The Corruption of Human Rights Watch

Over the years, U.S. “public diplomacy” has pulled reputable NGOs into the U.S. propaganda orbit, sometimes via funding, sometimes by creating a revolving door to government jobs, as a letter from over 100 scholars suggests happened to Human Rights Watch. Followed by HRW’s response to the criticism.

Dear Kenneth Roth [of Human Rights Watch],

Human Rights Watch characterizes itself as “one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights.” However, HRW’s close ties to the U.S. government call into question its independence.

For example, HRW’s Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, previously served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and as a speechwriter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 2013, he left HRW after being nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor under John Kerry.

Tom Malinowski, longtime director of Human Rights Watch's Washington office, was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on April 3, 2014.

Tom Malinowski, longtime director of Human Rights Watch’s Washington office, was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on April 3, 2014.

In her biography, Board of Directors’ Vice Chair Susan Manilow describes herself as “a longtime friend to Bill Clinton” who is “highly involved” in his political party, and “has hosted dozens of events” for the Democratic National Committee.

Currently, HRW Americas’ advisory committee includes Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, and Michael Shifter, one-time Latin America director for the U.S. government-financed National Endowment for Democracy. Miguel Díaz, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst in the 1990s, sat on HRW Americas’ advisory committee from 200311. Now at the State Department, Díaz serves as “an interlocutor between the intelligence community and non-government experts.”

In his capacity as an HRW advocacy director, Malinowski contended in 2009 that “under limited circumstances” there was “a legitimate place” for CIA renditions,the illegal practice of kidnapping and transferring terrorism suspects around the planet. Malinowski was quoted paraphrasing the U.S. government’s argument that designing an alternative to sending suspects to “foreign dungeons to be tortured” was “going to take some time.”

HRW has not extended similar consideration to Venezuela. In a 2012 letter to President Chávez, HRW criticized the country’s candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, alleging that Venezuela had fallen “far short of acceptable standards” and questioning its “ability to serve as a credible voice on human rights.” At no point has U.S. membership in the same council merited censure from HRW, despite Washington’s secret, global assassination program, its preservation of renditions, and its illegal detention of individuals at Guantánamo Bay.

Likewise, in February 2013, HRW correctly described as “unlawful” Syria’s use of missiles in its civil war. However, HRW remained silent on the clear violation of international law constituted by the U.S. threat of missile strikes on Syria in August.

The few examples above, limited to only recent history, might be forgiven as inconsistencies or oversights that could naturally occur in any large, busy organization. But HRW’s close relationships with the U.S. government suffuse such instances with the appearance of a conflict of interest.

We therefore encourage you to institute immediate, concrete measures to strongly assert HRW’s independence. Closing what seems to be a revolving door would be a reasonable first step: Bar those who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy from serving as HRW staff, advisors or board members. At a bare minimum, mandate lengthy “cooling-off” periods before and after any associate moves between HRW and that arm of the government.

Your largest donor, investor George Soros, argued in 2010 that “to be more effective, I think the organization has to be seen as more international, less an American organization.” We concur. We urge you to implement the aforementioned proposal to ensure a reputation for genuine independence.


