Kenneth Roth on the state of human rights today

The former head of Human Rights Watch and Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow at Perry World House discusses plans for his time on campus, and changes he has seen in three decades of human rights work.

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, looks into the camera in this head shot.
 Kenneth Roth is the inaugural Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow at Perry World House. (Image: Courtesy of Perry World House)

Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, has been named the inaugural Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow at Perry World House.

The fellowship is part of a gift announced in the spring from alumni Hemal N. Mirani and Paritosh V. Thakore. 

“Ken’s time on campus presents a phenomenal opportunity for Perry World House to more formally launch its human rights work,” said LaShawn R. Jefferson, senior executive director of Perry World House. “Almost 75 years after the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its principles, goals, and moral force remain inextricably linked to efforts to achieving a more just world.”

Roth’s first event on campus will be a discussion on Nov. 16 entitled “Democracy vs. Autocracy in Ukraine and Beyond.” Moderating will be Colum Lynch, senior global correspondent at Devex, who covers the intersections of development, diplomacy, and humanitarian relief, especially at the United Nations.

Penn Today talked with Roth about the plans for his time on campus, the changes that he has seen in human rights work during the three decades that he led Human Rights Watch, and the state of human rights in the world today.

Your first event on campus focuses on a human rights perspective on the global struggle between democracy and autocracy. What would you say the state of democracy is in the world right now?

There’s no question that democracies are challenged today, and their biggest problem is that they really are not answering to people who feel left behind. There are significant segments of society that feel they’re forgotten. They feel resentful of the governing elites, and they’re willing to turn to often quite radical alternatives, if those alternatives seem like they are more responsive to their concerns. That was Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Duterte in the Philippines. Democracy has a lot of work to do to become more responsive to the needs of everyone in society and to address some of the big, long-term problems we face, whether it’s climate change, poverty and inequality, or some of the threats from technology.

The common wisdom these days is that the autocrats are winning, but, in fact, despite the problems that democracies are having, I think the autocrats are in big trouble these days. We’re seeing that very vividly in Russia and China, where both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping surround themselves with sycophants. They have people who don’t deliver bad news which in turn leads them to make terrible decisions. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a perfect example of that. He seemed to think it would be a cakewalk. Xi Jinping is pursuing similar misguided policies because nobody contradicts him, whether it’s the ‘zero COVID’ strategy or his attacks on the most vibrant parts of the economy because he sees them as political threats, or his debt-ridden residential construction, these are all things that are undermining the economic growth that he claims is the main reason for his legitimacy. That’s what happens when you have an unaccountable autocrat.

But if you look around the world, the world has become a very hostile place for autocrats. Autocrats like to pretend that human rights are Western impositions, but, in fact, if you look around the world, people are taking to the streets all over the place to seek more democratic rule. Currently, it’s the demonstrations in Iran; a few months ago it was in Sri Lanka, and we’ve seen in one country after the other that people are taking to the streets to promote democratic rule, even at the risk of being detained or even shot. People want governments that they can influence, that are responsive to their desires. That’s what I’m going to talk about: the common wisdom that autocracy is ascendant is not the full picture by any means.

What is your take on the state of democracy in the U.S. specifically?

Again, that gets back to the fact that there are significant segments of society that feel neglected by the governing elite. The Republican Party has profited from that, and Trump learned how to appeal to those people. It’s not as if they offer a positive program, but the Republicans have gotten very good at speaking to their resentment. The challenge for the Democrats is to show that they hear the pain of people whose needs are not being met by the government and that they really do have answers for everybody, not just people who live along the coasts or in certain cities.

Where do you see the most improvement in human rights during these 30 years?

It’s in the nature of governments to violate human rights as a shortcut for staying in power. So, the role of the human rights movement is to push back and to raise the cost of human rights violations, to try to influence the cost-benefit analysis behind repression. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. If I look back over my three decades leading Human Rights Watch, there has been enormous progress in, say, Eastern Europe, where countries have gone from being Soviet communist dictatorships to democratic members of the European Union. Much of Latin America has switched from right-wing military dictatorships to vibrant democracies. But then there are parts of the world that have stayed frustratingly the same, such as much of the Middle East. There are countries like Russia and China that made progress but now are regressing. It’s hard to summarize on a global level other than to say that there is always a battle under way to defend rights.

What will some of your priorities be as the Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow?

I’m writing a book. That’s my main task for this year. In it, I’m going to try to answer the question of how a relatively small group of people moves governments around the world. I’m going to try to explain the methodology that Human Rights Watch uses, to look at the investigations and standards we use, how we use media and advocate with governments, and then try to illustrate that methodology with my experiences over the last three decades.

It’s a methodology that isn’t really restricted to human rights. It can apply to any cause where there is some set of moral standards that people want to hold a government or an institution to. The key to understanding this methodology is that we generally do not have courts to turn to because we tend to operate in places where the courts do not function adequately to restrain governmental abuse. So, we had to figure out ways to put pressure on governments, to force them to respect rights in a way that the courts might do if they were functioning better. That’s a methodology that can be applied quite broadly.

I’m looking forward to my time at Penn. I find that it’s very useful talking things through with people because I come in with certain preconceptions, but I appreciate hearing from others with good ideas and perspectives that I don’t necessarily think of. I’m trying to write for the general public, so hearing these different points of view helps me greatly to communicate more effectively. I’m planning to write in a way that will pass muster with an expert community, but I’m not writing for the expert community. And so it’s useful for me to have people who are broadly interested in this topic from whatever the perspective or discipline to give me their reactions and to talk through things that they would like me to address.

What advice would you give Penn students who are interested in fighting for human rights, whether it’s as a career or not?

In students’ day-to-day lives, I would start with social media. We’ve learned that people are much more likely to trust messages from their friends. The far right has made very effective use of social media as a tool for divisiveness, hatred, and negativity. Pro-rights, pro-democracy voices have not been as systematic. I really encourage everybody to speak out, to not feel self-conscious about it, and to use social media to defend human rights, to defend democracy, and to promote justice. People appreciate such voices, which in turn gain an audience simply by speaking out.

As for students who are interested in human rights as a career, there is no prescribed route. We hire people from a range of disciplines. We look for people who have the maturity to conduct detailed, objective investigations and who have the speaking and writing skills to serve as effective advocates. We place a high premium on people who can speak languages in addition to English and who have lived and worked in places outside the United States. Students are a stage in their lives when they can more easily travel and take career risks. If they seek to do international work, I encourage them to follow their passions and find any route possible to live and work overseas.

What would you say is the most important thing for people to understand right now about the state of human rights in the world?

Because there is no court that you can turn to defend rights in most countries, the main tool that we have at our disposal is public shaming and public disapproval. That requires educating yourself about what’s happening in different countries and then speaking up, speaking in favor of pro-rights solutions. That is the human rights methodology. To work, it requires everybody’s participation.