Human Rights Watch

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Human Rights Watch
File:Hrw logo.svg
Founded 1978; 45 years ago (1978) (as Helsinki Watch)
Type Non-profit NGO
Focus Human rights, activism
Headquarters Empire State Building
New York City, New York, U.S.
Area served
Product nonprofit human rights advocacy
Key people
Kenneth Roth
(Executive Director)
James F. Hoge, Jr.
Website [archive]
Formerly called
Helsinki Watch

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is an international non-governmental organization, headquartered in New York City, that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.[1] The group pressures some governments, policy makers and human rights abusers to denounce abuse and respect human rights, and the group often works on behalf of refugees, children, migrants and political prisoners.

Human Rights Watch in 1997 shared in the Nobel Peace Prize as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and it played a leading role in the 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions.[2]

The organization's annual expenses totaled $50.6 million in 2011[3] and $69.2 million in 2014,[4] and $75.5 million in 2017.[5]


Human Rights Watch was co-founded by Robert L. Bernstein[6] and Aryeh Neier[7] as a private American NGO in 1978, under the name Helsinki Watch, to monitor the then-Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Accords.[8] Helsinki Watch adopted a practice of publicly "naming and shaming" abusive governments through media coverage and through direct exchanges with policymakers. By shining the international spotlight on human rights violations in the Soviet Union and its European partners, Helsinki Watch says it contributed to the democratic transformations of the region in the late 1980s.[8]

Americas Watch was founded in 1981 while bloody civil wars engulfed Central America. Relying on extensive on-the-ground fact-finding, Americas Watch not only addressed perceived abuses by government forces but also applied international humanitarian law to investigate and expose war crimes by rebel groups. In addition to raising its concerns in the affected countries, Americas Watch also examined the role played by foreign governments, particularly the United States government, in providing military and political support to abusive regimes.

Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989) were added to what was known as "The Watch Committees". In 1988, all of these committees were united under one umbrella to form Human Rights Watch.[9][10]


Pursuant to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Human Rights Watch (HRW) opposes violations of what are considered basic human rights under the UDHR. This includes capital punishment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. HRW advocates freedoms in connection with fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press. HRW seeks to achieve change by publicly pressuring governments and their policy makers to curb human rights abuses, and by convincing more powerful governments to use their influence on governments that violate human rights.[11][1]

Human Rights Watch publishes research reports on violations of international human rights norms as set out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what it perceives to be other internationally accepted, human-rights norms. These reports are used as the basis for drawing international attention to abuses and pressuring governments and international organizations to reform. Researchers conduct fact-finding missions to investigate suspect situations also using diplomacy, staying in touch with victims, making files about public and individuals, and providing required security for them in critical situations and in a proper time generate coverage in local and international media. Issues raised by Human Rights Watch in its reports include social and gender discrimination, torture, military use of children, political corruption, abuses in criminal justice systems, and the legalization of abortion.[8] HRW has documented and reported various violations of the laws of war and international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch also supports writers worldwide, who are being persecuted for their work and are in need of financial assistance. The Hellman/Hammett grants are financed by the estate of the playwright Lillian Hellman in funds set up in her name and that of her long-time companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. In addition to providing financial assistance, the Hellman/Hammett grants help raise international awareness of activists who are being silenced for speaking out in defense of human rights.[12]

Each year, Human Rights Watch presents the Human Rights Defenders Award to activists around the world who demonstrate leadership and courage in defending human rights. The award winners work closely with HRW in investigating and exposing human rights abuses.[13][14]

Human Rights Watch was one of six international NGOs that founded the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 1998. It is also the co-chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a global coalition of civil society groups that successfully lobbied to introduce the Ottawa Treaty, a treaty that prohibits the use of anti-personnel landmines.

