After nearly three decades of leading Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth stepped down as its executive director last year. When he announced his decision last April, he said he planned to write a book, and was soon offered a position as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. But as The Nation first reported this month, Roth's fellowship was abruptly revoked by the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, Douglas Elmendorf, who intervened apparently under pressure from the school's donors. The dean reportedly cited both Roth and Human Rights Watch's criticisms of Israel, or what he called their "anti-Israel bias," in explaining the decision to faculty.
In an op-ed in The Guardian detailing the ordeal, Roth asked, "How can an institution that purports to address foreign policy—that even hosts a human rights policy center—avoid criticism of Israel?"
Charges that Human Rights Watch is biased against Israel have been leveled by the Israeli government and right-wing critics of the organization, and of Roth, for years. They intensified after Human Rights Watch published its report in 2021 concluding that Israel's abuses of Palestinians, under a policy of Jewish supremacy in both Israel and the occupied territories, meet the definition of apartheid under international law.
Roth has since become a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. "I worry about younger academics who will take the message that if they criticize Israel, they jeopardize their career," Roth told Democracy in Exile in an interview this week. "That is a terrible lesson for Harvard to be teaching."
Roth spoke at length to Democracy in Exile about his time at Human Rights Watch and new challenges confronting human rights organizations, including the state of the United Nations. He talked about the fate of American democracy, and why he considers China to be "the greatest threat to the global human rights movement today."
Roth also discussed the ongoing protests in Iran, and how the Obama administration should have more openly supported the protests in Iran in 2009. "The sentiment of the street can feel emboldened or abandoned by the international community," he said of Iran. "I do think that in the Obama era, where the sense was, 'Oh, we shouldn't speak out in favor of the protesters because the Iranian government will instrumentalize that and suggest that they're just Western pawns'—I think that was a mistake in retrospect. Biden and Western governments are not repeating it now."
The following transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
"Being denied this fellowship will not seriously impede my future. But I worry about younger academics who will take the message that if they criticize Israel, they jeopardize their career. That is a terrible lesson for Harvard to be teaching."
- Kenneth Roth
What does the Harvard Kennedy School rescinding your fellowship reveal about donor-driven censorship? Harvard is one institution, but how does kind of censorship extend beyond Harvard?
Donor-driven censorship is always an issue. Whether it succeeds depends on the leadership of an institution. If someone wanted Human Rights Watch to pull their punches on a particular country, I would simply not accept them as a donor. That's the price of upholding principle—in Human Rights Watch's case, the equal application of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The Harvard Kennedy School dean should have done the same thing to uphold academic freedom. He should have made clear that no donor has the right to compromise academic freedom or to impede free intellectual inquiry and speech. Certainly, an institution as rich as Harvard—the wealthiest university in the world—can afford to take this stand on principle.
Instead, the latest article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the dean, Douglas Elmendorf, solicited the views of certain pro-Israel donors to the Kennedy School and capitulated to their desire not to give me a human rights fellowship because of my criticism of Israel. That willingness to compromise academic freedom tarnishes Harvard's reputation. I hope the Harvard president will correct it.
The issue goes far beyond my personal situation. Being denied this fellowship will not seriously impede my future. But I worry about younger academics who will take the message that if they criticize Israel, they jeopardize their career. That is a terrible lesson for Harvard to be teaching.
Looking more broadly at Human Rights Watch, why are human rights organizations like HRW more focused on the symptoms of the problems than on the problems itself, focusing on arrests and rights violations, but not on why governments cause these abuses in the first place?
Why do governments crack down on protests, or try to stifle civil society, or censor the media? It's almost always to stay in power. The motives tend to be pretty transparent. Governments that cling to power by virtue of repression are trying to prevent popular input into who governs the people. And so, I don't know that we need profound psychoanalysis to figure out why governments do this. I think the aim is more to change the cost-benefit analysis that governments engage in. In other words, governments find it profitable to repress because they see it as a useful strategy to cling to power.
The aim of the human rights movement is to raise the cost of that repression, and to try to make it sufficiently painful that governments no longer find it as profitable to crack down, and therefore the people of the country have a greater say in how they're governed.
Has this strategy been successful in preventing governments from committing human rights violations with all the mechanisms that have been developed internationally?
The tool that the human rights movement uses is premised on shaming. It's premised on spotlighting the discrepancy between governments' claims to respect human rights and the often ugly reality. And that discrepancy is embarrassing, it's shameful, it's delegitimizing, and so governments go to great lengths to avoid it. We also supplement that shaming with various forms of diplomatic and economic pressure. We'll try to get military aid cut off or special subsidies for a government limited, or we'll try to get intergovernmental bodies, or groups of governments, to condemn repression. All of that has the effect of raising the cost of abuse. Plus, in extreme cases, prosecuting people. Those are the tools.
Yes, people put forward alternatives and the common wisdom these days is, "Naming and shaming doesn't work anymore," which is just not true. Look at how the Chinese government is responding so vociferously to efforts to spotlight and shame Beijing for its conduct in Xinjiang. Governments really care about the shaming. The people who say naming and shaming doesn't work anymore usually imagine some halcyon days of the past where governments are supposed to just jump when a human rights group was able to get an article out about their misconduct. But it was never like that. In other words, it's always been a long-term struggle.
Now, when you ask people, "What's the alternative?", there really are two alternatives to come forward. One is technical assistance, which is what abusive governments love. The idea is, a government wants to respect human rights. It doesn't really know how to, so you're going to provide training and technical support. Theoretically those cases exist, but that's usually not what's going on. It's not like governments don't know how to respect human rights; they don't want to respect human rights because they're clinging to power.
And so, I think technical assistance tends to be a dodge from reality. It's what the abusive governments would love to have as a substitute for the shaming and the pressure. Now, the other strategy people put forward is trade. Just trade with the government, build the economy, build the middle class, and ultimately the middle class will insist on its rights. And I think that that strategy has been utterly discredited, foremost by China—where, yes, the economy has grown, yes, there's a larger middle class, but the government's capacity to conduct surveillance and to censor and repress is just vastly greater today because of the expanded economy.
We are further away from a rights-respecting government, not closer. I don't think anybody believes anymore that trade is a route to greater respect for human rights, absent the kind of pressure that I'm describing. So, when people say naming and shaming doesn't work anymore, I think they're just not looking at the reality, but second, what's their alternative? Should we go home and give up? Or should we use these other strategies that are pretty much clearly not going to work?
What is the main challenge of human rights organizations in dealing with abusive governments, particularly the ones that are isolated from the rest of the world and are barely responsive to efforts organized by rights organizations and U.N. mechanisms?
Well, there are relatively few that are beyond shaming. I think you'd probably say Assad's government in Syria is beyond shaming; it has broken every single taboo. Maybe Kim Jong-un in North Korea, maybe Putin today in Ukraine, although not Putin until Ukraine. There are a handful of governments where shaming alone isn't going to work and you need to use other forms of pressure. In the case of Putin, it's economic pressure, it's the sanctions, it's the threat of prosecution. Those tools theoretically exist in other places too.
There are obstacles. Obviously if you're going to threaten with prosecution, you've got to get jurisdiction, so that's going to be the International Criminal Court. Either the government in question has to have ratified the court's treaty [the Rome Statute], or the Security Council has to be willing to refer the situation, and that can be difficult. Which is why we're now increasingly looking to the use of universal jurisdiction by governments that have the laws that permit the prosecution of war crimes or other atrocities, even beyond their borders. So that's another possible tool. But I think that even if a government is beyond shaming, it's never beyond pressure. It's more a matter of figuring out what they care about and how we can use that as leverage to force them to behave better.
You have mentioned Syria, North Korea and Russia. Do you think the Iranian government is in that club too?
No, I don't, because the clerics need to maintain a facade of answering to the needs of the Iranian people. If they were to simply say, "We ignore human rights, we don't care about that," it would be another nail in their coffin. So they have to pretend that they're concerned, and I think we're seeing that today in the response to the protests where, yes, they're trying to brutally suppress the protests, but they are not being quite as brutal as they have been in the past for fear that that will just spark more protests. I think that the Iranian government is in a difficult position right now because it has lost virtually any remaining legitimacy. A large segment of the public feels that they don't want this regressive, clerical rule. I think the government recognizes that it needs to find some middle ground. It has to make some concessions, but it's afraid of looking weak. I think it's actually super attentive to the way the Iranian people look at it. It's not clear how this is going to come out, but the government is very concerned about its public image.
The Iranian government has executed at least four people involved in the protests and sentenced more to death. It still have not stopped its violence against protesters despite all the pressure that the European Union, Canada and other countries have put on the regime, both with economic sanctions and human rights sanctions on Iranian officials. At least in the past few months, Iran has been pushing itself toward that club of countries that at least pretend not to care about international pressure.
First of all, the bulk of the sanctions against Iran are not on human rights grounds, they're about its nuclear program. That's really a different issue. My sense is that the clerics are trying to calibrate their response. They're afraid that if they respond too viciously, that it'll backfire. Obviously they're much more concerned, as is every government, with the perceptions of their own population as opposed to international perceptions. But, they clearly don't want to be seen as too vicious for fear of just providing yet another spark for the protests.
What is the main challenge of rights organizations in dealing with these governments?
Well, take China as an example. China is, I think, the greatest threat to the global human rights movement today in that the Chinese government cannot point to a free and fair election as the basis for its legitimacy. It's just a dictatorship, and so it cares about how the international community receives it. Because, if Xi Jinping can show that he is received as a legitimate, respected leader, that gives him a greater sense of legitimacy at home—despite the lack of elections, despite the lack of public debate, despite the lack of an independent media—which is why, I think, the Chinese government is so sensitive to criticism.
If you look back, the classic example was when the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters. It set off World War III in China toward the National Basketball Association. The Chinese government was extraordinarily sensitivity to what otherwise would've been an unnoticed criticism. China has responded to that by trying to rewrite human rights standards. This is not the traditional view that, "Oh, China's going to focus on economic and social rights, and Western countries focus on civil and political rights." China wants nothing to do with any of that. Obviously they don't want to be assessed by civil and political rights standards, because they violate those every day. But they also don't want to be assessed by economic and social rights standards, which require allocating available resources to meet the most basic needs of the worst-off segments of society.
The last thing the Chinese government wants you to do is ask, "How are the Uyghurs doing? How are the Tibetans doing? How are rural Han Chinese doing?" The Chinese government is trying to say, "Human rights is really just about economic growth. It's about an increase in GDP. And we're doing that, so just leave us alone. That's meeting the human rights obligations of the government." And so that's a radical challenge to the human rights movement, because it's basically ripping up human rights law and subsidizing economic growth. I think that's a challenge that is obviously attractive to autocrats around the world, because they also don't want to be assessed by human rights standards.
It's important for the human rights movement to show how such unaccountable governments, despite what may be economic growth, are not serving the needs of the people. They foremost are serving their own quest to stay in power. And I think we need to do that by showing how not just embattled minorities, but even ordinary people, suffer from the consequences of arbitrary, unchecked rule.
"If you're going to continue with this one-state reality, but have a completely bifurcated, oppressive system for Palestinians, that's apartheid and you've got to call it that."
- Kenneth Roth
You have mentioned in previous interviews that we are witnessing a global fight between democracies and autocracies. By most measures, democratic values are eroding in many democracies, and autocracies are rising. What is the role of human rights organizations at this crucial juncture, and how might this fight impact the fate of such organizations?
I think it's a twofold challenge. On the one hand, we need to show how autocratic governments serve themselves, not their people. Human Rights Watch has been doing quite a bit of that. If you look at Hungary, Viktor Orbán takes these huge European Union subsidies and uses them to build football stadiums to pay off his cronies. While Hungarian hospitals, as we were able to show in an investigation, are absolutely decrepit, where patients have to bring in their own toilet paper. You can find something very similar about Egypt, where army businesses are doing great, Sisi is building this vanity capital out in the middle of the desert, but ordinary Egyptians are suffering. Or you take Erdogan in Turkey, where he's the only person in the world who thinks that you respond to inflation by lowering interest rates, because he feels that's politically profitable, even though it's a disaster for the economy.
You can kind of go around the world, and whether it's Ortega in Nicaragua or Lukashenko in Belarus, these are people who have utterly given up on serving their people. They're just clinging to power.
And I think we need to show that the autocratic form of government is a government that is not one that people would choose if they want a government that serves their needs and their interests. The flip side though—the second challenge—is that we see in many Western democracies, people who are giving up on democracy. Now, it's not like they want to become Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán, but they are pushing an anti-rights agenda as a way of securing power. You see far-right politicians who are demonizing LGBT people or attacking asylum-seekers' rights to have their claims heard, or attacking women's rights to reproductive freedom.
What these have in common is an emphasis on so-called traditional values—sometimes nationalism, but sacrificing rights in the name of some conservative program that will enable these politicians to gain power. And there are, sadly, people who are attracted to that anti-rights agenda, and I think we need to ask, well, Why is that? There are clearly people who feel that they are left behind by the current system. They feel that the elites are ignoring them or are condescending toward them. They feel that they don't have a say in how they're governed. And they feel that their life prospects are fairly bleak. In these circumstances, they're willing to go with more radical solutions and give up on core democratic processes.
