Soon after Kenneth Roth announced in April that he planned to step down as the head of Human Rights Watch, he was contacted by Sushma Raman, the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Raman asked Roth if he would be interested in joining the center as a senior fellow. It seemed like a natural fit. In Roth’s nearly 30 years as the executive director of HRW, its budget had grown from $7 million to nearly $100 million, and its staff had gone from 60 to 550 people monitoring more than 100 countries. The “godfather” of human rights, The New York Times called him in a long, admiring overview of his career, noting that Roth “has been an unrelenting irritant to authoritarian governments, exposing human rights abuses with documented research reports that have become the group’s specialty.” HRW played a prominent role in establishing the International Criminal Court, and it helped secure the convictions of Charles Taylor of Liberia, Alberto Fujimori of Peru, and (in a tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Roth had been involved with the Carr Center since its founding in 1999. In 2004, he participated in a debate before 300 people with Michael Ignatieff, then its director, over whether the US invasion of Iraq qualified as a humanitarian intervention (Ignatieff said it did; Roth said it didn’t). The debate was moderated by Samantha Power, one of the center’s founders.
In a video conference with Raman and Mathias Risse, the Carr Center’s faculty director, Roth said he was indeed interested in becoming a fellow; he planned to write a book about his experience at HRW and how a relatively small group of people can move governments, and he could draw on the center’s research facilities. On May 7, Raman sent him a formal proposal, and on June 9, Roth agreed in principle to join the center. Raman sent the proposal to the office of Dean Douglas Elmendorf for approval in what was assumed to be a formality. On July 12, Roth had a video conversation with Elmendorf (a former senior economist at the Council of Economic Advisers and a director of the Congressional Budget Office) to introduce himself and answer any questions he might have.
Two weeks later, however, Elmendorf informed the Carr Center that Roth’s fellowship would not be approved.
The center was stunned. “We thought he would be a terrific fellow,” says Kathryn Sikkink, the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School. A leading academic in the field, Sikkink has been affiliated with the Carr Center for nine years, and during that time nothing like this had ever happened. As she noted, the center has hosted other prominent human rights advocates, including William Schulz, the executive director of Amnesty International USA from 1994 to 2006, and Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International from 2010 to 2018.
Sikkink was even more surprised by the dean’s explanation: Israel. Human Rights Watch, she was told, has an “anti-Israel bias”; Roth’s tweets on Israel were of particular concern. Sikkink was taken aback. In her own research, she had used HRW’s reports “all the time,” and while the organization had indeed been critical of Israel, it had also been critical of China, Saudi Arabia—even the United States.
Sikkink included that point in a detailed e-mail she prepared for the dean seeking to rebut the charge of anti-Israel bias. She drew on the Political Terror Scale, a yearly measure of state repression compiled by a team based at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. It ranks countries on a 1-to-5 scale of least to most repressive, based on the incidence of political imprisonment, summary executions, torture, and the like. The team codes each country’s record based on the annual human rights reports of the US State Department, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Every year, Israel and the Occupied Territories scored a 3 or 4, putting it in a class with Angola, Colombia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe—a “very bad record,” Sikkink says. She further compared HRW’s assessment to that of both Amnesty and the State Department and found the three to be “pretty similar.” In short, Sikkink says, the data showed that “Human Rights Watch does not have a bias at all against Israel” and that to conclude otherwise “is misinformation.” She sent her findings to Elmendorf; the dean answered that he had read her e-mail but would not reconsider his decision.