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Human Rights Under Threat - An Interview with HRW's Kenneth Roth

October 12, 2021
By Kyle Matthews and Marie Lamensch

The following is an abbreviated interview of the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations’ event “Human Rights Under Threat” that was held on 30 September and moderated by MIGS’ Executive Director Kyle Matthews. The full discussion can be viewed here.


The Abduction of the two Michaels

Kyle Matthews: What are the human rights community’s views towards China’s abduction of the two Michaels? What does it mean for China?

Ken Roth: This was straightforward hostage-taking. There is no pretense here. It shows the depths to which the [Chinese] government will stoop to in order to secure what it wants. The Canadian government has been very much aware of this and has been playing a leadership role highlighting the increasingly repressive rule during the most oppressive period in China since the murderous crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement. This is a bad period — the treatment of the two Michaels totally illustrates that and I hope that the world has woken up to what we’re really dealing with in the government in Beijing.

Hong Kong & the treatment of the Uighurs

Kyle Matthews: What other threats to human rights are taking place in China? Why should we be concerned?

Ken Roth: The utter destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the ripping up of the one country, two systems accord — I think reflects the fact that Xi Jinping maintains this pretense that he is popular among the Chinese people, that they want the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, but then the one part of China under Beijing’s control where people have any freedom to speak, which was Hong Kong, and people there overwhelmingly rejected the rule of CCP. That was an example that [Xi Jinping] couldn’t tolerate and as a result he is destroying what all of us think of as Hong Kong.

As you know the worst situation by far in China is the treatment of the Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. Here we have the detention of roughly a million people — probably well over 10% of the adult Uighur population, detained to force people to give up their religion — Islam, their culture, and their language, and force them into being Mandarin-speaking Han Chinese. This is a clear crime against humanity — nobody else in anyplace in the world is attempting anything like this.


Kyle Matthews: During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a denial of any responsibility by the Chinese Government, while citizen journalists and doctors that raised concerns early on were imprisoned. How should we view China’s role in the pandemic and the resulting human rights concerns?

Ken Roth: If you go back to what happened in Wuhan in January 2020, the Chinese government actively suppressed doctors who were trying to warn us about human-to-human transmission. But while this denial was taking place, literally millions of people passed through Wuhan, most of them domestically but a significant number traveling internationally and as a result we have this global pandemic. It’s a perfect illustration of how censorship is an anathema to the public health policy. China is absolutely refusing to provide health data on the earliest known cases of COVID-19. You’ve got to ask what China is covering up.

The Global Rise of Authoritarianism

Kyle Matthews: In what other countries are we seeing this troubling rise of authoritarianism? What does this threat pose to democracy and human rights?

Ken Roth: There is a global battle taking place between broadly speaking democracies and autocracies. China wants to portray dictatorship as a better system of government. They say democracies are too messy and it’s too difficult to get things done. On one hand, we must recognize that democracies can be messy. The checks and balances that keep governments accountable to their people do slow things down. Democracies don’t have a great track record at the moment of addressing some of the big problems, whether it be climate change, the pandemic, or poverty.

But when we look at the autocracy, we see almost inevitably that they serve themselves and not their people. You either have the severe repression in a place like China or take somebody like Orbán in Hungary — he gets these big European subsidies which he uses literally to build big football stadiums so he can pay off his cronies, but then if you look at public hospitals, they’re decrepit. You can see something similar in the public healthcare system in Egypt where the army is very well cared for but the people are suffering. In almost every autocracy, and even the autocratic elements of democracy, whether it’s Bolsonaro in Brazil or Trump in the United States, they were much more concerned with furthering their own agenda rather than taking care of the people. So these autocratic tendencies exist in democracies too but at least there you have a media, you have a civil society, you have periodic elections that counteract them. In these autocracies and dictatorships, that’s not an option.

Human Rights Under Threat in Afghanistan

Kyle Matthews: What are the big human rights issues in Afghanistan right now and what should we really be concerned with?

