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January 18, 2023

HKS, Kenneth Roth, and the Message to Human Rights Defenders

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

Kenneth Roth speaking on panel at the Munich Security Conference Cyber Security Ministerial Working Breakfast on the IGF 2019. Credit: Kuhlmann, MSC
Kenneth Roth speaking on panel at the Munich Security Conference Cyber Security Ministerial Working Breakfast on the IGF 2019. Credit: Kuhlmann, MSC

It was shocking to learn that the Kennedy School had vetoed the appointment of Kenneth Roth, a towering figure in human rights advocacy, as a fellow at the Carr Center.  Roth led Human Rights Watch for three decades before stepping down in 2022.  More shocking was the reported reason — retaliation for criticism of Israel by Roth and his NGO.  Human Rights Watch is widely known and greatly admired for the quality of its research and its candid attention to the failings of all states.  No government should be immune from such inquiry.  Dismissing substantive and carefully analyzed critique as bigotry is a tactic of authoritarian regimes, unworthy of a major university. In this time of populist threats to human rights, Harvard should be supporting and welcoming human rights defenders, and letting their ideas be explained and rationally debated, not ostracizing them. In a world where human rights defenders and scholars all too often face reprisal for their work, including through the restriction of future prospects and opportunities, the action of the Kennedy School sends the wrong message to everyone in the human rights field, and to authoritarian actors at home and around the world. 

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Addendum on January 27, 2023: Following sustained protestations against the vetoing of Kenneth Roth’s fellowship, Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf reversed his initial decision and the fellowship offer was extended to Roth on January 19. Roth accepted the offer and will be a Senior Fellow with the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School.  


Gerald L. Neuman is Director of the Human Rights Program, as well as the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School. He teaches courses in international human rights law, immigration and nationality law, and U.S. constitutional law. From 2011 to 2014, he served as a Member of the UN Human Rights Committee.

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