U.S. 'Unprincipled' on Human Rights, NGO Chief Warns

Kenneth Roth has spent 27 years as the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), one of the world's leading human rights organizations, a non-profit investigating human rights abuses across the world on the frontline and pushing for criminal prosecutions where necessary. His work has resulted in him being denied entry to Hong Kong and his organization has earned the displeasure of governments worldwide.

In an exclusive interview with Newsweek, he warns that China poses a threat to the global human rights system, that U.S. is no longer to be relied on as a supporter of human rights and how this has left a void, emboldening autocrats who have used the pandemic to undermine democratic societies.

In 1997, HRW shared the Nobel Peace Prize as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. It also played a leading role in the 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions. It's a career that has seen his organization tackle a range of human rights issues, from supporting the prosecution of abusive leaders including Augusto Pinochet of Chile to playing a fundamental role in the drafting of the Rome Statute to create the International Criminal Court, few are better placed than Roth to talk about human rights.

"China and the threat it poses to human rights both at home and around the world is a huge issue," he says, identifying the current period as the darkest in China's history when it comes to human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

More than a million Uighur Muslims have been put in internment camps in the country's Xinjiang province, According to the United Nations (U.N.). China says the camps serve as "re-education" centers designed to combat extremism, but those who have managed to escape share stories of forced labor, torture, medical experiments and rape.

Roth says: "The Uighurs are the most severe example of worsening repression under Xi Jinping (China's prime minister). It's quite clear that this is the darkest moment in China in human rights terms since the massacre of Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989, the Uyghurs have been the most grievous sufferers of that where a million or more have been detained essentially to force them to abandon Islam and their culture."

Supporters of the National TPS Alliance
Supporters of the National TPS Alliance, a grassroots organization made up of immigrant rights groups, recently rallied at the U.S. Capitol following a federal court ruling that threatens the legal standing of thousands of protected residents Getty

The worsening repression doesn't just extend to minorities, it's something Roth says we can see also occurring in Hong Kong and Tibet as well as against China's own population more widely.

"There is no independent civil society," he says. "There is no independent media, human rights defenders are routinely imprisoned. There is a complete lockdown on any organized public dissent and that is just across the board, not just minority population areas. China's also building this so-called social credit system which is designed to condition access to various governmental benefits on one's social reliability. So it's using high-tech tools to control the population."

He recalls how he was barred from entering Hong Kong earlier in 2020 as he attempted to release HRW's global report, about how China was undermining the international human rights system.

"China is so determined to avoid any criticism of its own repression that it's working to undermine the human rights system any place else," he says. "There is no war crime too grave for China to ignore in its quest to avoid setting a precedent that might come back to haunt it."

One of the means through which China is increasingly monitoring and intruding on the rights of its population, says Roth, is through its increasing use of facial technology. It's a technology that isn't just limited to China but is also used in the U.K and U.S.

Last month the Court of Appeal in the U.K. ruled that the use of facial recognition technology by South Wales Police was unlawful after a man's face was scanned on two separate occasions. Judges said that the force had violated the right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as data protection laws and duties to address concerns about racial or sex discrimination.

In the U.S., Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill that would ban the use of facial recognition technology by federal law enforcement. The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act would also make it illegal for any federal agency or official to "acquire, possess, access, or use" biometric surveillance technology in the U.S.

Is the increasing use of facial technology something we should all be worried about?

"There was an old fashioned view of the right to privacy and it existed really only in your home or enclosed areas but you didn't have a right to privacy in public," Roth says. "That's premised in a world where the police really just couldn't follow most people, it's too time-consuming so you had a degree of privacy by virtue of your anonymity when you're out on the street. With facial recognition technology today, the government has the capacity to trace your every move and that allows it to basically reconstruct your life."

Roth says his organization is opposed to the general collection of facial recognition data and campaigns for limits to government access to it.

On the human rights challenges facing Europe, Roth expresses particular concern about the situation in Belarus, where the man dubbed "Europe's last dictator", Alexander Lukashenko, is facing widespread protests over a disputed election. Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, with the government frequently accused of repressing the opposition.

Kenneth Roth
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says government access to facial recognition technology should be limited HRW

The events in Belarus give Roth hope after seeing how despite mass arrests and beatings, the Belarusian people have continued to march in their tens of thousands to demand democracy.

He also thinks India's Prime Minister Modi has got away with what he calls his systematic discrimination against the country's 172 million Muslims because of the West's desire to tap into Indian markets and use it as a counterweight against China, which Newsweek will be reporting on in the coming days.

Roth is highly critical of the Trump administration, accusing the president's foreign policy of being driven by the guiding principle of "self-glorification" and only speaking out in defense of human rights when the offending country is a perceived adversary.

"Trump is utterly uninterested in calling out any human rights violation by anybody other than a handful of perceived adversaries, China, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua and Cuba and that's about it, which is a completely unprincipled approach to human rights which does not attract any adherence and greatly weakens the force of US intervention," he says.

"Human Rights Watch has been living with Trump for four years now and we have already stopped relying on the U.S. as anything like a principled supporter of human rights."

With the U.S. increasingly withdrawing from the world stage and with the European Union not really filling the void, as he says, is there a new approach to the defense of human rights emerging?

"We've been encouraging different European countries to take the lead, on particular problematic countries," he says. "That involves some governments saying 'OK we're going to lead on X', we'll build a coalition around them and they typically get something done at the UN human rights council whether it's a denunciation or criminal investigation.

"The Netherlands took the lead on Yemen, Iceland of all places took the lead on the Philippines, Finland took the lead on Libya, Denmark is taking the lead on Saudi Arabia, outside of Europe the so-called LIMA group (which include countries from Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada) has taken a lead on Venezuela and Nicaragua, even the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) has been supportive of criminal efforts with respect to Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya [Muslims]."

Roth thinks some governments have used the pandemic as a pretext to crackdown on human rights, using the example of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to illustrate his point. During the pandemic, Orban granted himself an unprecedented set of powers to fight the virus. Though they have since been revoked by the country's parliament, it caused alarm among pro-democracy groups who saw it as part of wider attempts by Orban to crush dissent.

"We've seen, most jarringly, governments censoring critics of their response to the pandemic and that's a sure way to make mistakes," he says. "You often have governments penalizing doctors for reporting about the extent of the outbreak at first or more recently the failure to protect healthcare workers."

Roth is most concerned about the conflict in Syria's Idlib province, where he says three million civilians faced bombardment by Russian and Syrian planes up until March as President Assad seeks to crush opposition and regain territory lost to rebels in the country's nine-year civil war. Roth says there is a stalemate in the conflict at the moment but fears matters could worsen.