‘The African Union has been disappointing,’ says Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth

By Musinguzi Blanshe
Posted on Tuesday, 5 July 2022 18:32

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. 12 January 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Human Rights Watch's executive director Kenneth Roth, 66, who is stepping down at the end of August after almost three decades of steering the organisation, discusses what it has achieved and what is left to do in an interview with The Africa Report.

Roth talks about his meetings with African leaders such as Ethiopia’s late prime minister Meles Zenawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s former president Joseph Kabila, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame – the only world leader who has blocked him on Twitter.

Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organisation that has its headquarters in the New York in the United States. Roth also explains Human Rights Watch’s relationship with the African Union (AU). Its lack of support for human rights on the continent is “disappointing”, says Roth and he says it must do better.

“It likes to talk about the African solutions to African problems,” Roth says, referring to the AU. He hastens to point out several cases where the continental body is not doing that. From the conflict in Tigray, to the Sudan coup that has impeded transition to a civilian government, a series of coups in West Africa, repression in Zimbabwe and renewed conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, he says the AU has not provided solutions.

“I would want to see a much more consistent human rights policy from the AU,” he says. “I would like to see the AU taking a genuine leadership role on a whole range of human rights crises on the continent.”

Roth urges African democracies to take a greater leadership role in promoting human rights across the world, especially through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. At that institution, he says, African governments tend to espouse unity by voting as a bloc. And they tend to vote against human rights. “I would like to see African governments show that their commitment to human rights is greater than it is to African unity,” he says.

Achievements in Africa

Roth tells The Africa Report that Human Rights Watch has contributd to holding to account a number of abusive leaders on the continent in the past three decades. He says the organisation played a central role in setting up a special court for Sierra Leone and then pressing Nigeria’s then president Olusegun Obasanjo to hand over Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor for trial.

Taylor, who ruled Liberia from 1997 to 2003, was found guilty of several crimes including terrorism, rape, murder and the use of child soldiers by a UN backed special court based in Hague, Netherlands. The crimes were committed in Sierra Leone, where the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group supported by Taylor, operated. His prosecution, Roth says, “was a major step for the rule of law”.

Human Rights Watch also was active in the campaign to prosecute Hissen Habré, a former leader of Chad who had evaded trial for a long time. Habre, who ruled Chad from 1982 to 1990, was handed a life sentence by an AU-backed special court in Senegal in 2016.

On Rwanda’s genocide, Roth says, the rights organisation did work that led to prosecution of many génocidaires. Roth points out that his late colleague Alison des Forge drafted key reports for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). “She served as advisor and witness to the ICTR and contributed to the conviction of many génocidaires,” Roth says.

Roth adds that the organisation played a central role in demonstrating that the Rwandan government was giving military support to the Mouvement du 23 Mars rebels in eastern Congo in 2013.

Meeting with presidents on the continent

Roth has met with many African leaders for frank discussions. He says there was not any visible animosity between him and Rwanda’s head of state. But the organisation’s insistence on reminding people that the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a liberation movement that Kagame led at the time of the genocide, “oversaw the execution of 30,000 people in the aftermath of the genocide” is not well received in Kigali.

“That is a horrible crime that he is determined to ensure is forgotten,” Roth says. “He wants the world to forget. Human Rights Watch won’t forget. So he hates us for that.” The Rwanda head of state is also incensed by the organisation’s continued highlighting of human rights abuses in the country.

Roth tells The Africa Report that Kagame is the only world leader who has blocked him on Twitter. He believes that many leaders would wish to block him but lack audacity to do so. For Kagame, he imagines him saying, “I don’t even want to hear, just block him.”

The late prime minister Meles Zenawi is another “abusive figure” who was always available to meet Roth but never respected promises he made on improving human rights in Ethiopia, says Roth.

Roth had a meeting with the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila when he was still hanging on power. “I talked to him about the two paths before him: the path of respectability and the path of tyranny. We had an honest conversation about this. He ended the conversation by saying ‘Pray for me’.”

In Kampala, Uganda where The Africa Report interviewed Roth, he had just met President Yoweri Museveni. He presented Museveni a report on human rights violations by security forces.

Though Museveni promised to take action, Roth is not betting on a radical conversion. Museveni has on several occasions said that he does not support rights violations and promised to deal with perpetrators. “We are going to be monitoring. We will be pressuring him to live up to what he promised,” Roth says.

Biden hasn’t done much

US President Joe Biden promised a foreign policy anchored on the promotion of human rights. Though there has been an improvement on the previous government, Roth says it has not taken place in all countries.

For instance, he points out Saudi Arabia. “Biden is about to fly to Saudi Arabia to meet with the Saudi crown prince. He gonna say let’s forget about the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi […] I just want you to pump more oil so that prices can go down,” he argues.

Roth also says Biden has not done much to promote human rights in Egypt, the US’s long-term military ally in North Africa. Though Biden recognises that Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, is presiding over the most intense repression in the country’s modern history, Roth says, Biden slashed US military assistance to Egypt by just 10%.

“President Sisi was rejoicing because it meant that despite all repression, he was still getting 90% of military assistance,” he says.


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