Faculty of Law

Kenneth Roth Spoke at the Faculty of Law

At the beginning of December 2014, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, visited the HSE Faculty of Law. Roth, former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington DC, has worked at HRW since 1987. In his opening address, he told the students about the history of this institution and what it does, specifically focusing on several countries out of the 90 where HRW is currently operating.

The history of HRW started with the Helsinki Accords, as a result of which human rights Helsinki Groups began to appear in post-socialist countries. But they were quickly closed down and forced to continue operating underground. This behaviour of communist countries impelled Western human rights activists to create Helsinki Watch, which was initially aimed at defending the participants of Helsinki Groups. Later other regional human rights organizations were founded, such as America Watch and Asia Watch, which later united as Human Rights Watch.

The basic focus of HRW’s attention is the impossibility of realizing the right to a fair trial and the judicial protection of human rights in a specific country due to reasons like corruption or the executive power’s influence over judicial authority.

The main means of HRW’s fight is organizing pressure on the political wing of power, and Mr. Roth described this process in detail. The first stage is a thorough investigation of each specific situation, which results in an objective report on the human rights situation in a certain region. Every week about two large and 20 smaller reports are issued.

The reports are used to pressure the government through media coverage of the facts described in the reports. Up to 100 articles based on HRW reports are published across the globe daily. At a certain point those with political power understand that in order to stop the flow of negative media, they have to eliminate the negative practice of human rights violation. If this doesn’t work, the organization addresses other influential states with requests, for example, to stop arms delivery to a certain country until it corrects its attitude to human rights violations. Another effective measure is requesting that other countries refuse to invite the head of a state or withhold financial support.

In extreme cases, such as crimes against humanity, HRW does everything possible to bring the criminals to justice. The organization cooperates closely with the International Criminal Court as experts, as well as providing evidence for them.

After that, Kenneth Roth described the situation in some countries where HRW is particularly active. He began, of course, with Russia. According to him, the situation is developing in an alarming manner. In recent years, certain steps have been taken that make the expression of critical opinion more difficult. Roth said that non-profit organizations are ‘demonized’, and work conditions for non-governmental media are becoming harder, such as the banning of advertising on profit-making channels and foreign-owned channels. He is also worried about the fact that repeated participation in unauthorised rallies is now a penal offence. According to Roth, this political situation is unprecedented and is the most severe since the Cold War; he believes a new repressive machine structure is being created.

The next country in Mr. Roth’s presentation was the USA. HRW’s priorities in this country are their work with illegal and undocumented immigrants and fight with discrimination in the US judiciary system. Serious attention is also being paid to the so-called ‘war on terror’ and its consequences, including illegal arrests and tortures under G.W. Bush’s presidency. HRW is fighting for the closure of the prison facility in Guantanamo, as well as reducing the use of drones and a thorough investigation into the digital surveillance of citizens as revealed by Edward Snowden.

HRW is also active in Ukraine, and, according to Roth, his organization is covering human rights violation on both sides of the conflict. He emphasized that the use of multiple launch rocket systems and cluster bombs is prohibited in cities (as well as firing from cities in general), rules that are being violated by both sides. They are also investigating the actions of pro-Russian forces, such as extrajudicial reprisals, executions, tortures and attitude towards prisoners. Many things were mentioned in connection with the situation with Crimea. Despite the lack of doubt that most of the population want to be Russian citizens, HRW is worried about the pressure on people who don’t agree with the accession and are unwilling to take Russian citizenship.

Speaking about Syria, Mr. Roth talked about how one of today’s most dangerous threats has evolved, the Islamic State. The speaker also spoke about Egypt as an example of how, as a result of several revolutions, citizens now have a regime even more authoritarian than they had had before.

After the presentation Kenneth Roth invited questions. Both students and lecturers of the faculty participated in a lively debate. The discussion covered HRW’s achievements, the Arab Spring, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and other pressing topics.

Evgeny Puchkov, 2nd-year student