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global network of non-governmental organizations that monitor censorship worldwide. It also co-founded the Cluster Munition Coalition, which brought about an international convention banning the weapons. HRW employs more than 275 staff—country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics – and operates in more than 90 countries around the world. Headquartered in New York City, it has offices in Amsterdam, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Geneva, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, Nairobi, Seoul, Paris, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Zürich.[1][15] HRW maintains direct access to the majority of countries it reports on. Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, Iran, Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Venezuela are among the handful of countries that have blocked access for HRW staff members.[16]

The current executive director of HRW is Kenneth Roth, who has held the position since 1993. Roth conducted investigations on abuses in Poland after martial law was declared 1981. He later focused on Haiti, which had just emerged from the Duvalier dictatorship but continued to be plagued with problems. Roth's awareness of the importance of human rights began with stories his father had told about escaping Nazi Germany in 1938. Roth graduated from Yale Law School and Brown University.[17]

Comparison with Amnesty International[edit]

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are the only two Western-oriented international human rights organizations operating in most situations of severe oppression or abuse worldwide.[14] The major differences lie in the group's structure and methods for promoting change.

Amnesty International is a mass-membership organization. Mobilization of those members is the organization's central advocacy tool. Human Rights Watch's main products are its crisis-directed research and lengthy reports, whereas Amnesty International lobbies and writes detailed reports, but also focuses on mass letter-writing campaigns, adopting individuals as "prisoners of conscience" and lobbying for their release. Human Rights Watch will openly lobby for specific actions for other governments to take against human rights offenders, including naming specific individuals for arrest, or for sanctions to be levied against certain countries, recently calling for punitive sanctions against the top leaders in Sudan who have overseen a killing campaign in Darfur. The group has also called for human rights activists who have been detained in Sudan to be released.[18]

Its documentations of human rights abuses often include extensive analysis of the political and historical backgrounds of the conflicts concerned, some of which have been published in academic journals. AI's reports, on the other hand, tend to contain less analysis, and instead focus on specific abuses of rights.[19]

In 2010, The Times of London wrote that HRW has "all but eclipsed" Amnesty International. According to The Times, instead of being supported by a mass membership, as AI is, HRW depends on wealthy donors who like to see the organization's reports make headlines. For this reason, according to The Times, HRW tends to "concentrate too much on places that the media already cares about", especially in disproportionate coverage of Israel.[20]

Financing and services[edit]

For the financial year ending June 2008, HRW reported receiving approximately US$44 million in public donations.[21] In 2009, Human Rights Watch stated that they receive almost 75% of their financial support from North America, 25% from Western Europe and less than 1% from the rest of the world.[22]

According to a 2008 financial assessment, HRW reports that it does not accept any direct or indirect funding from governments and is financed through contributions from private individuals and foundations.[23]

Financier and philanthropist George Soros of the Open Society Foundation announced in 2010 his intention to grant US$100 million to HRW over a period of ten years to help it expand its efforts internationally: "to be more effective," he said, "I think the organization has to be seen as more international, less an American organization." He said, "Human Rights Watch is one of the most effective organizations I support. Human rights underpin our greatest aspirations: they're at the heart of open societies."[24][25][26] The donation increases Human Rights Watch's operating staff of 300 by 120 people. The donation was the largest in the organization's history.[27]

Charity Navigator gave Human Rights Watch a three-star rating overall for 2018. Its financial rating increased from three stars in 2015 to the maximum four as of June 2016.[28] The Better Business Bureau said Human Rights Watch meets its standards for charity accountability.[29]

Human Rights Watch published the following program and support services spending details for the financial year ending June 2011.

Program services 2011 expenses (USD)[3]
Africa $5,859,910
Americas $1,331,448
Asia $4,629,535
Europe and Central Asia $4,123,959
Middle East and North Africa $3,104,643
United States $1,105,571
Children's Rights $1,551,463
Health & Human Rights $1,962,015
International Justice $1,325,749
Woman's Rights $2,083,890
Other programs $11,384,854
Supporting services
Management and general $3,130,051
Fundraising $9,045,910

Human Rights Watch published the following program and support services spending details for the financial year ending June 2008.

Program services 2008 expenses (USD)[21]
Africa $5,532,631
Americas $1,479,265
Asia $3,212,850
Europe and Central Asia $4,001,853
Middle East and North Africa $2,258,459
United States $1,195,673
Children's Rights $1,642,064
International Justice $1,385,121
Woman's Rights $1,854,228
Other programs $9,252,974
Supporting services
Management and general $1,984,626
Fundraising $8,641,358

Notable staff[edit]

File:Kenneth Roth (Human Rights Watch) (6806930135).jpg
Kenneth Roth and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, 2 February 2012

Some notable current and former staff members of Human Rights Watch:[30]


Human Rights Watch publishes reports on many different topics[41] and compiles an annual World Report presenting an overview of the worldwide state of human rights.[42] It has been published by Seven Stories Press since 2006; the current edition, World Report 2020, was released in January 2020, and covers events of 2019.[43][44] World Report 2020, HRW's 30th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, includes reviews of human rights practices and trends in nearly 100 countries, and an introductory essay by HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth "China’s Global Threat to Human Rights". Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on subjects such as the Rwandan genocide of 1994,[45] Democratic Republic of the Congo[46] and US sex offender registries due to their over-breadth and application to juveniles.[47][48]

In the summer of 2004, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in New York became the depository institution for the Human Rights Watch Archive, an active collection that documents decades of human rights investigations around the world. The archive was transferred from its previous location at the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The archive includes administrative files, public relations documents, as well as case and country files. With some exceptions for security considerations, the Columbia University community and the public have access to field notes, taped and transcribed interviews with alleged victims of human rights violations, video and audio tapes, and other materials documenting the organization's activities since its founding in 1978 as Helsinki Watch.[49] However, significant parts of the HRW archive are not open to researchers or to the public, including the records of the meetings of the board of directors, the executive committee, and the various subcommittees, limiting historians' ability to understand the organization's internal decision-making.[50]


HRW has been criticized for perceived bias by the national governments it has investigated for human rights abuses,[51][52][53] by NGO Monitor,[54] and by HRW's founder, and former Chairman, Robert L. Bernstein.[6] Bias allegations have included undue influence by United States government policy, claims that HRW is biased both for or against Israel (and focuses undue attention on the Arab–Israeli conflict). HRW has also been criticized for poor research methodology and lax fact-checking, and ignoring the human-rights abuses of less-open regimes. HRW has routinely publicly addressed, and often denies, criticism of its reporting and findings.[55][56][57][58][59][60]

HRW has also been criticized for being the 'revolving door' of U.S. government.[61][62][63]

In 2020, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth was caught soliciting donations from Saudi real estate magnate Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, under the condition that the $470,000 donation could not be used to support LGBT advocacy in the Middle East and North Africa. The gift was returned and Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that accepting the funding was a “deeply regrettable decision” in response to investigative reporting from The Intercept regarding the donation.[64]

Allegations of anti-India bias[edit]

The reports on the Gujarat riots compiled by Human Rights Watch have been criticized by Arvin Bahl of the "South Asia Analysis Group", as "one-sided" and "biased". He claims that the reports generally "are based on half-truths, distortions and sometimes outright falsehoods". He points out that Human Rights Watch's claims about the Bharatiya Janata Party advocating a Hindu Nation as its core ideology are false. He further says that his analysis of the reports accuse the Gujarat government for planning the riots but do not provide any evidence to back those assertions. He also criticizes Human Rights Watch's labeling of the attacks on Hindus by Muslims during the riots as "retaliatory". In his analysis he states that while he does not deny that Hindu extremists were responsible for the riots, he "objectively analyze[s] the complexity of communal conflict in India and avoid[s] the generalizations associated with Human Rights Watch reports."[65]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]

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