  1. .    Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  2. .    Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  3. .    Joel Andreas, Professor of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University
  4. .    Antony Anghie, Professor of Law, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah
  5. .    John M. Archer, Professor of English, New York University
  6. .    Asma Barlas, Professor of Politics, Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College
  7. .    Rosalyn Baxandall, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, State University of New York-Old Westbury
  8. .    Marc Becker, Professor of Latin American History, Truman State University
  9. .    Jason A. Beckett, Professor of Law, American University in Cairo
  10. .    Angélica Bernal, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
  11. .    Keane Bhatt, activist, writer
  12. .    William Blum, author, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II
  13. .    Audrey Bomse, Co-chair, National Lawyers Guild Palestine Subcommittee
  14. .    Patrick Bond, Professor of Development Studies, Director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
  15. .    Michael Brenner, Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh
  16. .    Jean Bricmont, Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Louvain; author, Humanitarian Imperialism
  17. .    Renate Bridenthal, Professor Emerita of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY
  18. .    Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez, Ph.D., author
  19. .    Paul Buhle, Professor Emeritus of American Civilization, Brown University
  20. .    David Camfield, Professor of Labour Studies, University of Manitoba
  21. .    Leonard L. Cavise, Professor of Law, DePaul College of Law
  22. .    Robert Chernomas, Professor of Economics, University of Manitoba
  23. .    Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History, Salem State University
  24. .    George Ciccariello-Maher, Professor of Political Science, Drexel University
  25. .    Jeff Cohen, Associate Professor of Journalism, Ithaca College
  26. .    Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law
  27. .    Lisa Duggan, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
  28. .    Carolyn Eisenberg, Professor of History, Hofstra University
  29. .    Matthew Evangelista, Professor of History and Political Science, Cornell University
  30. .    Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law, Princeton University
  31. .    Sujatha Fernandes, Professor of Sociology, Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center
  32. .    Mara Fridell, Professor of Sociology, University of Manitoba
  33. .    Frances Geteles, Professor Emeritus, Department of Special Programs, CUNY City College
  34. .    Lesley Gill, Professor of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University
  35. .    Piero Gleijeses, Professor of American Foreign Policy and Latin American Studies, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
  36. .    Jeff Goodwin, Professor of Sociology, New York University
  37. .    Katherine Gordy, Professor of Political Science, San Francisco State University
  38. .    Manu Goswami, Professor of History, New York University
  39. .    Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University
  40. .    Simon Granovsky-Larsen, Professor of Latin American Studies, Centennial College, Toronto
  41. .    James N. Green, Professor of Latin American History, Brown University
  42. .    A. Tom Grunfeld, Professor of History, SUNY Empire State College
  43. .    Julie Guard, Professor of Labor Studies, University of Manitoba
  44. .    Peter Hallward, Professor of Philosophy, Kingston University; author, Damming the Flood
  45. .    John L. Hammond, Professor of Sociology, Hunter College, CUNY Graduate Center
  46. .    Beth Harris, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College
  47. .    Martin Hart-Landsberg, Professor Economics, Lewis and Clark College
  48. .    Chris Hedges, journalist; author, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
  49. .    Doug Henwood, journalist; author, Wall Street
  50. .    Edward Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance, University of Pennsylvania; co-author, The Political Economy of Human Rights
  51. .    Susan Heuman, Ph.D., independent scholar of history
  52. .    Forrest Hylton, Lecturer in History & Literature, Harvard University
  53. .    Matthew Frye Jacobson, Professor of American Studies and History, Yale University
  54. .    Jennifer Jolly, Co-coordinator of Latin American Studies, Ithaca College
  55. .    Rebecca E. Karl, Professor of History, New York University
  56. .    J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Professor of Anthropology and American Studies, Wesleyan University
  57. .    Ari Kelman, Professor of History, University of California, Davis
  58. .    Arang Keshavarzian, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University
  59. .    Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle East Politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  60. .    Daniel Kovalik, Professor of International Human Rights, University of Pittsburgh School of Law
  61. .    Rob Kroes, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Amsterdam
  62. .    Peter Kuznick, Professor of History, American University
  63. .    Deborah T. Levenson, Professor of History, Boston College
  64. .    David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University
  65. .    Catherine Lutz, Professor of Anthropology and International Studies, Brown University
  66. .    Arthur MacEwan, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Boston
