- Executive Director of Human Rights Watch
- Charges that the United States violates human rights by torturing detainees captured in the war on terror
Since 1993, Kenneth Roth has been the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based NGO with a strong anti-Israel bias. During Roth’s tenure at the helm of HRW, the organization has tripled in size. From 1987 to 1993, he served as HRW’s Deputy Director. Prior to that he ran a private law practice, worked as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and was involved in the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington.
A graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University, Roth has written more than 70 articles and book chapters on human rights topics. His articles have appeared in such publications as Foreign Affairs, the International Herald Tribune, The Nation, the New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and the Washington Post. A sought-after public speaker and commentator, Roth appears regularly in the major media and addresses audiences all over the world.
Roth rejects the very concept of a “War on Terror,” which he says “stretches the meaning of the word ‘war’” to an unacceptable degree. “The Bush administration,” he elaborates, “has used war rhetoric precisely to give itself the extraordinary powers enjoyed by a wartime government to detain or even kill suspects without trial. In the process, the administration . . . has . . . threatened the most basic due process rights. . . . By literalizing its ‘war’ on terror, the Bush administration has broken down the distinction between what is permissible in times of peace and what can be condoned during a war. . . . In attempting to make Americans safer, [the administration] has made all Americans, and everyone else, less free.”
Strongly opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Roth saw the crisis there as one that should have been dealt with through legal, rather than military, channels. “[T]o stop the Iraqi abuses that were continuing,” he said, “military intervention was not the last reasonable option. Criminal prosecution, at the very least, should have been tried first.”
Roth elaborated on this theme in October 2005 when he said: “Whether they [the Bush administration] did everything they could, short of war, to deal with Saddam’s repression, one big thing they didn’t do was indict him. . . . An international indictment has the ability to delegitimize leaders, make it clear to their entourage that there is no way their government will ever enjoy normal relations with the rest of the world until they get rid of the thug at the top. In those circumstances, there is a tendency for them to overthrow the tyrant.” He added that “the advantage of requiring some kind of multilateral approval is that it gives legitimacy to the venture.” Roth made no mention of the high-level French and Russian officials who reaped great financial profits from keeping the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food Program alive and, by logical extension, keeping Saddam Hussein in power.
Also in October 2005, Roth charged that the Bush administration had “rush[ed] to war” and “didn’t even wait for the last possible resort to deal with the weapons of mass destruction issue.” He suggested that “at the more psychological level,” this alleged haste to launch military operations was a manifestation of George W. Bush “exacting revenge for somebody [Hussein] who tried to assassinate Daddy, or one-upping Daddy, who didn’t have the nerve to go all the way to Baghdad, but the tougher George W. is going to do it.” In the next breath, Roth said: “If this [invasion] had really been about maximizing protection for Iraqi civilians, we would have gone in with a much bigger force. We would have listened to General Shinseki when he said that several hundred thousand troops were needed to avoid postwar chaos, to avoid the looting of arsenals and the various things that have led to the disastrous insurgency today.”
Roth has also expressed extreme anger over America’s allegedly brutal treatment of the prisoners it has captured during the War on Terror. On December 27, 2002, he wrote an open letter to President Bush, stating that HRW “is deeply concerned by allegations of torture and other mistreatment of suspected al Qaeda detainees,” which, if true, “would place the United States in violation of some of the most fundamental prohibitions of international human rights law.” “Any U.S. government official who is directly involved or complicit in the torture or mistreatment of detainees,” he said, “including any official who knowingly acquiesces in the commission of such acts, would be subject to prosecution worldwide.”
Specifically, Roth complained about news reports that “persons held in the CIA interrogation centers at Bagram air base in Afghanistan are subject to ‘stress and duress’ techniques, including ‘standing or kneeling for hours’ and being ‘held in awkward, painful positions.’” Declaring that “Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or of war,” Roth cited Article 17 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949 which states: “No physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion, may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatever. Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”
Roth revisited this theme in February 2005 when he said: “The [Bush] Administration has tried to pretend that Abu Ghraib was just a few bad apples at the bottom of the barrel, an aberration that in no sense reflected policy. . . . But if you look at what has happened over the last three years, it is quite clear that a series of policy decisions taken at the most senior levels of the Bush Administration are the reason why we have seen so many instances of abusive interrogation.” According to Roth, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “explicitly authorized a number of techniques that clearly are prohibited by the rule against cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment: putting people in painful stress positions, hooding them for long periods of time, stripping them naked, using attack dogs to scare them.” “These techniques,” said Roth, “are designed to humiliate, degrade, or inflict extreme pain. The signal was sent that these kinds of abuses were acceptable, despite international legal prohibitions. And then . . . these techniques began to migrate throughout the system. Although they were approved for Guantánamo, they quickly found their way to Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.”
In a March 2007 speech, Roth said that the United States, by routinely “using torture and inhumane treatment,” had “severely damaged its credibility when it comes to promoting human rights” around the world. He charged that the U.S. had “forcibly disappeared people into secret detention facilities” and “lock[ed] people up without trial for long periods in places like Guantánamo or in Iraq or at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.” “And so,” he concluded, “it has become effectively unthinkable for the United States to go to a government and protest its torture or to protest its locking up of the latest dissidents without trial.”
Roth’s condemnations of U.S. torture have been praised by Marjorie Cohn, current President of the National Lawyers Guild.
In December 2006, Roth was a guest speaker at a New York City event titled The First North American Rabbinic Conference on Judaism and Human Rights. Fellow speakers included, among others, Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine, Michael Posner of Human Rights First, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Pamela Shifman of UNICEF, and Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights.