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Debate: Is Human Rights Watch Too Close to U.S. Gov’t to Criticize Its Foreign Policy?

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Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s largest and most influential human rights organizations, is facing an unusual amount of public criticism. Two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire, and a group of over 100 scholars have written an open letter criticizing what they describe as a revolving door with the U.S. government that impacts HRW’s work in certain countries, including Venezuela. The letter urges HRW to bar those who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy from serving as staff, advisers or board members. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth has defended his organization’s independence, responding: “We are careful to ensure that prior affiliations do not affect the impartiality of Human Rights Watch’s work. … We routinely expose, document and denounce human rights violations by the US government, including torture, indefinite detention, illegal renditions, unchecked mass surveillance, abusive use of drones, harsh sentencing and racial disparity in criminal justice, and an unfair and ineffective immigration system.” We host a debate between HRW counsel Reed Brody and Keane Bhatt, a writer and activist who organized the open letter.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the world’s largest and most influential human rights organizations is facing an unusual amount of public criticism. Two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire, and a group of over a hundred scholars have written an open letter to Human Rights Watch criticizing what they describe as the group’s close ties to the U.S. government.

The letter claims there is a revolving door between the U.S. government and Human Rights Watch and that it has impacted the organization’s work in certain countries, including Venezuela. It cites the example of Tom Malinowski. In the 1990s he served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and as a speechwriter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Then he became HRW’s Washington advocacy director. Then, last year, he left the organization after being nominated as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under John Kerry. The letter also notes a former CIA analyst named Miguel Díaz who sat on a Human Right Watch advisory committee from 2003 to 2011. Díaz is now at the State Department. The letter urges Human Rights Watch to bar those who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy from serving as staff, advisers or board members.

AMY GOODMAN: Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth has defended his organization’s independence. In a recent letter to the Nobel laureates, Roth wrote, quote, “We are careful to ensure that prior affiliations do not affect the impartiality of Human Rights Watch’s work.”

Roth went on to highlight the group’s history of criticizing the U.S. human rights record. Roth wrote, quote, “We routinely expose, document and denounce human rights violations by the US government, including torture, indefinite detention, illegal renditions, unchecked mass surveillance, abusive use of drones, harsh sentencing and racial disparity in criminal justice, and an unfair and ineffective immigration system.”

Well, today we host a debate. Reed Brody is counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. He worked as lead counsel for the victims in the case of the exiled former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, and in the cases of Augusto Pinochet and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti.

Keane Bhatt is the lead organizer of the open letter to Human Rights Watch. Earlier this year, he wrote an article headlined “The Hypocrisy of Human Rights Watch.” He’s a Washington, D.C.-based writer and activist.

Well, Keane Bhatt, you’re the one who wrote the letter that was signed by the Nobel laureates and about a hundred scholars. Explain your concerns with Human Rights Watch.

KEANE BHATT: The concern is that the revolving-door process that we delineated in the letter leads to a perverse incentive structure. That is to say, if you are a Human Rights Watch staff member and you are to criticize harshly and in principled terms actions by the U.S. government, one shouldn’t have in the back of his or her mind the possibility of actually working for that government. And we think that that possibility of looking at the U.S. government, which, you know, Human Rights Watch should be antagonistic towards, along with any other government, one should not see that as a possibility for future career advancement. And that generates perverse incentives. The revolving-door process is something that’s quite clearly understood in other industries, like the financial sector, in which you have a revolving door there. So we are simply saying that in the case of Human Rights Watch, which stands by its independence, that it should demonstrate that independence further by implementing an actual policy to have either a cooling-off period before and after HRW associates go into the U.S. government, or that they simply bar those who have created or executed U.S. foreign policy, given that the U.S. foreign policy establishment in the U.S. government is a routine human rights violator.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody?

REED BRODY: Well, first of all, I want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to come on to discuss these charges. Unfortunately, every time Human Rights Watch publishes a report on Venezuela, this is what happens: The government and the people who support the government then denounce Human Rights Watch. This is not the first sign-on letter of this kind. This one is particularly pernicious because of the charges it raises, this idea that somehow Human Rights Watch is in lockstep with the U.S. government because of some revolving-door policy. I think anyone who is familiar with our work, anyone who takes the time to look at our website, would see, first of all, that we routinely criticize the U.S. government. We routinely criticize—in fact, earlier this week, Amy, you had on your show a Human Rights Watch researcher, together with a recently freed Bahraini activist, criticizing the U.S. government for its support of the government in Bahrain.

