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Lawrence Bacow
Harvard University
Massachusetts Hall
Cambridge, MA 02138 USA

Via email


cc: Claudine Gay, Incoming President, Harvard University; Douglas Elmendorf, Dean, John F. Kennedy School of Government

Dear President Bacow,

I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to express our concern about the decision by Dean Douglas Elmendorf of the Harvard Kennedy School to block the appointment of the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, for a fellowship with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. According to news reports, which neither Dean Elmendorf nor the school’s spokesperson has denied, Dean Elmendorf vetoed the appointment because of Mr. Roth’s and Human Rights Watch’s criticism of human rights violations by the government of Israel.

According to the Associated Press, Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School, said that Dean Elmendorf told her that “they would not approve the fellowship because they considered Human Rights Watch and Roth to have an anti-Israel bias.” Mathias Risse, the director of the Carr Center, in a statement that was sent to the Carr Center community and obtained by the Associated Press, said the school’s decision to veto the center’s approval of Roth’s fellowship was a “profoundly sad moment.”

The decision by Harvard University, one of the world’s most respected academic institutions, to block a human rights appointment for an esteemed human rights advocate due to his criticism of the Israeli government, will have a lasting impact on scholars and activists, particularly Palestinians, who should not have to fear professional repercussions from Harvard University or another institution if they write or speak critically about the Israeli government. More profoundly, the vetoing of Mr. Roth’s fellowship because of his important work on a specific country sends a chilling message to all scholars and advocates, whatever part of the world they research, that Harvard University may not judge them by the quality of their work, but rather on the say-so of well-funded detractors.

Sadly, Dean Elmendorf’s decision belittles the Harvard Kennedy School diversity statement, which affirms: “The Kennedy School actively pursues the expansion and maintenance of an atmosphere that welcomes new ideas—even unpopular and controversial ones—and encourages an effective and active exchange of views in an environment of mutual respect.”

Human Rights Watch investigates and documents violations of international human rights in more than 100 countries across the world. In situations of armed conflict, we document violations of international humanitarian law by states and non-state armed groups. In Israel and Palestine, as in every other context we work on, we apply a rigorous methodology to the facts on the ground and document serious human rights violations by a wide range of actors.

In 2021, Human Rights Watch concluded, in a 213-page report, that Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution, as defined under international law, against millions of Palestinians—a finding in line with those of many other respected institutions, including prominent Israeli human rights organizations B’Tselem and Yesh Din, as well as Amnesty International, several United Nations mechanisms and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. Other prominent voices, including the former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the governments of South Africa and Namibia, and the foreign ministers of Luxemburg and France, have also referenced apartheid in relation to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The Kennedy School’s decision to deny Mr. Roth the opportunity of joining the Carr Center because of his work will doubtlessly have repercussions for academic freedom throughout Harvard University. Unless addressed it could taint Harvard’s stellar reputation around the globe. I urge you to review the decision and take the measures necessary to uphold the values of academic freedom.

I would be happy to discuss these issues at your convenience.

Yours truly,

Tirana Hassan

Acting Executive Director

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