Letter to Nobel Laureates


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:

“Delivered Into Enemy Hands: US-Led Abuse and Rendition of Opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya” (2012) “Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees” (2011) “Double Jeopardy: CIA Renditions to Jordan” (2008) “Ghost Prisoner: Two Years in Secret CIA Detention” (2007) “Black Hole: The Fate of Islamists Rendered to Egypt”(2005) “Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard against Torture” (2005) “‘Why Am I Still Here?’ The 2007 Horn of Africa Renditions and the Fate of Those Still Missing” (2008) “Off the Record: US Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the ‘War on Terror’” (2007) “The US ‘Disappeared’: The CIA’s Long-Term ‘Ghost Detainees’” (2004) “US Detainees Disappeared in Secret Prisons: Illegal Under Domestic and International Law” (2005) “List of Ghost Prisoners Possibly in CIA Custody” (2005) 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