There—we have 399 people on staff, from 67 countries. We have people—there’s probably a handful of people who have worked for the U.S. government. There are also people who have worked for the governments of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Spain, South Africa, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Now, I can go through the list of the directors, the regional directors—our Africa director, a former Ethiopian political prisoner under U.S. ally Meles Zenawi; the person in charge of all our program, Iain Levine, who you know, a British-trained nurse 10 years in Africa, then UNICEF, then Amnesty International; Ken Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, 27 consecutive years at Human Rights Watch. There’s a handful of people—this revolving-door policy, if we implemented it, would have changed one person at Human Rights Watch. To the extent that there is a revolving-door policy at Human Rights Watch, it’s with the United Nations. There are many people, myself included, who have worked at the United Nations, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. So, this is—there really is no basis to this kind of allegation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Keane Bhatt, can you respond specifically to what Reed Brody said about the number of former government officials from a number of other countries who are employed at Human Rights Watch?


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why the specific focus on U.S. government officials?

KEANE BHATT: Well, one, what we’re talking about is both working for the U.S. government before and after Human Rights Watch. In all of the countries that you’ve listed, I’m not aware of people who have worked in that government, then in Human Rights Watch and then back into government. And that’s the revolving-door phenomenon. So, if you have credible evidence of those people, we would probably oppose that, as well.

But the second point about focusing on the United States is that, as opposed to Peru or Mexico or Brazil, the United States is the world’s largest military hegemon. And as the world’s sole superpower, which has committed, you know, various human rights violations on an order of magnitude far beyond the scope of anything that could be accused upon Mexico or another country, this is really the core issue. And I just want to ask you, if it’s only two people—Miguel Díaz from the CIA, who is now an interlocutor—

REED BRODY: Excuse me, Miguel Díaz never worked at Human Rights Watch. We have over 200 people on advisory committees.

KEANE BHATT: So then, if the advisory committee is simply an honorary title, what kind of message is that sending to the world that somebody who has worked at the CIA, perhaps the world’s greatest institutional human rights violator in the past half-century, is there as a way for—as a kind of a form of credentials? You know, what does that—what does that symbolize to the rest of the world when you talk about your independence? And then, secondly, when he goes into the State Department and his job title is explicitly serving as an interlocutor before the intelligence—between the intelligence community and non-government experts, namely Human Rights Watch and other organizations, what does that signal to the international community? So, let’s not even dispute the question of whether HRW’s advocacy is aligned with U.S. foreign policy. The very appearance, the very fact that we’re having this debate, is indicative of the need of having some kind of a policy—

REED BRODY: No, the very—the very fact that we’re having this debate is that the Venezuelan government and people who support the Venezuelan government cannot tolerate criticism of Venezuela.

KEANE BHATT: I think this is a complete canard. To—

REED BRODY: That’s why we’re having this debate.

KEANE BHATT: To simply refer to me—

REED BRODY: Now, let me answer—let me answer the questions, though, about Miguel Díaz. We have 200 people on our advisory committees. We have advisory committees for each branch of Human Rights Watch. It’s a big tent. We’ve got people on the right; we’ve got people on the left. Costa-Gavras is on our advisory committee. Bernardine Dohrn is on our advisory committee, Tahar ben Jelloun, Mike Farrell. This is—

KEANE BHATT: This is not a question of left or right. This is a question of people who are associated with leading human rights violators working there.

REED BRODY: And at the time—

KEANE BHATT: What can he bring to the table? What can he advise upon—

REED BRODY: At the time—

KEANE BHATT: —on human rights, when he has worked at the CIA and he’s using—

REED BRODY: At the time that—at the time that Miguel Díaz was on the advisory committee, he was the Latin American director of CSIS, a think—a public policy think tank in Washington. Those are the kinds of positions that you bring to an advisory committee. You bring people from the field. You bring people from think tanks. You bring former public policy people. You bring government officials.

