(New York) – Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth has announced that he plans to step down at the end of August 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. Roth has led the organization since 1993, transforming it from a small group of regional “watch committees” to a major international human rights organization with global influence.
“I had the great privilege to spend nearly 30 years building an organization that has become a leading force in defending the rights of people around the world,” Roth said. “I leave Human Rights Watch with confidence that a highly talented and dedicated staff will carry on that defense with great energy, creativity, and effectiveness.”
Under Roth’s leadership, Human Rights Watch grew from a staff of about 60 with a $7 million budget, to 552 covering more than 100 countries and a nearly $100 million budget. In 1997, Human Rights Watch shared a Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to ban antipersonnel landmines and played a critical role in the coalitions to establish the International Criminal Court and to ban the use of cluster munitions and child soldiers. The staff’s reporting and advocacy also contributed to the conviction of Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, and wartime Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Today Human Rights Watch is deeply engaged in documenting and working to curtail serious abuses in Ukraine, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen, among the 100 countries where it regularly works.
Roth began his human rights career as a volunteer, working on nights and weekends while serving as an attorney and a federal prosecutor. He joined Human Rights Watch in 1987 as deputy director. At the time, the organization consisted of Helsinki Watch, formed in 1978 to support dissident movements in Eastern Europe; Americas Watch, founded in 1981; and Asia Watch, formed in 1985. Shortly after Roth joined, the organization created Middle East Watch and Africa Watch. Early in his tenure, Roth moved the organization toward a single identity as Human Rights Watch.
Not long after his arrival, popular uprisings toppled dictatorships across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, opening up new opportunities for the human rights movement. But as citizens of Europe’s new democracies embraced their newfound freedoms, rivalries suppressed by decades of dictatorship erupted. When Roth was appointed executive director in 1993, Yugoslavia had split apart, and Bosnia was in the throes of war marked by a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. The genocide in Rwanda was soon to follow.
Roth recognized the need for real time documentation of atrocities to generate immediate pressure to end them. That led to the creation of a group of specially trained researchers who could provide a surge capacity to the organization’s regular country researchers.
Roth also embraced new possibilities to bring perpetrators to justice. As Human Rights Watch researchers meticulously documented abuses, the organization pressed the United Nations Security Council, then in a more cooperative moment, to create international war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Human Rights Watch research was used to build some of the cases, and staff testified at both UN tribunals. Human Rights Watch also played a prominent role in establishing the International Criminal Court, fending off pressure from the US government seeking to ensure immunity for its own forces.
“Ken’s fearless passion for justice, his courage and compassion towards the victims of human rights violations and atrocity crimes was not just professional responsibility but a personal conviction to him,” said Fatou Bensouda, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. “He has indeed been a great inspiration to me and my colleagues.”
Today, amid the horrific abuse taking place in Ukraine, an infrastructure is in place to hold perpetrators accountable.
Roth also created special teams to address the needs of certain marginalized people, including women, children, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, refugees, people with disabilities, and older people. He also oversaw the development of specialized programs on poverty and inequality, climate change, technology, and corporate social responsibility. In addition, he initiated a program to address human rights in the United States.
“When Ken Roth succeeded me as executive director of Human Rights Watch nearly 30 years ago, I had worked with him long enough to know that the organization would be in good hands,” said Aryeh Neier, the first Human Rights Watch executive director, who later became president of Open Society Foundations. “He has exceeded my expectations. Ken’s personal integrity and leadership have been essential in making Human Rights Watch one of the world’s most important nongovernmental institutions.”
Roth changed the way that Human Rights Watch directed its advocacy. The organization began focusing mainly on US foreign policy. Roth globalized the organization’s advocacy, establishing offices in Brussels, London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, and Sydney. He also spearheaded the organization’s work with the United Nations, with dedicated advocates in New York and Geneva.
After the 9/11 attacks, Human Rights Watch documented and exposed the use of “black sites” where US officials interrogated and tortured terrorism suspects. Under Roth, Human Rights Watch pressed the US government to investigate and prosecute those responsible for issuing the orders. Eventually the US Senate issued the Torture Report confirming Human Rights Watch’s findings and denouncing the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture.
“Ken Roth turned Human Rights Watch into a juggernaut for justice,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He has inspired a generation of human rights defenders to fight for a better world. During the so-called ‘war on terror,’ Ken went to Guantanamo and brought to bear his acumen and stature in exposing the farce of the military commission process. No organization and no leader have had a greater impact in human rights on a global scale.”
Human Rights Watch’s communication strategy evolved dramatically under Roth. The organization began by writing reports. Over time, it also began producing shorter and quicker reports and built a strong multimedia capacity, so that videos, photos, and graphics now routinely accompany the organization’s publications and sometimes are the publication itself. The organization also embraced social media. The organization has amassed nearly 14 million followers on the major social media platforms. Roth himself has more than half a million Twitter followers.
In his nearly 30 years at the helm of Human Rights Watch, Roth traveled the world, pressing government officials of all stripes to pay greater respect to human rights. He met with more than two dozen heads of state and government along with countless ministers and made investigative or advocacy trips to more than 50 countries. Whenever he could, he also met with communities affected by human rights violations. During his early years with the organization, he conducted fact-finding investigations himself, including in Haiti, Cuba, Israel-Palestine, Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion, and Serbia after the US bombing. In recent years, he has been especially concerned with addressing atrocities during the Syrian war as well as Chinese government repression in Xinjiang.
Roth inevitably earned many enemies. Despite being Jewish (and having a father who fled Nazi Germany as a 12-year-old boy), he has been attacked for the organization’s criticism of Israeli government abuses. The Rwandan government was particularly vitriolic in its criticism of Roth after Human Rights Watch, which had issued a definitive account of the genocide, also reported on atrocities and repression under President Paul Kagame.
The Chinese government imposed “sanctions” on him and expelled him from Hong Kong when he traveled there to release the annual World Report in January 2020, which spotlighted Beijing’s threat to the global human rights system. Roth responded to these and many other criticisms by noting that the organization employs the same fact-finding methodology and applies the same human rights principles in every country where it works.
Roth has written extensively on a range of human rights issues. In addition to writing the introduction to the World Report since 1990, he has published more than 300 articles including in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs.
Roth plans to write a book drawing on his personal experiences about the most effective strategies for defending human rights. “I am leaving Human Rights Watch but I am not leaving the human rights cause,” Roth said.
Human Rights Watch will conduct an open search for Roth’s successor. Tirana Hassan, chief programs officer, will serve as interim executive director.
“Ken’s clarity of vision brought me to Human Rights Watch,” said Amy Rao, the Human Rights Watch Board of Directors co-chair. “Supporting him and this organization has been one of the great honors of my life. We are committed to ushering in a new leader who will build on Ken’s legacy and drive Human Rights Watch forward in partnership with other organizations to defend and protect human rights around the globe.”