Ken Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch: Human Rights in An Age ofTerror

June 16, 2003
Ken Roth, Executive Director, Human Rights Watch: Human Rights in An Age ofTerror

The war on terror that began on September 12, 2001, is likely to be long and costly. Clear-cut victories will be elusive, and when they come are just as likely to occur in back alleys and private conference rooms as in the glare of the media spotlight. Setbacks will be random, unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic. And as the cost of the war — in terms of treasure and lives lost — mounts, so too will calls for the United States and its allies to prosecute it with every tool at their disposal.

That, according to civil liberties and human rights groups, would be a disastrous mistake. For, if in waging the war on terror, we proceed with an assumption of guilty until proven innocent and apply it to groups of people based on where they come from, what they wear, or how they worship, we will have lost the very thing we were fighting to preserve in the first place.

In May, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based international human rights organization, about steps taken by the Bush administration to combat terrorism in the wake of 9/11, ethnic profiling as an anti-terror strategy, the human rights situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the importance of international humanitarian law in the post-9/11 era.

Prior to being named executive director of Human Rights Watch in 1993, Roth served as deputy director of the organization for six years and, before that, was a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington.

Mr. Roth has conducted human rights investigations around the globe, devoting special attention to issues of justice and accountability for gross abuses of human rights, standards governing military conduct in time of war, the human rights policies of the United States and the United Nations, and the human rights responsibilities of multinational businesses. He has written extensively on human rights topics for publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune, and the New York Review of Books, and he appears often in the major media, including NPR, the BBC, CNN, PBS, and the principal U.S. networks.

A graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University, Roth was drawn to the human rights cause in part by his father's experience fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938. He began working on human rights after the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981 and soon after became deeply engaged in fighting military repression in Haiti. In his nine years as executive director of Human Rights Watch, the organization has nearly tripled in size, expanded its geographic reach, and added projects devoted to refugees, children's rights, academic freedom, international justice, AIDS, gay and lesbian rights, and the human rights responsibilities of multinational corporations.

Philanthropy News Digest: Ken, tell us about Human Rights Watch. When was it founded, what is its mission, and what kinds of things does it do in pursuit of that mission?

Ken Roth: Human Rights Watch was founded twenty-five years ago in response to the crackdown on small human rights monitoring groups that had been set up in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in response to the Helsinki Accords. Among other things, the Helsinki Accords guaranteed the right of citizen groups to monitor the human rights practices of their governments, and when these small groups tried to do just that, they were promptly repressed. So they issued a call to the human rights community in the West and asked us to help them. Here in New York, we set up Helsinki Watch, followed over time by Americas Watch, Asia Watch, Middle East Watch, and Africa Watch — all of which, beginning in 1988, were brought under a single umbrella to form Human Rights Watch.

I often think of ourselves as a complement to traditional civil liberties organizations, which tend to focus on issues involving governmental infringement of rights that can be adjudicated in court. But if those kinds of classic judicial remedies are not working, the international human rights movement has developed an alternative methodology that involves putting pressure on the political branches of government rather than appealing to the judicial branch. That's what Human Rights Watch does.

We begin by investigating human rights conditions in countries where, for the most part, there is no functioning legal system. We speak to the victims of human rights abuse, eyewitnesses, and government officials, and based on those interviews we put together as complete and accurate a picture as we can of the human rights practices in question. We then publish those findings in the form of a report. Each report, in turn, launches a campaign to pressure a government to change. Invariably, the press reports extensively on our findings, which not only is embarrassing to the government in question, it also leaves it open to criticism from other governments, multilateral institutions, and its own people.

Our next step is to enlist the help of influential countries and institutions — the U.S., Japan, the European Union countries, the United Nations, the World Bank, and so on — by asking them to condition their military aid or arms sales or targeted assistance to the government in question on improvement of its human rights record. Our aim in doing so is to make it costly for an abusive government to violate human rights, both in terms of its reputation as well as its pocketbook. That can be a powerful one-two punch. It doesn't necessarily work the first time around, but if you're persistent, we've found that it can change the practices of even the most powerful government.

