NEW YORK (AP) — The longtime leader of Human Rights Watch announced Tuesday he will step down this summer as executive director after nearly three decades at the helm of one of the world’s leading advocacy organizations.
Kenneth Roth ran the New York-based group as it shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for its efforts to ban anti-personnel land mines. The group also pushed to establish the International Criminal Court for prosecuting war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Former ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda called Roth an inspiration.
“Ken’s fearless passion for justice, his courage and compassion towards the victims of human rights violations and atrocity crimes was not just professional responsibility but a personal conviction to him,” she said.
Roth became executive director in 1993, when the group had a staff of about 60 and a $7 million annual budget. It now has over 550 employees in more than 100 countries and a nearly $100 million budget to campaign against human rights abuses.
“Ken Roth turned Human Rights Watch into a juggernaut for justice,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “He has inspired a generation of human rights defenders to fight for a better world.”
The group has been at the forefront of advocacy on some of the world’s most hot-button rights issues.
According to Human Rights Watch, that earned Roth many enemies over the years.
“Despite being Jewish (and having a father who fled Nazi Germany as a 12-year-old boy), he has been attacked as a supposed anti-Semite because of the organization’s criticism of Israeli government abuses,” the group said in a statement Tuesday.
“The Chinese government imposed ‘sanctions’ on him and expelled him from Hong Kong when he traveled there to release Human Rights Watch’s World Report in January 2020, which spotlighted Beijing’s threat to the global human rights system,” it said.
During his early years there, Roth conducted fact-finding investigations including in Haiti and Cuba, on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and in Kuwait after the 1990 Iraqi invasion. In recent years, he’s been especially concerned with addressing atrocities during the Syrian war as well as Chinese repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Human Rights Watch documented and exposed the use of “black sites” where U.S. officials interrogated and tortured terrorism suspects. The group pressed the U.S. government to investigate and prosecute those responsible.
The organization said its reporting and advocacy contributed to convictions of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Roth began his human rights career as a volunteer, working on nights and weekends while serving as an attorney and a federal prosecutor. He joined Human Rights Watch in 1987 as deputy director and soon after he took the top job in 1993 he joined its regional rights watch groups together under a single identity as Human Rights Watch.
After Roth steps down at the end of August, Human Rights Watch said deputy executive director Tirana Hassan will serve as interim executive director while it holds a search for Roth’s successor.
“I had the great privilege to spend nearly 30 years building an organization that has become a leading force in defending the rights of people around the world,” said Roth. “I am leaving Human Rights Watch but I am not leaving the human rights cause.”
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