The challenge is to make Western democracies work, make them deliver for a much larger segment of the population than is currently the case. If you have upwards of half the population feeling they're not being served by democracy, that weakens the foundation of democracy. It jeopardizes a democratic future. I think that finding ways to have democracies function better for everybody in their society, and parallel with that to build a broader sense of community, so that politicians cannot scapegoat beleaguered minorities as a route to power—these are big challenges for the human rights movement if we are to redeem the democratic project.
Are you optimistic about the fate of American democracy?
I mean, I am, in the sense that I do think that there's a deep faith in democracy in the United States. It has proven quite resilient. Take the most recent midterm elections, where, wherever the "election deniers" were a serious issue in the ballot box, they lost—all the swing states. I do feel that there is limited appeal to this far right agenda. But that said, it can be a significant appeal. It can be 30 percent of the people and a majority of the Republican Party. So I think it is a major threat and something that we need to take seriously and address.
There is a direct connection between how international human rights organizations conduct their research and advocacy work and the United Nations' human rights bodies and mechanisms. How does the U.N. play a meaningful role in resolving global problems? How does the weakening of the U.N. have an impact on the work of human rights organizations? Because many of the mechanisms that human rights organizations rely on are dependent on the U.N., like the Human Rights Council and other bodies.
Well, let me challenge your premise. I don't accept that the U.N. is weakened. The U.N. is a complex institution, and I think when we talk about it, it's useful to separate the U.N. as an operational entity, where Antonio Guterres is the chief officer and secretary general, and the U.N. as a conference room, where governments of the world convene. And you really have to separate the two. The U.N. as an operational body is very dependent on the individuals who occupy the senior positions. Sadly, Antonio Guterres has been reluctant to criticize particular human rights abusers other than when they're already a pariah. He's been strong on attacking Russia for war crimes in Ukraine. He's been willing to take on the Myanmar junta. But he has never criticized China for what they're doing in Xinjiang.
Now he has appointed a new human rights high commissioner who also, after more than two months in office, has yet to condemn Beijing's crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Here is one of the worst human rights abuses in the world, and by perhaps the greatest global threat to the human rights movement, and Volker Türk can't find his voice. So this is not a weak institution, this is a weak individual. While he has at least been willing to criticize other governments—he's found his voice there—he is completely failing the largest challenge before him, which is the Chinese government. It's still early in his tenure; he can rediscover his backbone, but it hasn't happened yet.
With the U.N. as a conference room, the Security Council is dysfunctional now because of the veto, and so nothing serious is happening at the Security Council. The General Assembly has been able to step in on some instances. It's a difficult body to work—193 members, it's unwieldy. But, for example, it did step in to create this IIIM (International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism), a special prosecutor for Syria after Russia and China vetoed the referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court. The General Assembly has suspended Russia's membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council. It has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and condemned the annexation of its four eastern provinces. The General Assembly sometimes works, but it's hard to mobilize it regularly because it's just so big.
But that brings us to the Human Rights Council. We get a lot done. If you look at Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nicaragua—I could go on—there are many, many of the world's most dire situations where the Human Rights Council investigates, condemns and deploys the tools that it can. It doesn't mean we always win. I think one of the real disappointments is, well, two, that I'll highlight. One was that after four years of scrutiny of the Saudi-led coalition's war crimes in Yemen, the Saudis were able to use a combination of threats and bribes a year ago to dissolve the so-called Group of Eminent Experts on the Human Rights Council. The civilian casualties in Yemen immediately doubled. So the meaningfulness of U.N. scrutiny was readily apparent, but it hasn't been revived. Now, for the moment, there's a cease-fire of sorts in Yemen, but that lack of scrutiny is dangerous.
The other failure so far is that the Human Rights Council also has not condemned the Chinese government for Xinjiang or anything else. We came very close to formally starting a debate, and lost by two votes, but the trends are against China. We've been gradually building up the number of governments willing to sign on to a joint statement condemning the atrocities in Xinjiang. We most recently came to 50. If you look, China is vulnerable to condemnation by the Human Rights Council, and it is desperate to avoid that. That would be such a blow to its legitimacy that it is really bringing out every tool it can think of to counter it.
How has Russia's aggression and war against Ukraine impacted the global fight for human rights, particularly the impact it might have in encouraging rights violations around the world?