KEANE BHATT: Well, then—

REED BRODY: Former government officials. We have a rule that you cannot, obviously, be a government official at the same time that you’re on the board, on the advisory committee or on the staff of Human Rights Watch.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Keane Bhatt, can I just ask you to outline specifically—you were in particular critical of the way in which Human Rights Watch has covered Venezuela, so could you outline what some of your criticisms were?

KEANE BHATT: Yeah. First, I would dispute the contention that this is simply an effort by Venezuela supporters to try to tarnish HRW’s good name. Again, Reed Brody is not addressing the core issue here about a revolving door that’s taking place.

REED BRODY: I have addressed the issue.

KEANE BHATT: Does he dispute the fact—

REED BRODY: There is no revolving door.

KEANE BHATT: There is no revolving door if Tom Malinowski works at the—

REED BRODY: That’s only one person.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the significance of who Tom Malinowski is?

KEANE BHATT: Well, Tom Malinowski is an interesting case. He worked at the White House National Security Council for Bill Clinton as its senior director when Bill Clinton initiated the Yugoslavia bombings, which Human Rights Watch itself classified as committing violations of international humanitarian law. Secondly, he was a speechwriter for Madeleine Albright when she made the infamous comments that the price is worth it, in terms of imposing U.S. sanctions that may have killed a half a million Iraqi children. Malinowski then worked at Human Rights Watch as its lead lobbyist and then, immediately after, became the assistant secretary of state. You know, and so, the kinds of comments that he made, for example, in reference to Libya after the NATO intervention, are completely unalloyed in their—in their support. And so, when Tom Malinowski is strongly supportive of NATO interventions and then goes on to work at the Obama administration, which is a human rights violator—for example, you know, the secret kill list in which Obama has the right to murder anyone on the planet based on a, you know, secret order without any judicial oversight—these are the kinds of problems that exist. And whether or not—whether or not the advocacy is tarnished, the appearance of this revolving door should be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody?

REED BRODY: You know, Human Rights Watch has called for criminal investigation to be opened against the former president of the United States, George Bush, against Donald Rumsfeld, against Dick Cheney, against George Tenet. Ken Roth was on your show talking about that.


REED BRODY: Just last month—two months ago, while Tom Malinowski was going into the U.S. government, Ken Roth wrote an op-ed called “Obama the Disappointment.” I mean, to suggest that somehow that there’s this great conspiracy, that, you know, we’re in lockstep with the U.S. government because Tom—because, you know, now and then—in this case, one person—went from Human Rights Watch to the U.S. government, it’s just really—you know, people on your show should look at our website, read our reports, read Ken Roth’s articles, read our reporting on Venezuela and on other U.S. allies, on countries like Mexico, Uzbekistan, Israel, Egypt.

KEANE BHATT: Yeah, well—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you’ve pointed out, Keane, that you want Human Rights Watch to be as critical of the Obama administration as it has been of the Bush administration and Human Rights Watch has failed to do that. Could you elaborate?

KEANE BHATT: That’s correct. I mean, if criminal investigations should be launched against the Bush administration, then clearly the continuation of CIA renditions, the use of torture in Bagram and in Somalia, which Jeremy Scahill quite clearly demonstrated on this broadcast, the fact that Amrit Singh from the Open Society Justice Initiative was also on this program discussing the continuous use of renditions—again, a level of human rights violation that’s perhaps, you know, unparalleled, a secret kill list to kill anyone on the planet—all of these instances demand criminal investigations. And the fact that they haven’t been pushed by Human Rights Watch for Clinton, where Tom Malinowski once worked, and Obama, where he now works, is indicative of this issue.

And secondly, I think that the core issue here is that when HRW makes criticisms toward NATO, what signal does that send the international community when NATO’s former secretary general, Javier Solana, is on the board of directors at HRW? This is somebody who HRW itself criticized for presiding over violations of international humanitarian law. So, why don’t we make a simple policy? Those who—

REED BRODY: Isn’t that the proof—isn’t that—

KEANE BHATT: —who bear direct responsibility for human rights violations should not be on the board of directors of an independent human rights organization.

REED BRODY: I would agree with that.

