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Kenneth Roth, former Director of Human Rights Watch

The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down for an interview with Kenneth Roth, former executive director of Human Rights Watch, after his recent talk at Perry World House.

During his Wednesday speech, Roth, who is also the Perry World House’s inaugural Thakore Family Global Justice and Human Rights Visiting Fellow, discussed the outlook of international human rights through the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Roth said that he strayed away from a fatalistic approach to understanding human rights’ current status. In his eyes, the observed shifts brought on by prominent autocrats are indeed worrying, but not unstoppable. The solution to combating these advances, he added, is to reassert communities. 

“We've just seen, you know, in country after country, huge popular demonstrations against autocratic rule, even at the risk of being detained or killed. And so today, it's Iran," he said. “Autocrats tend to have a monopoly of violence and can suppress these things. But in the process, they lose any remnant of legitimacy, they can no longer say that they represent the popular wheel that they're serving the people. They're just hanging on by the barrel of a gun."

Reasserting communities, according to Roth, would make politicians less likely to flout political differences and thus infringe upon the human rights of certain communities. 

“The point is more to get people thinking about the need to move political discourse away from solely the divisive issues and find some ways to reaffirm the commonality that I think is still there, but it's been lost by this populist appeal to divisiveness,” he said. 

Roth emphasized, however, that human rights aren’t necessarily something that can be guaranteed. 

“Governments, almost by their nature, are tempted to violate rights, and the human rights movement or the general public has to push back, they care about rights. So I just think it's an endless struggle,” he said. 

Roth also explained that while autocracy is in trouble, democracy is as well, but just for other reasons. 

“We also do have people giving up on democracy in the West. And that's a separate concern that we have to address. So we shouldn't get all, you know, complacent and heartened by Putin, or Xi Jinping, his troubles, we need to do some tending of our own democracy in the West,” he added.

International organizations have a significant role to play in protecting human rights, according to Roth. He added groups can shame governments by spotlighting their human rights abuses. 

“Human Rights Watch gets 1,000 media mentions a day. And so this is an intense spotlight that we can shine on governmental abuse. And no government wants to be known as the human rights hypocrite,” he said. 

Several event attendees expressed praise for Roth’s stances and excitement for his arrival at the Perry World House.

For College sophomore Camila Castillo Paranhos, Roth’s message of community rang especially true. Referring to the polarization in her home country of Brazil, Paranhos restated the importance of “finding the issues that we can agree on, to unite again.”

Perry World House Senior Executive Director LaShawn Jefferson reaffirmed the pertinence of the event for Penn Students. She hopes attendees walked away with the knowledge that “documents only matter where people are actually able to live them.”

Political science senior Gabriella Rabito was encouraged by Roth’s discourse on the place of human rights organizations. Rabito, who hopes to pursue a career in international law, said that Roth’s positions pushed back against discourse painting human rights work as “aspirational” and “not effective.”

“We shame governments because every government pretends that it respects human rights, but many governments fall short," Roth said. "So that discrepancy between pretense and reality is embarrassing. It's shameful. It's delegitimizing, and governments hate it when we spotlight it — and we're very good at spotlighting it."