Now, I've spoken about countries that, for all intents and purposes, lack functioning legal systems. But we also operate in countries in which the legal system has holes that impair the government's ability to enforce rights. Even in the United States, where we clearly have a well-functioning judiciary and a long constitutional tradition, there are areas where the courts are not operating effectively to protect human rights. Some of these areas have nothing to do with 9/11. Look at the issue of prison conditions. The courts have largely abdicated their oversight of prisons. If you're a prisoner who has been raped by a guard or by other inmates, you have very little practical recourse to the courts. That's an area Human Rights Watch has devoted an enormous amount of attention to. Similarly, if you're an immigrant, if you're gay or lesbian, if you're a migrant worker, there are broad areas where the courts, as a practical matter, are unavailable to you. And since 9/11, of course, there has been a whole new area of concern having to do with the judiciary either being excluded from human rights policy by executive fiat, or being inappropriately deferential to the executive branch.

PND: You have an unobstructed view of Lower Manhattan from your office on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building. Were you in the office on the morning of September 11, 2001?

KR: We were actually having a board meeting in our conference room, which also has a direct view of Lower Manhattan and the Trade Center. I happened to have my back to the window when a colleague across the table blurted out, "Oh my God! A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!" Of course, we all turned around and couldn't believe it. In the case of the first plane, no one could conceive that it had been a jetliner — that never crossed our minds. But it was also immediately clear to us that it was an act of terrorism. The hole in the north tower was simply too large for it to have been an accident. My initial thought was that it had been a smaller plane packed with explosives.

PND: Did you continue to watch from the conference room as the events of the morning unfolded?

KR: Well, after the second plane hit we evacuated. At that point, no one was willing to say there wouldn't be a third one, and we were sitting pretty high up in what we all felt could be the next target. Of course, the attacks changed our lives almost immediately, in that we didn't have access to the office for the rest of the week. But it also changed the focus of the work of the organization, which, since 9/11, has been very much about making sure that the legitimate and important fight against terrorism is waged in a way that is consistent with human rights.

PND: Let's talk about that. The Bush administration responded to the attacks by adopting a series of anti-terror measures — measures that included the detention of non-citizens for unspecified periods of time, the authorization of special military tribunals, eased requirements for search warrants, and expanded use of wiretaps. Those measures became law when President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act on October 26, 2001. Do you think those measures, and other measures that were adopted in the weeks after 9/11, played a role in preventing additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil?

KR: It remains unproved whether steps taken by the administration to enhance security have thwarted additional terrorist attacks. There has been no concrete evidence put forward by the administration to support that contention.

"...Most of the more egregious restrictions on the civil rights of citizens and non-citizens alike since 9/11 have been adopted by executive fiat...."

But if I could, let me correct your question. I think there's often a misperception that Congress, in passing the USA Patriot Act, enacted the worst restrictions that have been implemented. While the Patriot Act is a troublesome piece of legislation that Congress did indeed pass, most of the more egregious restrictions on the civil rights of citizens and non-citizens alike since 9/11 have been adopted by executive fiat; they have not involved Congress, and they have nothing to do with the Patriot Act.

For example, the decision to keep proceedings against so-called special interest detainees after September 11 secret was an executive decision, not a congressional one. The decision to create substandard military tribunals was made unilaterally by the administration. So was the decision to move detainees from the Afghan conflict to the legal black hole of the Guantánamo Naval Base in Cuba, as well as the decision to go after Jose Padilla using a radical theory that he was an enemy combatant and therefore could be detained for life without access to a lawyer or judge. Those were all unilateral executive decisions, made without congressional consent.

PND: Do you believe those kinds of decisions reflect a preexisting agenda on the part of the administration? Or were they adopted specifically in response to the trauma of 9/11?