KEANE BHATT: So let’s—

REED BRODY: But isn’t—but isn’t—but isn’t—

KEANE BHATT: Let’s—let’s agree on that. We should have an immediate removal of Javier Solana from the board of directors, given that his power includes being able to remove staff at HRW. That’s what board of directors at nonprofits do. So this person, when he’s on that board—

REED BRODY: Human Rights Watch—I mean, the proof—

KEANE BHATT: —creates the—

REED BRODY: The proof that what you’re saying is not correct, you’ve given it. Human Rights Watch has reported—I mean, as soon as—as soon as NATO or the United States or Israel or anyone else is involved in military action, we are on the ground as soon as possible to document possible violations of war.

KEANE BHATT: Has Human Rights Watch—

REED BRODY: And we’ve done that in the case of NATO in Libya.

KEANE BHATT: Has Human Rights Watch advocated criminal investigations or taking Javier Solana to International Criminal Court for his presiding over violation of international humanitarian law?

REED BRODY: We have not suggested that Javier Solana was personally involved in the violations of international humanitarian law. There’s a difference between violations of the laws of war, which we—Human Rights Watch has documented, and the personal criminal liability of different people and different—in organizations.



KEANE BHATT: So the question of—that’s the core issue, because when HRW documents atrocities committed by NATO, but then does not carry them to their logical conclusion—

REED BRODY: We didn’t describe them as atrocities, but OK.

KEANE BHATT: Human rights violations, let’s say—but does not carry them to their logical conclusion, that leads the international community to question the independence. Look, the United States and its—

REED BRODY: I don’t think the international community is questioning the independence of Human Rights Watch.

KEANE BHATT: The United States is considered by the world, in a recent poll, to be the greatest threat to world peace today by three times the margin of the second runner-up. So what does it say to the world when HRW has somebody who has presided over a military organization? What does he bring to the table? What can he actually provide in terms of his insights and knowledge of human rights, when he’s somebody who presided over the bombing of civilian targets, the use of cluster munitions and so on?

REED BRODY: Javier Solana was the foreign minister of Spain. I don’t—

KEANE BHATT: He’s the secretary general of NATO.

REED BRODY: He was the—he was the secretary general of NATO. He brings to the table his foreign policy experience. We have not—we have been very critical of NATO in Libya, but we have not alleged that he or that NATO was involved in war crimes or that he was personally involved in war crimes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Reed Brody, could you respond also to what Keane brought up about Human Rights Watch not being as critical of Obama administration officials for continuing Bush policies?

REED BRODY: Well, I mean, I just—two months ago, Ken Roth, Politico, “Obama the Disappointment”: “Obama has”—I’ll just read the first point. “Obama has disappointed many by failing to make human rights a priority. True, … he has stood up for people’s rights where there are few strategic interests at play—in such places as … Venezuela and Zimbabwe. But his readiness to compromise in places like Afghanistan, Egypt, Mexico, Uzbekistan … Yemen leaves the impression that he is not committed to the human rights ideal.”

We have documented in Yemen, for instance, the human cost of drones. We have taken Obama, the Obama administration, to task for its failure to live up to the promises he made a year ago regarding transparency in the use of drones. So, just because we’re not calling for Obama to be prosecuted, that’s not the test. When someone is involved, as we believe, directly—I mean, George Bush admitted that he authorized waterboarding. Human Rights Watch document—we were in Libya. Our people went into Gaddafi’s former secret service headquarters and discovered the files that show that the U.S. was sending prisoners to Libya to be interrogated, where they were tortured. We have called for criminal prosecutions on those bases. We have—but criminal prosecution is not the only touchstone for criticism of a government. We haven’t called for the prosecution of Chávez and of Maduro.

KEANE BHATT: Yeah, that’s because Chávez and Maduro have nowhere near the human rights record of the Obama administration. And secondly, that’s the core question, is whether or not HRW chooses to operationalize its relatively tepid criticisms of Obama, given the severity of those human rights violations. Let’s take the case of drone strikes in Yemen, for example. What Human Rights Watch is advocating is not for the immediate cessation of drone strikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians around the world. What they’re asking for is greater transparency on the legal rationale for continuation of those drone strikes. So, the idea that the United dates can treat the entire planet as a legitimate battlefield is simply unquestioned.

