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HRW report released

Interview: Anke RasperJanuary 21, 2014

Human Rights Watch has just released its 2014 World Report which, among other things, deals with the topics of Syria and the NSA scandal in the US. Executive Director Kenneth Roth spoke with DW about the new report.

Human Rights Watch Executive Director, Kenneth Roth
Image: dapd

DW: Syria was a major topic in last year's Human Rights Watch world report, with torture, abductions and executions being reported from both pro-government army and groups as well as anti-government groups. The civil war is in its third year now, how do you see the human rights situation in Syria at the moment?

Kenneth Roth: The situation is absolutely abysmal. We are very conscious that we are putting out this year's report just as the Geneva II Syria peace talks are taking place. Our concern is that, while everyone wants peace, there is very little prospect of these peace talks succeeding any time soon.

What we are trying to stress is that it is important for the negotiators not to focus on simply ending the war, they have to focus on how the war is being fought. Unfortunately, the Syrian government in particular is fighting this war by pursuing a strategy of war crimes. It's targeting not just the combatants on the other side but also civilians who happen to live in territory that is held by the armed opposition.

But isn't that also happening in many other conflicts? Haven't we, despite a lot of other human rights conventions, seen that this happens in civil wars a lot?

It does sometimes happen, no question about it and that's a war crime. But I have never seen a strategy that is so centrally built on attacking civilians as the [Bashar al-] Assad government strategy in Syria. It is regularly, indiscriminately, bombing urban areas. It is urgently needed that the negotiators in Geneva don't try to simply stop the fighting. They need to focus on trying to stop the current suffering of the civilian people at the same time as they work for a long-term solution to the war.

You also highlight the NSA spying scandal in your report and its implications for free expression. As a lawyer, would you say there is such a thing as a human right to the privacy of one's data and the security thereof?

Yes, there is a right to privacy. The problem is the US government doesn't recognize it in most cases. Even with President Obama's speech this past Friday, where he promised certain reforms, there is a lack of respect for a right to privacy. So, for example, Obama still contemplates vacuuming mass amounts of data, saying that doesn't implicate our privacy. He says our privacy is only implicated when the government looks at the data. Most people are not comfortable with personal information sitting inside some government computer, just waiting for some government agent to decide whether it's relevant to an investigation or not.

Of great concern to everybody outside the US is that the US government does not recognize any right to privacy even in the contents of your communications, like what you write in your emails and what you say on the telephone. If you are a non-American outside the United States, the US government still claims it can listen in on your phone calls and read your emails. I think the only answer in the long term is to have enforceable laws to recognize that our privacy is not just an interest on our part, but that it is a right that we enforce through the laws that governments must respect.

Protesters in Washington
Protests against the NSA are falling on deaf ears, Roth saysImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Which particular human rights cases are currently under-reported by the media in your opinion?

The area that receives traditionally the least amount of reporting is Africa. There are two real crises at the moment there, which the press are now turning to, but it took a while. One is in the Central African Republic, the other is in Sudan. In each case there were political conflicts which degenerated into large-scale ethnic killing. These are probably the most dangerous situations right now which could explode into mass atrocities. So there is a need for attention there.

The other thing that the press often neglects are situations where the repression is severe but unchanging. I'm thinking of a place like North Korea, which the UN Human Rights Council is moving toward highlighting. That's probably the most repressive place on earth. Or places like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, which have ruthless governments. They are ruthless year-in, year-out and as a result the press tends to ignore them and governments tend to focus on trading with them, rather than using pressure to improve their human rights records.

You have been involved in human rights for about three decades. With all the human rights abuses out there in the world today – atrocities, rape, abuse of workers, limitation of free speech - sometimes it seems like the situation is getting worse. Or is it just that we are getting better informed, because of increased documentation?

People always ask me whether things are getting better or whether things are getting worse. It's impossible to give a global answer. But if I look back to when I started and compare it with today, there are areas of the world where there have been vast improvements. Look at Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: they were all communist dictatorships when I started doing this work. Today, there are many democracies, many of them rights-respecting democracies.

When I started, Latin America was full of brutal military dictatorships. Today, for the most part, you have law-abiding, accountable governments. There have also been similar, significant changes in much of southern Africa and in much of eastern and south-eastern Asia. So there are areas where things are getting better but, of course, there are areas where things are getting worse.

A fighter in Syria, poses with his gun
Syria is again a big issue in this year's Human Rights Watch world reportImage: Mahmud Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Syria, and much of the Middle East and North Africa, is in turmoil. Much of Central Africa has been very bloody and violent in recent years. There is still severe repression in areas of Central Asia. What we need to do is to fight the battles where they are. The good news behind this is that there is a much stronger, more vibrant, human rights movement, with rights activists in virtually every country around the world. We do know more today than we did a couple of decades ago and that is the basis of generating the pressure for more lasting change.

Kenneth Roth has been the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch since 1993. A link to this year's Human Rights Watch report can be found here.