Well, we do have to recognize that Putin has essentially ripped up the Geneva Conventions. He's fighting this war with utter disregard for international humanitarian law, much as he did in Chechnya and Syria. So this is the way Putin fights. The good news this time, if you want to find a silver lining in this tragedy, is that there was no International Criminal Court jurisdiction over Chechnya or Syria, but there is over Ukraine. So Putin is very likely to be charged for overseeing these war crimes and directing them—and I think that what could be read as a precedent for disregard is actually going to become a precedent for enforcement. I don't think others are going to be eager to find themselves facing the same kind of indictment in The Hague as Putin is.
In any event, the world has responded very forcefully: It's imposed massive sanctions, it's armed the Ukrainians. Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Council set up a Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, a Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia—I mean, there has been a lot of action. Yes, there's been a serious, serious bunch of crimes, but the world has responded to say, "These are crimes and we're going to get you for them." I think that this has the possibility of reinforcing humanitarian law standards rather than undermining them, if we continue in this direction.
Going back to Iran, hundreds of people have been killed on the streets by the Iranian government since mid-September, after the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, and those numbers are growing daily. The Iranian government doesn't seem to care about human rights sanctions or statements issued by rights organizations, or even the U.N. How can the human rights community and people of Iran hold those involved in human rights violations accountable?
Again, let me challenge one of your premises that the Iranian government doesn't care about statements by U.N. bodies and the like. I don't think that's true in the sense that they may not care about the condemnation if it's just sitting in isolation, but they very much care about the sentiments on the street. They want the protests to stop, and if the effect of international statements of condemnation of the brutality is to embolden the protesters, which I think it is, then the Iranian government cares very much about what the world says. We have to keep that in mind. When we talk about the cost-benefit analysis of repression, with condemnation, you get a reputational hit. What that means concretely is that you lose the esteem of your people, and the theocracy in Iran is desperately trying to recapture some remnant of esteem in the eyes of the Iranian people.
I think it is very sensitive to the sentiment on the street, and the sentiment of the street can feel emboldened or abandoned by the international community. I do think that in the Obama era, where the sense was, "Oh, we shouldn't speak out in favor of the protesters because the Iranian government will instrumentalize that and suggest that they're just Western pawns"—I think that was a mistake in retrospect. Biden and Western governments are not repeating it now. I think they understand that the Iranian government will always try to pretend that the protesters are external pawns, but that's just not credible. These are the Iranian people who are rising up en masse, and they want international support, and we should provide it to them. Even if it's just rhetorical support, it may not be more than that, but that's still important.
What are the practical ways to send a strong signal to rights violators in Iran that they will be held accountable? What are the tools available to the international community?
The International Criminal Court obviously doesn't have jurisdiction in Iran, and I don't think it's likely to get it because it would require Security Council action, which Russia or China would veto. There is still the tool of universal jurisdiction, and I think we need to be looking for that more often. What that means for those unfamiliar with it is that under international law, certain mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and the like can be prosecuted in any competent court. So if any government says, "We're going to allow our courts to pursue these severe human rights crimes," it's entitled to do that under the concept of universal jurisdiction. There are a handful of European governments that are now using this tool. Most significantly, the German government prosecuted a former Syrian military intelligence officer for overseeing a large-scale torture and execution center.
One thing we can do with the Iranian leaders who are responsible for these atrocities is to put them on notice that they will be pursued under universal jurisdiction. They may say, "Oh, I don't have to worry. We're going to sit here safely in Tehran, and the government will protect me." But the government may or may not be in power for the long term. Slobodan Milošević thought he was going to be protected forever, and suddenly, there was a new government in Serbia that needed to show it was reformist and so it handed Milošević over to The Hague. The same happened with Charles Taylor of Liberia and Hissène Habré of Chad. Omar al-Bashir of Sudan is facing the same thing: He's in custody now, and the Sudanese military is cooperating with the ICC. So you just never know. It's very hard to guarantee impunity for life, and while the prospect of immediate arrest is remote, the prospect of long-term arrest is a very different story. That is one way we can try to demonstrate at least the possibility of accountability down the road.
What are the limitations of accountability mechanisms within the universal jurisdiction framework? The U.N. Human Rights Council recently established a fact-finding mission for Iran. Could this fact-finding mission help make Iranian officials involved in these atrocities accountable?
