- Kenneth Rothexecutive director of Human Rights Watch, which has been outspoken in its criticisms of the military commissions system. He attended the opening the 9/11 military tribunal at Guantánamo Bay over the weekend and wrote about it for the New York Times in a piece called “Justice Cheated.”
In part two of our interview with Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, he examines why the U.S. has not pressured Bahrain to release pro-democracy activists. “Saudi Arabia simply is not going to tolerate a genuine democracy immediately off its shore, particularly one in which Shias, if there were free elections, could easily prevail,” Roth says. “That would set a precedent, in particular, for Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the oil producing-province which itself has a very substantial Shia population.” Roth also comments on the crisis in Syria and the conditions in Israeli jails and courts that prompted 1,550 Palestinian prisoners to go on a hunger strike. Click here to listen to part one of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Kenneth Roth is joining us, executive director of Human Rights Watch. We have talked about the Guantánamo tribunal. He have talked also about Bahrain. Why is Bahrain dealt with so differently by the United States than other places in the Middle East?
KENNETH ROTH: A very good question. I think there are two minor reasons and one big reason. You know, the minor reasons are the military base in Bahrain, which the U.S. doesn’t want to lose, concern about Iranian influence just across the Persian Gulf, in the fact that Bahrain has a majority Shia population, like Iran. There’s fear of influence there. But I think the dominant reason is Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is a little island linked by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. And Saudi Arabia simply is not going to tolerate a genuine democracy immediately off its shore, particularly one in which Shias, if there were free elections, could easily prevail. That would set a precedent, in particular, for Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, the oil-producing province which itself has a very substantial Shia population. And the monarchy in Saudi Arabia simply is drawing a line and saying, “No way.” And the U.S. is deferring to that.
AMY GOODMAN: What about Syria? What do you think needs to be done there?
KENNETH ROTH: Well, you know, if I had the simple answer to that, you know, I would have published it a long time ago. It’s a very difficult situation. I think, you know, right now, on the one hand, we all hope that the U.N. observers that Kofi Annan arranged to be deployed, we all hope that they’ll make enough of a difference, but we all, I think, suspect that they won’t. Where they are present, they do seem to help to curtail the bloodshed. But we’re talking about small numbers of observers, a large territory. There’s just no way that those observers, in and of themselves, are going to be able to stop Assad’s killing of protesters and others. So there’s a need to ratchet up the pressure. And I think we all know that Russia has been the main obstacle there. So the European Union, the United States themselves, have imposed various forms of sanctions, which are being felt by the elite around Assad, the people who prop up this regime. But in order to impose an arms embargo or a global oil embargo or things that would really force Assad to capitulate quickly, the obstacle has been Russia—backed by China, but no one thinks that China alone would stand in the way. So the real issue is to put pressure on Putin to ask him, you know, why is his alliance with Assad worth the lives of thousands upon thousands of Syrians [inaudible]—
AMY GOODMAN: Doesn’t feel—doesn’t Russia feel betrayed by NATO and the United States around the NATO intervention in Libya?
KENNETH ROTH: Well, Russia is not alone in that respect. I mean, the intervention in Libya was controversial in the sense that the Security Council authorized action to protect civilians that morphed into regime change. Now, NATO, you know, has never really explained that. You know, some people argued privately that there’s no way that you could ultimately protect the civilians without getting rid of Gaddafi. But for much of the world, it looks like this was just taking advantage of the Security Council resolution to accomplish the objective of ousting Gaddafi. So, you know, Russia and others were outraged by that.
That said, it’s unfair to take out that outrage on the Syrian people. They had nothing to do with what happened in Libya. Second, military intervention has not even been on the table in the Security Council. What we’re talking about are non-military forms of pressure. So, you know, Russia is perfectly capable of drafting a Security Council resolution saying this has nothing to do with military intervention; this is about non-military ways of pressuring Assad to stop killing people. It hasn’t done that. Instead, it has, you know, allowed small steps, like the deployment of the observers, but has resisted real pressure, including referral to the International Criminal Court, because Assad is its last big-time ally in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about what’s happening right now with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike. About 1,500 Palestinian prisoners have forsworn food in Israeli jails for three weeks in a protest against the detentions, wide denial of family visits, and solitary confinement. One of the prisoners, Khader Adnan, has been refusing food and water even earlier, since he was detained in mid-December. His father, Musa Adnan, recently spoke to Al Jazeera about his son’s condition.
MUSA ADNAN: [translated] My daughter-in-law visited him at Ziv hospital in Safed. When she met him, she saw a ghost on a bed. He didn’t shower since he was arrested, didn’t clip his fingernails, fix his hair or brush his teeth. He has blisters on his gums and tongue. He is not being attended to.
AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Roth, what about these prisoners on hunger strike protesting the conditions and their imprisonment overall?
KENNETH ROTH: Well, there are a series of conditions that they are protesting. One is that Israel continues to use so-called administrative detention. And there are about 300 prisoners who are so—immediately administratively detained. Now, what that means is that Israel, rather than bringing somebody to trial, saying, “These are the charges against you. This is what you did wrong. We’re now going to have a fair trial and convict you,” instead they simply say, “Oh, well, the evidence is secret. We can’t reveal it. So we’re going to lock you up anyway.” No trial, no charges, nothing of the sort.
Now, just yesterday, the Israeli Supreme Court addressed this issue. They allowed the administrative detention to go forward. But even the Supreme Court, which is very deferential around security, said, you know, “Aren’t you overdoing this a little bit? Shouldn’t this be used sparingly? You know, maybe you should consider releasing these people at the end of their term.” So, you know, there is a lot of misgiving, because, you know, frankly, there are lots of ways to protect secrets and still have a public trial. The U.S. does that all the time in secret cases. And so, it is—I don’t think that that secrecy is really what’s going on here. Rather, Israel uses administrative detention when they don’t have a case. And, you know, it’s easy to lock somebody up if you don’t have to prove that they committed a crime.
Now, the other element of this is that a number of people are being kept in prolonged isolation. There are 19 prisoners who are being kept, you know, in solitary confinement, some for up to 10 years, which is just outrageous. I mean, that is utterly cruel. And so, that is part of the concern.
And finally, there have been a series of restrictions imposed on all prisoners because of the detention of Gilad Shalit in Gaza. So, for example, while Shalit was in detention, there were no family visits. More recently, access to university education has been denied. But, of course, Shalit has now been released, and these additional punishments have not been removed. So that’s another element of this hunger strike protest.
AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Roth, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.