KR: Oh, I think they were responses to 9/11 — I don't think the administration would have conceived of setting up Guantánamo pre-9/11. However, they reflect not only an unnecessarily casual disregard for human rights, in my opinion, but a profoundly counterproductive one, in that they send a signal to the rest of the world that, when it comes to fighting terrorism, the ends justify the means — that it's okay to violate human rights standards so long as the cause is good. And nobody is going to quarrel with the cause of fighting terrorism.

I believe that's a dangerous and counterproductive signal to send, for several reasons. First of all, it's important to note the influence the United States wields as the world's only superpower. If the United States lowers the bar on human rights standards, it lowers the bar for everyone. Which is what it has done. So we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having countries like Egypt or Zimbabwe or China or Russia saying, "If the United States can do this, we can do it, too." It hurts human rights for everyone around the world.

It also breeds resentment. If people feel that their countrymen are being detained unfairly in Guantánamo, if they feel they're being singled out when they visit the United States, if they hear about U.S. moves in support of a local dictator, it tends to push them away from the United States and makes them less willing to join in the fight against terrorism. And one thing I'm convinced of is that the fight against terrorism is never going to be won from afar. On the contrary, it is going to require the cooperation of people in the very communities that spawn terrorism. Those are the people who are in the best position to identify suspicious conduct; they're the people who are going to dissuade would-be recruits from joining a terrorist group. If you alienate that key constituency through conduct that's viewed as dismissive of international human rights standards, you're actually making the world less safe, not more safe.

PND: How did the administration lower the human rights bar in the case of the seven hundred or so "special interest" detainees it rounded up?

KR: Let's assume that many of those people were picked up and detained for violating immigration laws. Ordinarily, they would have been released on bail, pending a formal deportation hearing. They also would have been given fairly ready access to a lawyer and would have been able to meet with family and friends. But instead, they were detained, held without due process, and treated as if they were criminal suspects until the FBI cleared them. Guilty until proven innocent. We felt that was an end run around the Constitution — that if the administration had been honest about what was going on, if it really thought these people had engaged in criminal activity, then they should have been treated as criminal suspects with the full panoply of rights, such as the right to government-appointed counsel or the presumption of innocence, instead of having those rights ignored.

PND: Has a complete list of the detainees' names ever been released?

KR: No.

PND: How many people remain in detention?

KR: We don't know. We may never know for sure. I think it's considerably fewer than twelve hundred, which was the number bandied about in the weeks after the attacks, but we don't know for sure. The government has never given the American people a complete accounting, and the periodic statements made by government officials have contributed little, if anything, to efforts to compile a complete list of the detainees. Everything about the detentions has been done in secrecy and without the kind of public scrutiny that most civil libertarians think is necessary to ensure the rights of those detained.

PND: Have any of the detainees been tried by military tribunal?

KR: No. The military tribunals or commissions — which is the term the administration prefers — exist only on paper so far. There has been talk from the administration recently of using them for some of the six hundred and fifty detainees at Guantánamo — a separate set of detainees — but it hasn't happened.

PND: Is it the position of Human Rights Watch that the Guantánamo detainees should be held as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions?

KR: Yes, but with qualification. The Geneva Conventions require that every detainee picked up on the battlefield is entitled to a hearing as to whether that detainee deserves prisoner-of-war status. But none of the Guantánamo detainees has been given a hearing. Until they are, the Geneva Conventions require that they be treated as presumptive POWs.

Now, we suspect that if hearings were held, the Taliban detainees would clearly be found to be prisoners of war, since they were members of what was, in effect, the regular army of Afghanistan; they're classic POWs. On the other hand, the Qaeda detainees, as members of an irregular force, would have to pass a four-part test before they could be classified as POWs: Did they carry arms openly; did they wear distinctive uniforms; did they have a regular chain of command; and did they, in general, respect the rules of war. Most al-Qaeda operatives would fail that test. So we don't say that after hearings everybody in Guantánamo would deserve to be held as a POW, but rather that at least the Taliban detainees deserve to be held as POWs.