Ken Roth: The Taliban’s spokesmen are pretending this is Taliban 2.0 — this is the new and improved and nicer Taliban. Then you take the treatment of women. Girls have been completely barred from secondary education. Theoretically women can have a higher education, but they must have it separately from men, Kabul University just said no women at all. It’s looking very bad in terms of education. In many parts of the country, we’re seeing the re-imposition of restrictions on women’s travel — they’re not allowed to go outside of the home without a male accompanying them.

In terms of the media, the government issued a bunch of regulations which essentially say journalists cannot criticize the Taliban, they cannot criticize the government. This is such a shame. I think we’re seeing the Taliban 2.0 is a lot like Taliban 1.0. The key now is how do you put pressure on them. The challenge here is how do you keep humanitarian aid going? We don’t want to further enhance the misery of the Afghan people but how do you do that without supplementing the Taliban government unless they moderate their harsh rule that epitomized their reign 20 years ago?

Crisis in Ethiopia

Kyle Matthews: What’s at stake in Ethiopia? What are Human Rights Watch’s recommendations for protecting civilians?

Ken Roth: This is an incredibly brutal conflict and by far the biggest problem in Africa today. You have on one hand the Ethiopian government which brought in Eritrean troops as allies — there is no love lost between the Eritreans and the Tigrayans. Between those two as well is an allied militia. There have been widespread atrocities against the Tigrayans and much ethnic cleansing. Then Tigrayan rebel forces improved their situation and were able to take over a part of Tigray. So now the Ethiopian/Eritrean forces are largely out but they have imposed a sort of humanitarian blockade. So, you have a region which the UN says is on the brink of mass starvation. To make things worse, the Tigrayan forces seem to be moving into surrounding regions and committing atrocities against other ethnic minorities. It’s a very ugly situation.

Recruitment of child soldiers in Mozambique

Kyle Matthews: What are you telling the world about why this is important? And what is the role of Human Rights Watch in trying to get increased attention from the international community?

Ken Roth: In northern Mozambique an Islamic state-declared affiliate has taken over areas and is operating with a predictable brutality. We just put out a report as you mentioned highlighting how they are just randomly picking up boys and sending them to the front line to fight government forces. This is a blatant violation of the Prohibition of the Use of Child Soldiers. This conflict has been characterized by a series of atrocities and the government is trying to reestablish control. Rwandan forces have come in to try to help the government but there have been a couple of assassinations of Rwandan dissidents in Mozambique (which is how Paul Kagame tends to deal with critics). It is an explosive situation which we are watching very closely.

Long-term Major Threats to Human Rights

Kyle Matthews: What threats to human rights are keeping you up at night?

Ken Roth: Nobody is doing a good job addressing the human rights violations that are emerging due to technology. We have to recognize that this field is moving so quickly that the government regulators are a year or two or five behind. We need to find some way to address these issues including the potential of social media to inflame violent situations or to polarize societies or to spread disinformation, or surveillance (we saw an NSO group do this with a quick method where they were suddenly just inside your phone) — various governments use this to monitor dissidents. These surveillance challenges are currently far greater than governments efforts to regulate them. And then of course there’s the issue of artificial intelligence (AI), which brings up many different issues, whether it’s the use of AI to parcel out government benefits, which makes it efficient but also leaves out people who have the greatest need.

Western Democracies and Human Rights

Kyle Matthews: In 2021, are western democracies, including Canada, doing enough to ensure human rights are enshrined in their foreign policies?

Ken Roth: No. Almost all big western democracies say they value human rights as an important element of their foreign policy. But I don’t see consistent action. Canada has been more outspoken on China, but I would love to see Canada play a more consistent role in rallying support for human rights and around some of the big issues, whether it’s Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Russia. I could say the same thing about the European Union and the United States. Yes, there are economic interest and security concerns but I fear there are many governments that, while paying lip service to human rights, are doing far less than they should to build a world where the human rights of people are safe. Canada has a new government now and it’s in a very good position to play a renewed leadership role on its position towards China, for example, and I’d like to see that extended.


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