Broadly speaking, there are two goals. One is to investigate and condemn, and we've discussed that already. That is a way of emboldening the protesters. The other is to collect, preserve and analyze evidence for future prosecution. Again, to use the Syrian analogy, that's what the IIIM does. It's a repository of evidence and analysis, so that if some prosecutor—in that case, the Koblenz prosecutor was just a local prosecutor—what did he know about Syria? It didn't matter because the IIIM had all of this evidence available and could work with the Koblenz prosecutor to bring the case to trial. A fact-finding mission set up by the U.N. Human Rights Council can play a similar role of preserving evidence and making cases in anticipation for a possible prosecution down the road.
What would you say to the Iranian leaders going after and killing protesters, one by one? What would be your warning, from a human rights organization or the international community, to stop them, or make them aware of the consequences?
I obviously can't personally stop them, but I think we want to send a message that these are blatant violations of the right to life. They are clearly crimes, and they're crimes of such sufficient seriousness that they could be prosecuted by the international community. If I were the German of the French government, I would say, "We will prosecute these. We'll do everything in our power to collect the evidence and to issue indictments," and then try to arrest the people who are responsible for this. I would also say, "We know we may not arrest them tomorrow, but we will ensure that we have a long memory. And if there comes a time when the government changes, which most governments do, we will go after these people." So Iran's leaders should not think that they can commit these murders with impunity.
Israel has been waging a campaign against human rights groups for years, but it has stepped up its attacks, particularly against Palestinian human rights groups, in the past year or so, criminalizing some of the most prominent ones. From your perspective, what is that indicative of, and what dangers lie ahead for those working to advance human rights in Israel-Palestine?
Well, it's not a coincidence that as a consensus has emerged in the international human rights community and among others that the Israeli government is practicing the crime of apartheid, that it tries to silence the messenger. The Israeli government can't very well crack down on international groups—but it has expelled Human Rights Watch's researcher—but it is trying to silence Palestinian groups as one repository of the evidence that the world has used to show the apartheid that the government is committing.
Silencing the messenger is a sign of weakness. If the Israeli government were more confident in the lawfulness of its conduct, it would say, "Go investigate us. We have nothing to hide." Instead it says, "We have everything to hide. We're just going to shut down the groups that are looking at us." That's not that different from their other strategy, which is just to name-call. If somebody puts out a critical report, they say, "Oh, they must be biased, they must be antisemitic." They just come up with one slur after another, hoping to change the subject from what the report actually says. These are not signs of a confident government. These are signs of a government that is committing serious acts of repression and is trying to cover them up.
I also wanted to ask you about the difference between international NGOs advocating against abuses by Western-aligned governments in the Middle East and North Africa, as opposed to non-Western aligned ones. Are there different tactical, ethical or strategic considerations—for example, Syria versus Egypt—in terms of an advocacy approach?
When you have a Western ally, there's all the more responsibility for Western governments to address it. A country like Egypt, where the U.S. government traditionally sends $1.3 billion in military assistance every year, underwriting by far the worst period of repression in modern Egypt's history—there's a special responsibility either to stop the military aid or to ensure that if the military aid continues, the repression stops. But in the current situation, there's a token rejiggering: $130 million out of that $1.3 billion is withheld, but the rest just goes forward. In the meantime, Sisi has 60,000 political prisoners, pervasive torture, utterly shut-down independent media and independent civil society. The West is underwriting this. There is a real, special responsibility, one of avoiding complicity, that Western governments act firmly in the case of serious abuses by their allies.
The human rights community has played an instrumental role in advancing the apartheid analysis regarding Palestine. Aside from convincing more people that it is the correct framework for viewing the situation, what role can the human rights community play in using that analysis to create a future without apartheid?
I think that the characterization was very important, one because that's what it is, but second because it was a response to people who said, "Oh yeah, the Palestinians are mistreated today, but don't worry about it. We have the peace process. When the peace process has ended, all these abuses will go away." The apartheid analysis was in a sense a response to the endlessness of the so-called peace process—that after decades and decades of the so-called peace process going nowhere, it's time to recognize that we have a one-state reality. I'm not being prescriptive about that; I'm just being descriptive. It could ultimately be two states, you could get one state, you could get a confederation, whatever. I actually don't take a position on that, but wherever it might ultimately end up, we are stuck for the long term with systematic oppression of millions of Palestinians. That's apartheid. That's what it is. The answer to it is equal rights. But if you're going to continue with this one-state reality, but have a completely bifurcated, oppressive system for Palestinians, that's apartheid and you've got to call it that. And I think that that characterization, as it gains hold, will in and of itself pressure Israel to stop pretending that the peace process is an answer to its current oppression.