There are two reasons why this matters: First, POWs must be repatriated at the end of a conflict, and because the war with the Taliban government has been over for a year now, the Taliban detainees should have been sent home a long time ago. I recognize that there's still conflict in Afghanistan, but there is no conflict between the U.S. and the government of Afghanistan, and that is the test for determining repatriation of POWs.

Second, if you are a POW, the Geneva Conventions require that if you're going to be prosecuted, you have to be given the same procedures as the detaining power would give its own troops if they had committed a comparable crime. In the U.S., that means a full-fledged court martial, which most significantly allows for an appeal to an independent civilian court — something known as the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces — and, ultimately, the right to petition the U.S. Supreme Court.

What the Bush administration has proposed for its military tribunals, however, is that indicted suspects can appeal, but only to a surrogate — in effect, another military panel. So, unlike a court martial, where you have genuine civilian review of what is initially a military trial, the administration's proposal is to have its surrogate serve as prosecutor, judge, and appellate judge. That's clearly an inferior process. It doesn't even pretend to apply the basic due-process standard of judicial independence. If it was applied to somebody who happened to be a POW, the administration would actually be committing a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. So it's a very serious matter.

PND: Al-Qaeda, which recruits the majority of its operatives from a handful of Arab and Muslim countries, has made it clear that it will continue to strike against U.S. interests, both at home and abroad. What is the position of Human Rights Watch vis-a-vis ethnic profiling of young men from Arab or Muslim countries who enter the United States?

KR: Well, let me begin by saying that while it probably is true that the majority of al-Qaeda operatives are young Muslim men from a handful of countries, the reverse is not true — that is, if you take Egyptians in the United States, the vast majority of them are decent, law-abiding people. The same goes for Pakistanis, Indonesians, Saudis, or whatever nationality you care to name. And that's important to remember, because if you begin to tar an entire people by the crimes of a few, you're not only doing an injustice to those people, you also risk alienating the very people who are critical to the ultimate success of the campaign to deter al-Qaeda.

"...In the long run, the war against terrorism is going to be won or lost on the issue of recruitment...."

Let's face it, we're never going to persuade Osama bin Laden to give up and pursue peaceful political change. Which means, in the long run, that the war against terrorism is going to be won or lost on the issue of recruitment. By that I mean, will people who are frustrated with their governments pursue peaceful alternatives for change, or will they join arms with terrorists? I believe that if people begin to feel they have been singled out as the enemy because of who they are or what they believe, if they feel that the United States is committing human rights violations in the name of the war on terror, it is going to make the battle for the hearts and minds of would-be terrorist recruits much more difficult. So this kind of over-broad tarring of entire communities is not only wrong as a matter of principle, it is dangerously counterproductive.

PND: Isn't it true that over the course of U.S. history the balance between national security and civil liberties has shifted in response to security crises, perceived or otherwise?

KR: Yes, we've certainly seen that in moments of national crisis there has been a tendency to crack down on civil liberties, often beginning with foreigners or aliens. But with the benefit of a little hindsight, those crackdowns are almost always deeply regretted. We certainly saw that with the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II, which most people at the time thought was a necessary security measure but which in retrospect was profoundly unfair and unnecessary. I think the willingness of the Bush administration to sacrifice civil liberties today in the name of security is going to be another one of these embarrassing chapters in our history that, with a little historical distance, we will deeply regret.

I also think it's a mistake to view security and rights as a zero-sum game. The United States clearly is facing an important security threat. But the response to that threat has to be two-fold. On the one hand, we do need to take classic security measures, because we're playing hardball with fanatics. But we also have to recognize that the battle is not only with today's confirmed terrorist, it's with tomorrow's would-be recruit to terrorism. If we want to do something about the growing resentment of America that we see in countries around the world — a resentment that can only bolster the ranks of al-Qaeda and like-minded groups — we need to use not only our hard military power, but also, to use a term coined by Joseph Nye, our soft power. We need to present a positive image to the world; we need to affirm human rights and show what it is that America stands for, at the same time that we pursue all legitimate means to protect ourselves.

