Live Blogging Kenneth Roth:

This afternoon, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, is delivering the Klatsky Seminar on Human Rights at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law on the subject "Global Human Rights Leadership: Who Will Fill the Void Left by the U.S.?" The event will be webcast here. I can't make the event, but Mr. Roth is giving a faculty workshop right now that I am live blogging (with his permission). [I will note when I've stopped adding and revising this post.]

Human Rights Watch operates in approximately 70 countries to monitor human rights trends globally. It is funded solely by private donations. Of particular concern to Mr. Roth right now is the relative decline of U.S. leadership on human rights and the failure, thus far, of other nations (such as those in the E.U. to fill the void). Mr. Roth is also unconvinced that the counter-terrorism requires rethinking basic human rights principles. Another issue confronting HRW is how “democracy promotion” has become synonymous with “regime change” in many parts of the world, to the detriment of the former. He is also concerned about the fitful progress of international human rights mechanisms.

Roth notes that law school treats litigation as the primary means of vindicating rights. This is often true in nations like the United States, but less so in developing nations lacking an independent judiciary. Still, Roth argues, the American court system has been less vigilant than it should be in vindicating the rights of particularly unpopular groups, such as prisoners and migrants. For this reason, HRW has sought to document broader patterns that document rights problems, such as prison rape. (See, e.g., Instapundit’s coverage of the issue here).

Asked about whether it is appropriate to assert universal human rights given the diversity of global cultures and claims that it is cultural hegemony to impose Western conceptions of human rights on other cultures, Roth made two points. First, the positive law answer is that most governments have ratified basic human rights treaties, so even if one rejects the idea of transcendent human rights, there is a case for holding governments to their commitments. Differing cultural values become an issue most often in the context of gender rights and religious freedom, Roth observed, and HRW tries to be sensitive to differing cultural values. Still, he acknowledged, a human rights advocate cannot be “neutral,” an inevitably takes sides in cultural disputes about whether to respect certain rights.

My colleague Michael Scharf, an expert on the Iraqi war crimes tribunal (see here) asked about HRW's work in this area. Specifically, HRW’s report on the Iraqi tribunal came out only days before the final judgment was issues and, it turned out, some of the claims were answered by the tribunal’s judgment. Roth explained that HRW wanted to put out one report while the trial was ongoing, but will also be publishing another, more-in-depth report of the written opinion, which is “a complete mess” according to Roth. He expects it will be out within a month or so.

Asked about treatment and prosecution of enemy combatants, Roth claimed that if there was a straight vote today in the U.S. Senate, the restrictions on habeas corpus petitions contained in the Military Commissions Act would be repealed now. He believes Congress is taking more of a wait-and-see posture on the military commissions. He expects the commissions to be problematic, particularly given the effort to make coerced testimony admissible, but it will depend on the quality of the judges.

I could not resist asking Roth about the Stimson flap, and whether he believed Stimson’s comments represented an official or unofficial effort to discourage pro bono representation of detainees. Roth answered that his impression was Stimson was speaking out of school. Roth said higher-ups in the administration are “not that dumb” to endorse such comments. Further, Roth noted, Stimson’s comments were quickly disavowed by higher ups.

Roth rejects military intervention short of an urgent need to prevent mass slaughter. Therefore, in his view, the Iraqi war could not be justified on human rights grounds. Interestingly enough, he suggested that human rights considerations should play a role in deciding whether to withdraw troops from Iraq. He also thinks that greater resort to prosecutions of militia leaders and others could reduce sectarian violence.

Roth defended HRW against charges of bias in its reporting on the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. According to Roth, HRW’s allegations against Israel, such as for indiscriminate bombing of southern Lebanon at the close of the conflict, were accurate, and that Israel’s conduct was clearly contrary to human rights principles. Roth acknowledged that most of Israel’s attacks were precision attacks, and said that there was indeed evidence that Hezbollah did use civilian cover in some instances, but that Israeli attacks still produced substantial civilian casualties. According to Roth, Israel effectively treated parts of southern Lebanon as a “free-fire zone.” Faced with these charges, Roth noted, Israel and its defenders attacked HRW, often with “garbage” and “not honest” arguments against HRW’s reports. (My co-blogger David Bernstein may have a different perspective on this issue.)

The final question was about the emerging concept of "ecological genocide." Roth noted that if environmental change is used as a means of killing populations, he did not think the concept was particularly controversial. He went on, however, to say that he is "somewhat conservative" in how he defines genocide, and is wary of using the term to dscribe the use environmental degradation to alter a culture or traditional way of life. Such an expansive definition "cheapens the concept," he said, as genocide should be confined to the actual killing of people.

Overall it was an interesting session. I don't agree with Roth on everything, but I appreciated his thoughtfulness and candor. [End]