REED BRODY: No, we haven’t said that.

KEANE BHATT: And secondly, would HRW ask for the legal rationale from the Cuban government for why it carried out a drone assassination against Luis Posada Carriles? No, of course, it would immediately denounce a violation of that sovereignty, the issue of that, and they wouldn’t be asking the Justice Ministry of Cuba to justify its use of missile strikes on Florida.

REED BRODY: I don’t believe we’ve ever talked about that case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the criticisms of Human Rights Watch in the open letter focused on its position on Syria. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth posted a series of tweets last summer as the Obama administration was contemplating military action following the use of chemical weapons in August. In one, Roth tweeted, quote, “If Obama decides to strike #Syria, will he settle for symbolism or do something that will help protect civilians?” Roth subsequently appeared on Russia Today and explained his organization’s position.

KENNETH ROTH: We are explicitly not taking a position for or against particular air strikes. Our main focus, as you can find in the statements that we’ve issued, is that our concern is with protecting civilian lives. And obviously, you know, the issue on the table at the moment are the approximately 1,400 civilians who died as a result of the chemical weapons attacks in the Damascus suburbs, but obviously we’re concerned about the tens of thousands, if not hundred thousand, civilians who have died during the conflict, mostly at the hands of conventional weapons. And our concern is that while there is heightened attention to this problem of Syria now, we hope that the answer is going to address the plight of civilians across the board.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, speaking last year on Russia Today. Keane Bhatt, can you explain why it is that you were critical of the position that Human Rights Watch took on Syria?

KEANE BHATT: Well, I’m not critical on the question of neutrality when it comes to intervention, but really what his tweets show—and that’s not the only tweet; there’s numerous tweets, which allow for plausible deniability, but in their effect and in their preponderance show a real egging on of the Obama administration at the height of calls for a U.S. bombing on Syria. And we think that this is simply unbecoming of the head of a human rights organization to be asking for more—more than symbolic bombing, but a really serious kind of a bombing that actually can—can protect civilians. I think that this is completely irresponsible. And, yes, there might be ways to weasel out of the implications of that tweet and other tweets—and people can go to my Twitter to see the full list of Ken Roth’s tweets encouraging a Syria strike—but I think that this is something that really shows the need for a separation, a firewall, between HRW and NATO and the U.S. government.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch?

REED BRODY: I’m sorry, there needs to be a firewall between Ken Roth and the U.S. government? Ken Roth has never—

KEANE BHATT: There needs to be—

REED BRODY: Ken Roth has spent the last 27 years at Human Rights Watch. I really don’t imagine that Ken Roth will ever be working for the United States government.

But let me address the issue of intervention. Human Rights Watch—and you can see on our website, you can hear from Ken—Human Rights Watch does not call, has not called for an armed intervention or any intervention—well, we’ve called for humanitarian intervention, we’ve called for the assistance to displaced people. You know, the countries of the world, in 2005, all the countries at the General Assembly, agreed that there were certain circumstances that invoked what they called the right to protect, when it may be necessary for the international community even to use force. And that’s the lesson of Srebrenica. It’s the lesson of Rwanda.

Now, Human Rights Watch has not called—in fact, since Rwanda, the last time that Human Rights Watch called for a military intervention was in—was over 20 years ago in Rwanda. So—and to suggest—and to suggest otherwise is—you know, the policy of Human Rights Watch, and what Ken was saying was, the touchstone is: Are you going to protect civilians? And how are you—what is the plan to protect civilians? And we did not criticize—in the letter, you make an equivalence. You say, well, we criticized Syria’s bombing of civilians, but we didn’t criticize the U.S. for threatening a military intervention.


REED BRODY: Human Rights Watch—OK, go ahead.

KEANE BHATT: So that’s—that’s another issue, which is that the parameters for HRW are narrow, such that, you know, violations of international law, such as the threat or use of force, are outside of HRW’s purview. What that means is that the lone military superpower in the world, which has violated international law on many occasions—for example, in the case of Iraq, which led to the deaths of perhaps one million Iraqis, perhaps the greatest, you know, human rights catastrophe of the 21st century—because HRW’s purview does not allow it to oppose, you know, violations of international law, such as the threat or use of force, you know, we think that that’s a defect.