This may strike some people as odd, but I think the case of Ronald Reagan is instructive in this regard. Reagan came into office determined to fight Communism and started off, in his first term, with a purely militaristic approach to that objective, funding the contras in Nicaragua and supporting a range of abusive rebel groups and governments around the world. It was a strategy that had no positive appeal or vision behind it. Quickly enough, however, Reagan realized the value of such a vision, and he found it in democracy. Now, Reagan's concept of democracy, as it applied to the developing world, often meant something pretty shallow and superficial. But Reagan and his advisors nonetheless understood that it wasn't enough to be against communism; you had to be for something, and the something they put forward was democracy.

Similarly, I think the Bush administration today has to learn a lesson from the Reagan era, and that is that it's not enough to be against terrorism; America has to stand for something. I think that something, that positive vision, should be one that respects and accords primacy to international human rights law even as we do battle with terrorism. After all, it is international human rights law that prohibits attacks against civilians — terrorism — in the first place. But if a casualty of the war on terror is the subversion of civil liberties at home and human rights abroad — the norms that proscribe terrorism — we will have succeeded only in doing long-term damage to the values that America is built on and will be left to fight terrorism one-handed, relying exclusively on our hard power.

PND: Well, let's look at one of the theaters of terrorist recruitment. What is the state of human rights in Afghanistan today under the government of Hamid Karzai compared to what it was pre-9/11 under the Taliban?

KR: There's no question that the United States did a real service to the Afghan people by ridding the country of the Taliban, which was a very abusive regime with an extraordinarily narrow interpretation of Islam that was a disaster for women, for political dissent, and for any kind of pluralistic civil society. How does that compare with life under the government of Hamid Karzai? Well, life under the government of Hamid Karzai is much, much better — but only for Afghans who are fortunate enough to live in Kabul. Security in the rest of the country has been delegated to a series of regional warlords. That was a conscious decision by the Bush administration, which hoped to buy security in Afghanistan on the cheap and was unwilling to make the investment required to provide a long-term peacekeeping force for the entire country. Nor, for that matter, were its European allies. As a result, the international peacekeeping force is limited to Kabul, and in the rest of the country the U.S. has settled for alliances with various local warlords whose reign is not a whole lot better than the Taliban's.

Let me give you an example. Human Rights Watch recently went to the western Afghan city of Herat, where Ismail Khan is the local warlord, to see firsthand what life for ordinary Afghans was like under a warlord. What we found is that women had been bundled right back into their burqas. There's no political dissent, no civil society, no independent press. If somebody dares speak out or is even perceived as speaking out against Khan's rule, they face detention, torture, death threats. It's really Talibanization without the Taliban. And the same thing could be said for virtually every other part of the country. Some warlords are better, some are worse; but all fall far short of the promise that the United States held forth in invading Afghanistan, which was to bring a lawful, rights-respecting government to that troubled country.

Again, it suggests to people who are paying attention that the United States is not really concerned with promoting a positive vision of human rights and democracy around the world. Rather, it's concerned with just keeping a lid on things in Muslim countries with the help of local thugs who agree to cooperate with us. You can find parallels to that approach in the Bush administration's uncritical support of General Musharraf in Pakistan, where, instead of putting pressure on Musharraf to democratize, the administration has looked the other way as he has consolidated his power; or in its efforts to renew military assistance to Indonesia, even though the Indonesian military has a terrible human rights record; or in its unwillingness to push for a critical resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission on Russia's highly abusive conduct in Chechnya; or in its decision not to pursue a resolution against China despite the persecution of the Muslim Uighur population in northwestern Xianjiang province because of China's cooperation in the war on terror.