  67. .    Viviana MacManus, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  68. .    Chase Madar, civil rights attorney; author, The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning
  69. .    Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  70. .    Teresa Meade, Professor of History, Union College
  71. .    Thomas Murphy, Professor of History and Government, University of Maryland, University College Europe
  72. .    Allan Nairn, independent investigative journalist
  73. .    Usha Natarajan, Professor of International Law, American University in Cairo
  74. .    Diane M. Nelson, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University
  75. .    Joseph Nevins, Professor of Geography, Vassar College
  76. .    Mary Nolan, Professor of History, New York University
  77. .    Anthony O’Brien, Professor Emeritus of English, Queens College, CUNY
  78. .    Paul O’Connell, Reader in Law, School of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
  79. .    Christian Parenti, Professor of Sustainable Development, School for International Training Graduate Institute
  80. .    David Peterson, independent writer and researcher
  81. .    Adrienne Pine, Professor of Anthropology, American University
  82. .    Claire Potter, Professor of History, The New School
  83. .    Margaret Power, Professor of History, Illinois Institute of Technology
  84. .    Pablo Pozzi, Professor of History, Universidad de Buenos Aires
  85. .    Gyan Prakash, Professor of History, Princeton University
  86. .    Vijay Prashad, Edward Said Chair of American Studies, American University of Beirut
  87. .    Peter Ranis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, CUNY Graduate Center
  88. .    Michael Ratner, human rights attorney; author, The Prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld
  89. .    Sanjay Reddy, Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research
  90. .    Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
  91. .    Nazih Richani, Director of Latin American Studies, Kean University
  92. .    Moss Roberts, Professor of Chinese, New York University
  93. .    Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center
  94. .    William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara
  95. .    Patricia Rodriguez, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College
  96. .    Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
  97. .    Elizabeth Sanders, Professor of Government, Cornell University
  98. .    Dean Saranillio, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University
  99. .    T.M. Scruggs, Professor Emeritus of Music, University of Iowa
  100. .    Ian J. Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Political Economy, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
  101. .    Denise A. Segura, Professor of Sociology; Chair, Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
  102. .    Mark Selden, Senior Research Associate, East Asia Program, Cornell University
  103. .    Falguni A. Sheth, Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory, Hampshire College
  104. .    Naoko Shibusawa, Professor of History, Brown University
  105. .    Dina M. Siddiqi, Professor of Anthropology, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh
  106. .    Francisco Sierra Caballero, Director of the Center for Communication, Politics and Social Change, University of Seville
  107. .    Brad Simpson, Professor of History, University of Connecticut
  108. .    Nikhil Pal Singh, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History, New York University
  109. .    Leslie Sklair, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, London School of Economics
  110. .    Norman Solomon, author, War Made Easy
  111. .    Judy Somberg, Chair, National Lawyers Guild Task Force on the Americas
  112. .    Jeb Sprague, author, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti
  113. .    Oliver Stone, filmmaker; co-author, The Untold History of the United States
  114. .    Steve Striffler, Professor of Anthropology, Chair of Latin American Studies, University of New Orleans
  115. .    Sinclair Thomson, Professor of History, New York University
  116. .    Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of History and Latin American Studies, Pomona College
  117. .    James S. Uleman, Professor of Psychology, New York University
  118. .    Alejandro Velasco, Professor of History, New York University
  119. .    Robert Vitalis, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
  120. .    Hans Christof von Sponeck, former United Nations Assistant Secretary General (1998-2000)
  121. .    Hilbourne Watson, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Bucknell University
  122. .    Barbara Weinstein, Professor of History, New York University
  123. .    Mark Weisbrot, Ph.D., Co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research
  124. .    Kirsten Weld, Professor of History, Harvard University
  125. .    Gregory Wilpert, Ph.D, author, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power
  126. .    John Womack, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Latin American History and Economics, Harvard University
  127. .    Michael Yates, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
  128. .    Kevin Young, Ph.D., Latin American History, State University of New York-Stony Brook
  129. .    Marilyn B. Young, Professor of History, New York University
  130. .    Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, Professor of History; Co-Director, South Asian Studies, Brown University
  131. .    Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and Coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies, University of San Francisco