But what I’m saying is a narrower point, which is that if HRW has a stated policy of neutrality, then Tom Malinowski should not be endorsing and praising Libya, the Libya strikes by NATO, in pieces in Foreign Policy, and it should not be—

REED BRODY: Human Rights Watch—Human Rights Watch is the organization which documented the effects on civilians—


REED BRODY: —of the NATO strikes.

KEANE BHATT: Again, documentation is different from advocacy and operationalizing that research. And when Tom Malinowski completely omits the findings of HRW itself on the cases of 72 civilians killed in eight missile strikes by NATO in Libya in his extensive pieces—

REED BRODY: We’re the ones who documented that.

KEANE BHATT: I understand that, and that’s exactly my point.

REED BRODY: Where does that information come from? It comes from Human Rights Watch.

KEANE BHATT: That’s exactly my point. When Tom Malinowski, as the Washington advocacy director, simply omits that finding from his piece on NATO’s role in Libya, what that does is it raises reasonable suspicions that this person is thinking about possibilities of working within the Obama administration. And sure enough, by having a completely unconditional support and saying that what Libya shows is that Obama should be further engaged in the Arab Spring, what that does is it creates reasonable suspicions. And that’s why it’s crucial for HRW to impose some kind of a cooling-off period. There’s 15,500 people who have signed our petition at demanding for just a basic cooling-off period. Whether—we can go back and forth all day discussing HRW’s policy priorities, but if it doesn’t affect HRW’s advocacy, then there should be no problem implementing such a proposal. It’s a very commonsense proposal that’s understood in any other industry. The human rights industry should be no different.

REED BRODY: You know, again, I mean, look at who is at Human Rights Watch. I’m sorry. If you go position by position at Human Rights Watch, you find people—you know, our Americas director, a Chilean human rights activist, never worked in the government. Our U.N. director, a Le Monde correspondent, I mean—

AMY GOODMAN: So, Reed, would a cooling-off period threaten this? As you point out, it would affect very few people.

REED BRODY: You know, I think that this is a gimmick. It’s a gimmick to tie together criticism of Venezuela, take something here, take something there, and make—it’s a solution to a problem that does not exist. OK, we have—

KEANE BHATT: I haven’t touched on Venezuela.

REED BRODY: I know you—I know that you haven’t talked—

KEANE BHATT: And frankly—

REED BRODY: —that you haven’t talked about Venezuela here.

KEANE BHATT: You know, the people that we’re talking about—Mairead Maguire, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel—these people are not Venezuela experts. They’re not defending the Venezuelan government in any sense.

REED BRODY: I know, but—

KEANE BHATT: What we’re talking about is the need for HRW—

REED BRODY: Understand where this letter comes—where this comes—

KEANE BHATT: —to preserve its credibility as an independent organization.

REED BRODY: I’m very glad that you’re concerned about Human Rights Watch’s credibility. I think that our reports speak for themselves. The track record, the biographies of the people at Human Rights Watch speak for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something, Keane Bhatt: Why do you care about Human Rights Watch? In the work that you do, why is it so important to you?

KEANE BHATT: Human Rights Watch, you know, with its endowment, a $100 million endowment from George Soros, is the leading human rights organization in the world, and it sets an agenda for other organizations. It also has, you know, an outsize influence in Congress, and it has a very powerful network within the media to get its message out. And we think that if it were more independent, that it would be leveraging those very important assets towards, you know, doing more effective human rights advocacy.

So, in the case of Aristide in 2004, Human Rights Watch barely lifted a finger in the face of massive atrocities, perhaps the worst human rights situation in the hemisphere at that time, in the Western Hemisphere. You know, HRW could have simply, you know, positioned op-eds in The Washington Post or The New York Times or elsewhere, demanding the immediate restitution of the constitutional government of Aristide and denouncing the atrocity that took place. Why didn’t that happen? You know, the Bush administration literally kidnapped Aristide, as viewers of Democracy Now! know from that reporting, and flew him to the Central African Republic. You know, in that context, under a coup government in which thousands of people were being slaughtered in Port-au-Prince alone, you know, HRW should have taken a stronger approach. And we don’t think that it’s coincidental that, you know, the U.S. role in that coup and the subsequent atrocities that took place had a role in HRW’s relative silence.