All of this suggests that if a country is willing to cooperate with the United States in fighting terrorism, U.S. advocacy for improved human rights in that country will essentially stop. That's a terrible message to be sending. Again, that is a message about the ends justifying the means — which, of course, is exactly what terrorists believe. The United States doesn't do itself any service by abandoning principle so widely in the name of short-term expediency.

PND: Has the international NGO community pressed the Bush administration to do something about the security situation in Afghanistan?

KR: Yes. Human Rights Watch, for one, has conducted a number of investigations in different parts of the country and has published reports based on those investigations in order to make it widely known that life under the warlords is terrible and that there's a pressing, ongoing need for an international military presence outside of Kabul. In fact, I think we've been a major contributor to public understanding of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan through the very detailed research we've done. The next step is to convince the public that the situation is intolerable and, ultimately, to mobilize public pressure on the Bush administration and its European allies to take the security steps that are needed to deliver on the promise of greater peace and security for the Afghan people.

PND: Is the administration making the same mistakes in post-war Iraq that it made in post-war Afghanistan?

"...There has been a complete abdication to date [in Iraq] of the responsibility of the occupying powers, the United States and Britain, to provide basic security for the people under occupation...."

KR: Certainly the immediate aftermath of the Iraq conflict is not auspicious. The United States seems to have been so eager to fight the war in Iraq before summer's heat arrived and before the political heat of opposition to the war rose even higher, that it went into the country with a force that was large enough to win the war but not large enough to maintain the peace. Moreover, there has been a complete abdication to date of the responsibility of the occupying powers, the United States and Britain, to provide basic security for the people under occupation. Indeed, the United States is refusing to call up the reserves, which is where most of its military police are, to provide the kind of vigorous patrolling needed to end the security vacuum that exists in much of Iraq today.

We've all seen the consequences of these policies — not only in the rampant looting that took place in the first few days after the war ended, but more recently in the disastrous anarchy that has set in around the many mass graves that have been discovered. I think it's a tragedy that the United States government is sitting by and allowing these graves to be randomly unearthed. While one in a hundred people may succeed in identifying lost family members, the chances of anyone else finding out what happened to their loved ones as remains are scattered about and intermingled is almost zero. The proper way to do this, both for evidentiary purposes and for purposes of allowing families the right to have some closure, is to do an orderly forensic examination of these graves that leaves open the possibility of positive identifications of remains and, at some point, their proper reburial. But to allow graves to be dug up with a backhoe and bones to be jumbled together in plastic sacks is shameful.

It is beyond me why the U.S. government is permitting this. I think it's some combination of simply refusing to deploy the policing resources required and, I fear, perhaps something more cynical, which is a desire to change the subject about weapons of mass destruction or whether the war was in fact justified. If people are talking about Saddam's atrocities — of which, tragically, there were horrendously many — then these other issues are seen as less pressing. But, as I say, that's a very cynical approach, because it means that in return for some cheap publicity, the families of Saddam's victims are losing the chance ever to determine for sure what happened to their loved ones.

PND: We could sit here and come up with a list of twenty countries where human rights are being horribly abused, and have been for years. Is Human Rights Watch categorically opposed to foreign powers intervening in countries where the abuse of human rights is routine?

KR: Not at all. We press for different kinds of intervention — diplomatic, economic, what have you — all the time. In many ways, that's our bread and butter. Human Rights Watch is deeply involved in trying to shape the policies of influential governments and institutions in order to put pressure on abusive governments to change. On the question of military intervention, Human Rights Watch is not a pacifist organization. Sure, many people come to the human rights movement out of pacifist beliefs, but others come to the movement out of the belief that never again should terrible atrocities be permitted and a recognition that sometimes military force is needed to stop the worst atrocities.

Those two traditions come together at Human Rights Watch in the following way. First, on most military matters, we are neutral, because we see our principal job as monitoring the way a war is fought, and to do that effectively you can't be seen as for or against a war. Human Rights Watch would have been much less effective in trying to shape the Pentagon's approach in Iraq if we were viewed as confirmed opponents of the war. Our neutrality makes us more effective human rights advocates in that sense.

