NEW YORK—As one of the world’s largest and most impactful human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch incurs a duty to be both objective and independent. However, according to several Nobel Peace laureates and several hundred human rights scholars, Human Rights Watch has failed to maintain that impartiality. Instead, they claim the organization is taking cues from U.S. foreign policy.
In May, Nobel Peace Prize laureates Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire wrote a letter to executive director Kenneth Roth expressing their concerns over what they call the “revolving door” of Human Rights Watch.
They called attention to the unnerving number of leaders at Human Rights Watch who previously served as top officials in the U.S. Government. This creates a conflict of interests between legitimate human rights work and U.S. foreign policy.
For instance, Human Rights Watch’s Washington advocacy director Tom Malinowski worked as President Bill Clinton’s special assistant and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s speechwriter. In 2013, Malinowski left Human Rights Watch when John Kerry nominated him for the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
Likewise, Human Rights Watch’s Board of Directors’ Vice Chair Susan Manilow is open about her lifelong friendship with Bill Clinton. Manilow does not hide the fact that she “has hosted dozens of events for the Democratic National Committee” and that she worked on campaigns for Clinton, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter.
A host of other high ranking Human Rights Watch officials have similar close ties to the U.S. government. As Nobel laureates Esquivel and Maguire argued, this detracts immensely from Human Rights Watch’s goal to be a non-partisan, international human rights watchdog.
They argue that Human Rights Watch’s close relationship with the U.S. government breeds a tendency to align the organization’s policies with American interests abroad. Furthermore, it means the Human Rights Watch is more likely to overlook human rights violations perpetrated by the U.S. Government. Such a double standard would be counterproductive to the ends that Human Rights Watch seeks to accomplish.
As a first step to fixing this problem, Esquivel and Maguire implored Human Rights Watch to close the revolving door by enforcing a “cooling-off” period that would bar any moves between Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Government for a set amount of time.
Human Rights Watch’s largest donor, George Soros, would likely support such a policy, as it would go a long way toward asserting Human Rights Watch’s independence. In 2010, Soros argued that “to be more effective, I think the organization has to be seen as more international, less an American organization.” Esquivel, Maguire and 129 human rights scholars agreed with that sentiment in their letter to Human Rights Watch.
The letter eventually got a response from Roth who affirmed that, “We are careful to ensure that prior affiliations do not affect the impartiality of Human Rights Watch’s work. We do not allow active government officials to serve in the above capacities and we do not take funding from any government.”
Roth also pointed to a number of instances in which Human Rights Watch criticized the U.S. Government for human rights violations including “torture, indefinite detention, illegal renditions, unchecked mass surveillance, abusive use of drones, etc.”
It’s unclear whether or not Human Rights Watch’s revolving door is indeed affecting the organization’s actions. However, regardless of the media attention that the letter garnered, Human Rights Watch seems unlikely to change its hiring policy in the near future.
– Sam Hillestad