AMY GOODMAN: Reed Brody?

REED BRODY: Please, Amy, first of all, you know my history in Haiti. You mentioned at the top of the show, I’m involved in the prosecution of a string of U.S.-backed dictators, one of them being Jean-Claude Duvalier. We’ve called for—I’ve been trying to get—I went to Panama to try to get the coup leader, Raoul Cédras, back to Haiti. Ríos Montt, Hissène Habré, Pinochet—I mean, these are U.S.-backed dictators that we’re involved in prosecuting. In the case of Haiti, we are on the ground in Haiti working for the prosecution of the former dictator, Jean-Claude—

KEANE BHATT: Where were you in 2004 after the coup? Why did HRW send a letter to Colin Powell, not urging for the immediate restitution, the immediate reinstatement of Aristide, but simply asking Colin Powell, the Bush administration, which kidnapped Aristide, to put pressure on the coup government—that it installed—to prosecute both paramilitary leaders who precipitated that coup and deposed officials of the constitutional government? This is a warped idea of evenhandedness, and this is exactly the kind of issue that we’re talking about. The closeness of HRW with the U.S. government creates these completely bizarre forms of evenhandedness, which at, you know, first blush may seem speciously independent, but, you know, on closer inspection are completely fraudulent.

REED BRODY: I mean, you know, you can—you can take bits and pieces, and interpret it the way you want.

KEANE BHATT: Interpret that for me. What does that mean? What does that signal?

REED BRODY: Human Rights Watch applies—

KEANE BHATT: Why didn’t it call for the immediate restitution of the Aristide government after the coup?

REED BRODY: Because we don’t—that’s not what we do. We don’t call—

KEANE BHATT: Why didn’t it denounce the atrocities that were taking place in—

REED BRODY: We did. We did announce—

KEANE BHATT: —in prominent—why didn’t—

REED BRODY: Excuse me, we did announce—we did denounce the atrocities. And since prosecution seems to be your touchstone for things, we have been involved in—and I personally have been involved in—attempts to prosecute a number of former de facto and military Haitian leaders, if that’s your only—if that’s your touchstone.

KEANE BHATT: Well, I find it very curious that Human Rights Watch will appeal to the OAS Democratic Charter in the question of Chávez’s court packing in Venezuela but would not appeal to the OAS Democratic Charter in the case of Aristide’s ouster, an unconstitutional ouster committed by the U.S. government, putting him on a plane and kidnapping him in Africa—and sending him to Africa. Why didn’t it invoke the U.N.—the OAS Charter?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then, when we come back, we’ll talk specifically about Venezuela. We are speaking with Keane Bhatt, lead organizer of an open letter to Human Rights Watch that criticizes what it calls its revolving-door policy. Reed Brody is counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re having a very interesting debate around the issue of Human Rights Watch. An open letter has been sent by our guest today, Keane Bhatt, and a hundred scholars and two Nobel Peace laureates criticizing Human Rights Watch for what they call a revolving-door policy between the government and the organization, also criticizing them around their research and advocacy around Venezuela. Reed Brody is also with us, who is the counsel for Human Rights Watch, who is also called the dictator catcher or pursuer, who has been trying to bring dictators around the world to trial.

I wanted to turn to Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth’s tweet after the open letter that Keane Bhatt sent. He wrote, quote, “For those defenders of Venezuela, Rwanda, Syria, Russia etc who say @HRW is soft on US, please read before you Tweet,” and he then linked to HRW’s 2014 United States country report. So let’s go back to that tweet, Reed. He said, for those critics—he says, “For those defenders of Venezuela, Rwanda, Syria, Russia etc.” Does Human Rights Watch equate Venezuela with Rwanda and Syria?

REED BRODY: No, but those are the countries where we tend to get pushback. So, for instance, Rwanda, you know, Human Rights Watch, Alison—the late Alison Des Forges documented the genocide, a book that is probably the most important testimonial to that genocide. But she didn’t stop there, and she’s been critical of the current government. As a result, Human Rights Watch is the subject of a similar Venezuela kind of campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: But talk about Venezuela, because we only have a few minutes, and that’s where we want to end. Your concern about the coverage of Venezuela, Keane?