But there are occasions where, because of the level of slaughter and the lack of alternatives, Human Rights Watch has advocated military intervention. We did so, for example, in the case of Rwanda, to stop the horrible genocide there. And in Bosnia, to stop the genocide there. So we have a longstanding policy that in cases of genocide or mass slaughter, when there is no feasible alternative and military intervention will make things better rather than worse and can be conducted in a way that is largely respectful of international humanitarian law, we will advocate the use of force.

PND: Are there countries or regions of the world where, in your view, the Bush administration should be acting more aggressively to improve or alter the human rights situation on the ground?

KR: I think there are many areas where the United States is doing far too little to promote human rights. In this hemisphere, Colombia stands out. The United States continues to pump massive amounts of military aid into the country despite the army's complicity with paramilitary groups that are largely responsible for the slaughter of civilians there. In Africa, there has been large-scale ethnic slaughter in Eastern Congo. It's probably the most dangerous place on earth, and in the last few years or so it has suffered more than anywhere else. But the United States is utterly disengaged from the situation. Indeed, if anything, it's been unhelpful even as other governments consider engaging there.

If you look at the U.S. allies in the war against terrorism — Russia, China, Pakistan, Indonesia — these are all countries with serious human rights problems. But for Washington, human rights seem to have been put on the back burner as strategic concerns have come to the fore. What the Bush administration doesn't seem to understand is that the two are not mutually exclusive. It's possible, for example, to have a military alliance with General Musharraf and still press him to democratize, instead of blessing the consolidation of his dictatorship, as the administration has done. It's possible to enlist Russia and China's support without ending U.S. support for resolutions at the UN Human Rights Commission condemning their abuses against violent separatists in Chechnya and Xianjiang.

"...I think this view of human rights and security as a zero-sum game is making the fight against terrorism less effective and is going to cost us in the end...."

So again, I think this view of human rights and security as a zero-sum game, this unwillingness to have an anti-terrorism strategy that includes both hard and soft power, a positive as well as a negative vision, has been a real failure of this administration, and it's making its fight against terrorism less effective and is going to cost us in the end.

PND: When you look at the human rights situation in the U.S. and contrast it to the situation, say, twenty years ago, do you feel we've made progress?

KR: Well, obviously a whole new range of issues has come to the fore since September 11 — things like military tribunals and Guantánamo and the use of stress-and-duress interrogation techniques, which is something that's clearly prohibited under international law and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Issues of that sort are new and, in a sense, suggest a step backward in U.S. compliance with international human rights standards.

If you look beyond the response to 9/11, however, there remain serious human rights issues in the United States. I've already mentioned the issue of the treatment of prisoners and the injustice of the government's willingness to warehouse large numbers of people beyond public scrutiny and with little or no oversight by the courts. Over-incarceration, which has been aggravated by the war on drugs, is a major problem in this country as well. The fact that a huge percentage of our young, male, minority population is behind bars suggests that something is seriously wrong. Human Rights Watch did a study recently where we looked at the comparative rate of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenses, comparing white and black males. We found that in Illinois, the worst offender among the fifty states, if you were a black male you were over fifty times more likely to be imprisoned for a nonviolent drug charge than if you were a white male. Nationwide, it was thirteen-to-one. Whites would never put up with that level of incarceration. But because it's an issue that predominately affects a minority, it's tolerated, and that, I think, makes it a troubling human rights issue.

Another real tragedy that should be considered a human rights issue but is often ignored is the almost apartheid-like conditions that have emerged in this country for undocumented migrants. Let's face it, we've come to depend on undocumented migrants to do many jobs that American citizens or people with legal status would not consider doing. Rather than acknowledge that fact and make sure that immigrants who are willing to do that work are guaranteed certain basic rights — the right to form a union, for example; or the right to have a driver's license; or the right to seek police protection without fear of being expelled — the U.S. has taken the opposite tack and marginalized these people.

