy cases at Guantanamo.

Rahim Kanani: What are you most worried about with respect to the future of human rights?

Kenneth Roth: The defense of human rights is never static. The defenders of repressive regimes are always coming up with new ways to counter pressure from the human rights movement. A few years ago they cracked down on local NGOs. Now, they are trying to deprive activists of the free use of the Internet and social media.

There are ideological challenges as well, such as certain African dictators' efforts to portray international justice as a colonial endeavor, or China's promotion of a repressive path to economic development, or Sri Lanka's trumpeting of its scorched-earth method of warfare as an alternative to counterinsurgency strategies that focus on winning hearts and minds by sparing civilians.

All of these attacks have answers. But the challenge for the human rights movement is to stay a step ahead -- to protect the realms of freedom, whether via NGOs or the Internet, needed for local activism to flourish, and to counter the ideological threats with a consistent, research-based focus on the reality of how government repression affects ordinary people.

Rahim Kanani: At the same time, what are you most optimistic about?

Kenneth Roth: I'm optimistic because the values of human rights are in the ascendancy. If you look at the proliferation of human rights groups and activists around the world, the growing press focus on human rights issues, and the spread of allies even among governments of the global South, you'll see that the strength of our movement is growing, that our ability to exert pressure on abusive governments is strengthening.

The defense of human rights is always a struggle. There are reasons of convenience why governments want to deprive people of their rights -- to snuff out a pesky opposition, to silence a critical newspaper, to spark ethnic strife as a diversion from the reality of poor governance. Our job in the human rights movement is to increase the cost of abuse, to make the "advantages" of human rights abuse pale in comparison with the economic, diplomatic and reputational costs. I'm optimistic because I see a rapidly growing ability to impose those costs whenever serious abuses occur. From long experience we know that over time, that pressure leads to greater respect for human rights.

This interview is part of an in-depth advance interview series with participants of the 2011 Global Philanthropy Forum. For more on this series please click here.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary

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