Major changes are underway in the European Union (EU). For the first time in its history, the 27-country bloc will have a foreign minister once Catherine Ashton, a British Labour politician, receives parliamentary approval for her appointment later this month. She has already taken the first steps towards assembling a diplomatic service as foreseen by the EU’s Lisbon treaty.
Despite being nominally committed to defending human rights at all times, the Union has been prepared to sacrifice lofty principles when grubbier issues of geopolitics and economics are at stake. Kenneth Roth, New York-based director of Human Rights Watch, recently visited Brussels where he expressed both hopes and fears about the direction in which the EU is heading.
Q: Is the EU paying sufficient heed to human rights in institutional reforms it is undertaking?
A: We have recognised and favoured the need for institutional change in that the EU was punching way below its weight. The reason for that really was two-fold. First, the requirement of unanimity to achieve a common position meant that the weakest link dominated. It led to a lowest common denominator approach that almost inevitably watered down pressure on human rights.
Secondly, the process of building a common position tended to happen at what you might call the micro-tactical level rather than the strategic level. The best illustration for this was in Geneva at the U.N. Human Rights Council, where the [EU’s] diplomats would sit around the room literally working on the wording of a particular resolution, making sure the punctuation was right, rather than agreeing on a broad strategic direction that they could all work for. And the result was that they were exhausted by the process with little time or energy to build a broader global consensus for human rights.
And second, even if they were trying to reach out to others, their flexibility was limited because any concession would require renegotiation with the other 26 members. And so the abusive governments in Geneva ran circles around the EU. If you count the seats in Geneva, there is actually a majority of democracies. But particularly a number of moderate African states voted with their abusive regional leaders – governments like Egypt, Libya and Algeria, rather than with the principles that they apply at home. They should be easy pickings for a global human rights coalition but the EU’s preoccupation with its micro-consensus made it incapable of building that consensus.
So we are hoping that the Lisbon Treaty will signal a few things. One that there will be a more flexible foreign policy process which would allow a critical mass rather than complete unanimity to achieve a position. We hope that there will be a visible public voice for human rights, although we’ve been disappointed by the reluctance to use that voice. There’s still room to go. I view Lisbon just as a first step but not at all the end result. I hope that Lisbon will trigger a process, in which there is greater openness to experiment with different processes to achieve a stronger European voice on human rights. You could really use a stronger European voice.
Q: The EU has demonstrated double standards on human rights in the recent past. For example, it has maintained sanctions against Zimbabwe but been prepared to lift sanctions against a repressive regime in Uzbekistan. What can be done to avoid such double standards in the future?
A: Obviously what happens when there are competing interests, the EU is more likely to sacrifice human rights. That’s what happened with Uzbekistan, where there were particularly military interests in maintaining access to (neighbouring) Afghanistan to resupply the troops. There were also economic interests at stake.
Nobody pretends that it’s easy or cost-free to be principled. So we push the EU to be more principled on its human rights policy and to recognise that the price of maintaining a double standard is not felt simply in the case where the EU’s voice goes mute but also in the credibility of the EU as a whole. And if the EU wants to maximise its influence in the world a more principled approach would be much better because Europe’s power today stems foremost from its non-military side. People don’t look at Europe and fear it because of its military prowess. Rather, they look at it and respect it because of its values and the societies it has built. But if it doesn’t live by these values, it ends up undermining the influence that it otherwise would have.
Q: Is there a risk that these double standards could become more pronounced as the EU scrambles to have control over energy resources located in countries with poor human rights records?
A: I do think the quest for energy is a big reason why the EU has been so reluctant to push Russia and some of the other former Soviet states. I frankly think that Europe misreads the balance of power there. It’s true that Russia is an important source of gas. But Russia also needs to sell its gas and Europe at this stage is the only reasonable buyer.
So I think Europe is selling short its influence by not even trying. We’ve seen two examples recently of Russia actually being susceptible to human rights pressure. One is where it adopted finally the protocol for the European Court of Human Rights. Russia was the sole stand-out and this protocol was designed to allow the court to operate more efficiently. Because Russia is the target of more court cases than any other country, Russia didn’t want it operating efficiently. But it got a lot of criticism for it and ultimately capitulated.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch in our annual report highlighted the problem of human rights defenders being assassinated. And just a week later [Russian prime minister Vladimir] Putin announced – in a room with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov sitting there – that human rights defenders should be allowed to do their work. And forces under the de facto control of Kadyrov were suspected to have been responsible for a significant number of these assassinations.
To deliver that message publicly to Kadyrov was very important. And we don’t know whether Putin did that to just distance himself from the assassinations or whether he really was sending a message to Kadyrov. But either way it shows that Putin was feeling the heat from the human rights movement for these assassinations. Again that shows that Russia is susceptible to pressure despite its gas resources, if that pressure is applied in a sustained way. But Europe has been very reluctant to do that.
Q: On migration issues, do you think that the EU is more eager to prevent foreigners from entering its territory than to defend the right to asylum?