Response from Human Rights Watch

Dear Mr. Pérez Esquivel and Ms. Maguire,

We recently received a petition, which included your signatures, expressing concern that Human Rights Watch’s “close ties to the US government call into question its independence.” Human Rights Watch recognizes the importance of maintaining our independence and credibility, and we believe your concern is misplaced.

If you visit our website you will see that 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.

The petition provides three examples of supposed “inconsistencies or oversights,” but in each case the authors have either mischaracterized or misunderstood our position.

First, they cite a 2009 article quoting our former Washington director, Tom Malinowski, saying that “under limited circumstances” there is a legitimate place for renditions. The petition mistakenly claims he was supporting unlawful CIA renditions. A “rendition” is the transfer of a person in custody from one jurisdiction to another, which is legal under certain circumstances and practiced by almost all countries (the extradition of criminal suspects is one common form of rendition). Malinowski was certainly not endorsing the CIA’s illegal rendition program, which entailed transferring individuals without due process protections to countries where they faced torture. That practice was repeatedly denounced by Malinowski and by Human Rights Watch. Indeed, we have called for a criminal investigation into former President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet (among others), for these and other serious human rights abuses.

We have long denounced illegal rendition (sometimes called extraordinary rendition) committed by the US government in the name of fighting terrorism, including in such reports as:

Second, the petition’s authors also wonder why we questioned Venezuela’s candidacy for the United Nations Human Rights Council, but not that of the United States.

A central concern on council membership is whether a government takes the council and its special procedures seriously. Venezuela has not allowed a single UN special rapporteur to visit since 1996. It has ignored eight requests for visits during the past decade by rapporteurs seeking to examine the state of freedom of expression, freedom of association, extrajudicial executions, human rights defenders, and the independence of judges and lawyers. (Only three other countries have such a poor record of non-cooperation: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe.)

In 2013, Venezuela had by far the worst voting record of council member countries. It opposed virtually all resolutions on country-specific situations put to the vote, including motions on Sri Lanka, Belarus and Iran that were supported by Brazil, Argentina and other Latin American countries. Venezuela did support resolutions addressing violations in Palestine and other occupied Arab areas.

The United States has received visits from 15 special rapporteurs since 2005. While we have repeatedly criticized its failure to allow UN rapporteurs to visit Guantanamo Bay and to access other prisoners being held in solitary confinement, we have seen that, on balance, the United States has played a constructive role at the Human Rights Council, along with other countries in the region such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay.

Finally, the petition claims we criticized the Syrian government’s use of missiles against civilians but “remained silent on the clear violation of international law constituted by the US threat of missile strikes on Syria in August.”

This may reflect a misunderstanding of Human Rights Watch’s mandate, which is to monitor governments’ adherence to international human rights and humanitarian law. We criticized Syrian missile strikes that were directed at populated areas, and thus violated the prohibition against indiscriminate attacks on civilians. But not all missile attacks violate the laws of war so we would not criticize as unlawful attacks yet to take place.

Were US missile strikes on Syria to violate international humanitarian law we would speak out, as we have done in cases ranging from Kosovo in the 1990s to Yemen most recently.

Human Rights Watch currently has 399 employees from 67 countries, as well as 34 board members and more than 200 members of advisory committees, among them activists, lawyers, journalists and academics. It is true that some served in the US government before or after their involvement with Human Rights Watch. We also have current and former staff, board, and advisory members who earlier served in the governments of Brazil, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Spain, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, among others, and in multilateral institutions.

We are careful to ensure that prior affiliations do not affect the impartiality of Human Rights Watch’s work. We do not allow active government officials to serve in the above capacities and we do not take funding from any government.

The positions Human Rights Watch takes are guided solely by our intensive on-the-ground fact-finding, legal analysis, and multi-layered review process.

When we criticize governments and others, we are frequently accused of being in the pocket of their enemies. We would ask that you look at our work and judge whether these charges of bias are fair.


Kenneth Roth

Executive Director

Human Rights Watch

5 comments for “The Corruption of Human Rights Watch

  1. May 16, 2014 at 03:13

    Thank you so much for this statement and for spotlighting the absurdity of this NGO. It’s an exemplar.

  2. May 14, 2014 at 08:58

    Is it only people of Jewish extraction who are allowed to be deciders in these organizations ? Small surprise then that they end up basically backing the US governments Likud-like policies.

    • Gregory Kruse
      May 14, 2014 at 11:50

      You have to be a member of Likud to truly understand that they are only trying to bring peace to the world.

  3. Paul G.
    May 14, 2014 at 03:43

    Let us not forget Amnesty International (USA) which for about a year had Susan Nossel as executive director. This was detailed in this site. Nossel was a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and a former Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Human Rights Watch. She also had a high level position at the Wall Street Journal, a well known advocacy mouthpiece for the rights of capital and upper classes.

    She is known for her coining the term “Smart power”-she actually plagarized it- advocating so called humanitarian interventions. As if the US could actually ever pull of an intervention humanely, or could even care.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    May 13, 2014 at 11:12

    I’m glad to see that a few anthropologists signed this memo. For a while there, I was beginning to think that the only career path after an anthropology degree was a job at CIA.

Comments are closed.