KEANE BHATT: Yeah, I think that in 2008 a hundred academics clearly denounced what they called, you know, flimsy and inaccurate evidence. You know, HRW is entitled to its advocacy, but you can’t make up facts. And the core issue there was that, in one instance, HRW referred to the systematic discrimination and the provision of social services based on political affiliation. They literally had one case, and that was based on hearsay. That was based on a phone call with somebody who had a 98-year-old grandmother who was denied service. I mean, this is a level of scholarship that would not be admissible, you know, at high school level. So, what we’re—

AMY GOODMAN: And why do you think this is?

KEANE BHATT: What I think—I mean, let’s not even speculate.

REED BRODY: But you have speculated. You’ve said it’s because somehow we’re in lockstep—

KEANE BHATT: What I’m saying is that it suggests—

REED BRODY: —with the U.S. government.

KEANE BHATT: It suggests that the revolving-door issue with HRW creates—

REED BRODY: Because José Miguel Vivanco and Dan Wilkinson, who wrote the report, are going to work for the U.S. government.

KEANE BHATT: No, I’ve already—

REED BRODY: They never have, and they never will.

KEANE BHATT: I’ve already delineated the clear instances of HRW personnel—

REED BRODY: The one.

KEANE BHATT: —and also the board of directors. I mean Javier Solana, again.

REED BRODY: And Javier Solana was involved in Venezuela?

KEANE BHATT: But it has—no, what I’m saying is that there is a U.S.-oriented and NATO-oriented, let’s say, permissiveness within HRW. And let’s be real here. You know, for example, when Daniel Wilkinson in The New York Review of Books, perhaps the pre-eminent intellectual journal in the United States—

REED BRODY: I would suggest people read that article .

KEANE BHATT: When he says, quote, that “two Venezuelan private media stations voluntarily dropped their critical coverage of the government,” this is simply false. I’ve actually demanded a correction.

REED BRODY: He didn’t—he didn’t say that. I understand.

KEANE BHATT: No, I’m quoting him.

REED BRODY: I know. I know that you have.

KEANE BHATT: I’m quoting him directly.

REED BRODY: But he didn’t say that.

KEANE BHATT: And—I’m quoting him directly. And in those cases, you have—I showed voluminous instances of Televen and Venevisión, you know, promoting opposition leaders, saying the most—

REED BRODY: Yes, but they were told—

KEANE BHATT: —saying the strongest denunciations of the government.

REED BRODY: But the interviewers were told that they could not use terms like “peaceful demonstrator,” that they could—that they had to watch out for what they said.

KEANE BHATT: You have conclusive evidence—

REED BRODY: Imagine—imagine that on—imagine that on this show you were told what terms you can and cannot use.

KEANE BHATT: María Corina Machado appeared on Televen, OK, a prominent opposition leader, and referred to the Venezuelan government as a dictatorship, said that there was no democracy, accused it of various human rights abuses, and then said that there was a legitimate case to—you know, to use the constitution to push for the ouster of the elected government. These are the kinds of comments that, you know, no senator or congressmember in the United States could ever make at ABC or NBC.

REED BRODY: Really? Really? A U.S. congressman could not go on a TV show in the United States—

KEANE BHATT: Could he say that the United States is a dictatorship? I mean, what I’m saying—

REED BRODY: He could. He might not, but he could.

KEANE BHATT: —it’s not that he could not—exactly, that’s my point, is that these are the—this is the kind of expression, the freedom of expression that exists in Venezuela, where, you know, somebody, a prominent opposition leader, can refer to an elected government as a dictatorship.

REED BRODY: Well, very glad to hear that they can do that.

KEANE BHATT: Yeah, it is great.

REED BRODY: That’s a great accomplishment.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. We’d love to invite people’s comments. Go to our Facebook page. Go to Keane Bhatt, lead organizer of the letter alleging this revolving door between the U.S. government and Human Rights Watch, his article for the NACLA Report was headlined “The Hypocrisy of Human Rights Watch.” We’ll link to that article. Reed Brody, counsel and spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, and we’ll also link to Human Rights Watch and their responses to this letter.

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