It's an issue that Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico, raised quite effectively in his first few months in office, and it looked, pre-9/11, that he might succeed in getting the U.S. to do something about it. But the Bush administration has utterly marginalized President Fox since 9/11 and has refused to deal with the issue. That's shameful — and not in America's best interests. We're passing up a huge opportunity to bolster the standing of the first genuine democrat ever to occupy the presidency in Mexico — and, in the process, jeopardizing the process of democratization in that country. It's not only bad for Mexico, it's a disaster for the people who are suffering — not as second-class citizens, but as non-citizens without most of the basic rights that should attach to any human being in this country.

PND: You've talked about how democracy does not necessarily guarantee human rights. Is democracy a necessary precondition for human rights?

KR: First of all, democracy is a human right. People have a right to freely and periodically elect their government. That's a human right. Having said that, I do think democracies, in the fullest sense of the term, tend to be more respectful of human rights than other political systems; that is, governments that embrace the rule of law, that foster civil society, that encourage freedom in all respects tend to be more respectful of human rights. Where we sometimes run into trouble is with governments that have been elected in countries that don't have all the attributes of a democracy. Elections are no guarantee of democracy. In fact, without the rule of law and governmental accountability to the rule of law, and without institutions of civil society that can help bridge racial or ethnic or religious divides, elections can even foment human rights abuse.

PND: Lately, we've seen a related phenomenon in which the tools of democracy are used by anti-democratic elements to gain control of a government. What, if anything, can be done to keep extremist elements from hijacking democratic processes?

KR: This is an issue that's often brought up to justify support for authoritarian regimes in places like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. The argument goes, "Look, if we introduce democracy today, the Islamists will take over and we'll be worse off." And yes, the truth of the matter is that if you go from zero to a hundred in two seconds, you may well be worse off. If you try to democratize all at once, without taking any of the preliminary steps needed to allow genuine civil society and the rule of law to emerge, then the mere holding of elections might well make you worse off and allow extremists into office. But our experience has been that in places where political choices are given to the electorate — and that's something that takes time — extremists tend to end up in the minority. We've seen that in Pakistan, we've seen it in Indonesia, we've seen it in the Middle East in places like Morocco, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, where small steps toward democracy have been taken without fueling extremism. So it's possible, but it requires patience and persistence. If, however, we use the threat posed by Islamic extremists not to even take the first steps, we run the risk of creating political tinderboxes throughout the region that will explode at some point and make everybody far worse off.

PND: We've been told that the war on terror could go on for decades. If it does, what are the prospects for improved human rights around the world — and especially in the Middle East and Central Asia?

"...If we abandon human rights in fighting terrorism, we may win a battle or two but we risk losing the war...."

KR: I think the initial response to September 11 has been a panicked response, and when people panic they tend to fall back on a purely security-oriented approach to the problem. It's almost human nature, and it's understandable. But I hope that as we gain a little distance from September 11, and as we begin to ask real questions about what works and what doesn't work in the war on terror, basic considerations of pragmatism will lead us to an anti-terrorism strategy that gives much greater significance to the promotion of human rights. Because, as I've said, I'm convinced we will not defeat terrorism if we undermine the very international human rights standards that explain what is wrong with terrorism. We won't defeat terrorism if, by violating human rights ourselves, we breed resentment at our hypocrisy that discourages cooperation and even drives some people into the arms of the terrorists. We won't defeat terrorism if we adopt the view that the ends justify the means, because that is the logic of terrorism. And laudable as the end of defeating terrorism is, we can be certain that al-Qaeda thinks that its goals are laudable, too. So if we abandon human rights in fighting terrorism, we may win a battle or two but we risk losing the war. I hope our political leaders and national security people arrive at that realization sooner rather than later.

PND: I'm afraid we'll have to end it on that note. Thanks very much for your time this morning, Ken.

KR: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, interviewed Ken Roth in May. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at