A. My fear is that because Europe faces a significant influx of migrants it’s tending to respond in a way that undermines the rights of refugees to seek asylum. Nobody is saying that Europe has to accept every migrant that shows up on its shore. But Europe does have duties. One is to provide any migrant the opportunity to seek asylum and then to judge that claim fairly. And second, it has a duty not to send people back to situations where they might face persecution. And third, in so far as it is detaining people, it has a duty to treat them decently and not hold them in awful conditions.
I fear that all of these rights are in jeopardy right now because of Europe’s response to the flow of migrants and some of the techniques that are being used in sending people back either to frontline EU states such as Greece, which has not shown itself willing to live up to these basic requirements, or even to states outside of the EU like Libya or Ukraine, where there is no capacity or inclination to respect these rights. All of that is a very troublesome violation of the rights of refugees.
Q: Are you disappointed with Barack Obama?
A: I have been disappointed by Obama in a number of respects. First of all I think it’s worth saying that Obama is still a significant improvement over [George] Bush. There’s been a very notable improvement in presidential rhetoric but a failure to apply that rhetoric in many cases. Obama has given a series of quite inspiring speeches but then has not built a policy around those speeches. In Accra, for example, he distinguished himself from [Bill] Clinton’s policy of embracing the so-called new generation of African leaders that turned out to be authoritarian dictators: Paul Kagame [in Rwanda] or Meles Zenawi [in Ethiopia]. Obama said Africa doesn’t need strong leaders, it needs strong institutions and spoke about the rule of law, free press, independent civil society and the like. That was an excellent message, well-tailored to the audience. But the Obama administration has put very little pressure on Meles or Kagame to reverse their authoritarian trends. Similarly, in Cairo, he talked about the importance of democracy and made clear that, unlike Bush, who promoted democracy until the wrong person won, until Hamas won in the Palestinian territories or until the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, Obama was going to respect whoever was the victor. It was suggested that he would even respect the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. A very important message but he then did not follow up by pressing [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to democratise. Mubarak visited the White House and there was no public mention of democracy. There’s been no pressure on the Saudi royal family, no pressure on other autocratic U.S. allies in the Middle East to democratise.
Even on the counter-terrorism front, he stopped torture as a matter of policy but he has refused to investigate let alone prosecute those who used torture or wrote the legal memos justifying it. In the case of Guantanamo, he promised us he would close Guantanamo but it turned out he had in mind only the physical facility, not the policies that Guantanamo represents. He’s continuing military commissions and he is continuing long-term detention without charge or trial. Those are the policies that most people equate with Guantanamo. It’s not just the physical structure.
Q: Human Rights Watch does not take a position against war per se. But isn’t war by definition a violation of the right to life and of other fundamental rights?
A: It’s a basic policy not to take a position on whether military force should be used or not. We limit ourselves to how military force is used. Does it comply with the Geneva conventions or not? Is everything done to spare civilians or not?
The reasons why we take that approach are the same ones used to justify the position of the International Committee of the Red Cross. In other words, if you start taking a position on who the aggressor is and who the defender is, you undermine the neutrality needed to effectively apply the Geneva conventions. Plus, it’s almost impossible to determine objectively who the aggressor and who the defender is. Those are inherently political judgements, whereas it’s a much more objective inquiry as to whether the Geneva conventions were applied or not.
Q: You are paid an annual salary of 345,000 US dollars, which seems like a lot of money for someone working for a non-profit organisation. Do you need to be paid that much?
A: The board [of Human Rights Watch] sets my salary and they do it by looking at comparable organisations. It’s actually slightly below a lot of the peers. Is it a lot of money? Of course, it’s a lot of money. I work hard. I helped to build the organisation for 22 years. I think I could make a case that I deserve it. But I don’t spend a lot of time arguing. I just let the board set it.
Q: Your reports on human rights violations by Israel have been heavily criticised by NGO Monitor, a pro-Israel lobby group. How do you feel about those criticisms?
A: This [NGO Monitor] is an organisation that has never found Israel to have committed a single human rights violation in the history of the world. Its sole purpose in life is to criticise anybody who has the audacity to criticise Israel. This is in no sense a serious organisation.
Q: You were drawn to human rights work by the experience of your father, who fled Nazi Germany. Some pro-Israel lobbyists describe Jews who speak out about Israel’s behaviour in the occupied Palestinian territories as self- hating Jews. Does that bother you?
A: They actually don’t attack me for that. The whole self- hating Jew thing isn’t said that much. It used to be a kind of a term. But it’s so unbelievable that people don’t really say it any more. I think it’s accepted that many Jews sincerely believe that Israel’s interests are not being served by a policy of severe repression in Gaza in particular, that this is a long-term disaster for Israel. I personally support human rights as a matter of principle. But I will debate with any of those who think that Israel’s long-term interests are served by squeezing the Gazans, by conducting war with so little regard for civilian life, by generating this enormous hatred among Palestinians and much of the Arab world. This cannot possibly be in Israel’s long- term interest.