Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth
Kenneth Roth

Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

Lecture Date

Kenneth Roth has served as executive director of Human Rights Watch since 1993. Under his leadership, Human Rights Watch has gone global, growing ten-fold in size and vastly expanding its reach. It now operates in more than 90 countries, among them some of the most dangerous and oppressed places on Earth.

During Roth’s tenure, Human Rights Watch has worked tirelessly to bring justice to victims of the worst abuses, documenting war crimes from Bosnia to Congo and from Iraq to Sierra Leone, testifying at international tribunals, pushing to create the International Criminal Court, and helping to hold to account Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, among others, for crimes against humanity. Hard-nosed advocacy laid the groundwork for international treaties banning landmines, cluster munitions, and child soldiers.

Under Roth's leadership, Human Rights Watch, in addition to broadening its global coverage, has expanded its work on the rights of women, children, refugees, and migrant workers, bringing a human rights perspective to such issues as domestic violence, trafficking, rape as a war crime, and child soldiers. It has helped spotlight previously ignored topics such as the rights of gays and lesbians and, prompted by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the link between health and human rights.

Roth’s awareness of the importance of human rights began with stories that his father told. His father would keep his three young sons quiet as he cut their hair by telling tales of their grandfather’s butcher shop in Frankfurt, Germany. As they grew older, he told them about living under the Nazis as a young boy and fleeing Germany in July 1938. Jimmy Carter’s introduction of human rights as an element of US foreign policy in the late 1970s further inspired Roth to take on human rights as a vocation. 

Roth attended Brown University and Yale Law School. After a brief stint in private practice, Roth served as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan and on the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington.

During the early years of the human rights movement, jobs were in short supply, so Roth settled for doing human rights work nights and weekends as a volunteer. He especially focused on abuses in Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981, visiting the country on his first human rights investigation and writing about his findings.

Roth joined Human Rights Watch in 1987 as deputy director. His initial work centered on Haiti, which was just emerging from the Duvalier dictatorship but continued to be plagued by brutal military rule.  Since then, Roth has traveled the world over, pressing government officials of all stripes to pay greater respect to human rights.

He has written extensively on a range of human rights issues, with more than 200 articles and chapters to his name, devoting special attention to issues of international justice, counterterrorism, the foreign policies of the major powers, and the work of the United Nations.  He also authors the introduction to Human Rights Watch’s annual World Report. Roth is quoted widely in major publications and on television and radio shows, and speaks to audiences around the world.