Kenneth Roth said he first learned about human rights abuses from his father, whose Jewish family ran a butchery near Frankfurt in Hitler’s Germany. His father, Mr. Roth recalled, would describe how the Nazis forced the Jews into segregated schools, a precursor for much worse to come.
While Nazi Germany was radically different from Mr. Roth’s own childhood in Deerfield, Ill., he said, “I grew up with this awareness of the evil governments can do.”
Now, after nearly three decades of leading Human Rights Watch from an obscure shoestring network of a few scattered offices into a well-financed organization that reports on rights abuses globally, Mr. Roth, 66, a Yale-educated lawyer and former prosecutor, said he is stepping down in August to write a book.
Word of his impending departure, expected to be officially announced shortly, is likely to reverberate through the world of human rights fund-raising and advocacy, where the group he has led is a powerful force.
“I felt it important to leave when things are going well at H.R.W.,” Mr. Roth said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Roth has been an unrelenting irritant to authoritarian governments, exposing human rights abuses with documented research reports that have become the group’s specialty.
The reports have been a catalyst for media coverage and advocacy involving issues from the Ethiopian conflict that has forced millions to flee their homes, to grave abuses against Yemenis by the antagonists in Yemen’s protracted war, to how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, historically a leading grain exporter, is exacerbating hunger across the Middle East and North Africa.
Joel Simon, former head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an advocacy group that once shared offices with Mr. Roth’s organization, described him as the “godfather” of the human rights movement.
“We have to credit H.R.W. with changing the way journalists and the media as an institution approach the issue of human rights,” Mr. Simon said.
Mr. Roth described the inception of his career as “inauspicious.” After six years of volunteering at Human Rights Watch, Mr. Roth became the deputy director in 1987. He was appointed executive director in 1993. “I’d never raised a cent of funds in my life,” Mr. Roth said of his appointment.
Under Mr. Roth’s leadership, an organization with 20 employees and regional committees in Europe and the Americas expanded into 450 employees with operations in 100 countries.
Just this month, the government of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia shut down the group from operating in the country as part of his broad crackdown on dissent over the Ukraine war.
In 2014, Mr. Roth was denied entry into Egypt because of a report implicating senior officials, including Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in the “widespread and systematic” killings of protesters after the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi.
In 2020, Mr. Roth was turned away at Hong Kong International Airport on arrival from New York. He was there to release his organization’s annual report summarizing human rights abuses. The lead essay — written by Mr. Roth — argued that China, which controls Hong Kong, was undermining international human rights.
Mr. Roth said China’s behavior will remain one of his biggest concerns long after his departure from his group.
“China is trying to assert its model as a superior model to democracy, saying ‘We’ve expanded the economy, we’ve fought off Covid,” he said. “They don’t want you to ask, ‘How did Covid start?’ They don’t want you to ask how the worse off segments of society are faring, because they don’t want you to ask how the Uyghurs, Tibetans or even rural Han Chinese are doing.”
Mr. Roth has also angered the leaders of Western democracies. He was an outspoken critic of the isolationist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim actions by the Trump administration and the rights abuses and surveillance that grew out of the so-called War on Terror after the Sept. 11 attacks.
After four years of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration was not a remedy, Mr. Roth said. But he said that under President Biden, who declared his foreign policy would be guided by human rights principles, U.S. attitudes were improving.
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Also, the United States has rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council, revived membership in the World Health Organization, re-entered the Paris climate accord and restored funding to a number of U.N. agencies.
But, Mr. Roth said, “the Middle East is a lacuna in this declared willingness to be guided by human rights.”
He pointed to the U.S. government’s engagement with Saudi Arabia despite its internal repression and indiscriminate bombings of Yemenis. And he said there had been “no evolution” in U.S. policy on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, particularly in Gaza.
The Israeli government reacted furiously last year to a Human Rights Watch report that argued it pursues a policy of Jewish supremacy over Palestinians, in Israel and the occupied territories. The report said this policy met the legal definition of apartheid.
Mr. Roth has been accused of anti-Semitism for his criticism of Israel.
“In his 30 year reign as head of H.R.W., Ken Roth has obsessively distorted and exploited human rights to demonize Israel,” said Gerald M. Steinberg, a professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel who has written Op-Eds about Mr. Roth in the Jerusalem Post.
Israel also played a role in internal frictions at Mr. Roth’s group. Its founder, Robert L. Bernstein, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in 2009 distancing himself from the organization because of what he called its portrayal of Israel as a “pariah state.”
Mr. Roth has rejected such criticisms. Implicit in their arguments, Mr. Roth said, was the flawed assumption that democracies are immune to committing human rights violations. He pointed to former President George W. Bush, whose administration established the Guantánamo detention facility for Sept. 11 attack suspects, and condoned waterboarding as an interrogation technique.
“The idea that human rights groups should ignore Guantánamo and the torture just because it was committed by a democracy was preposterous,” Mr. Roth said.
Mr. Roth’s wife, Dr. Annie Sparrow, an Australian pediatrician and fellow human-rights advocate, recalled the first time she watched him debateMichael Ignatieff, a former Harvard professor and Canadian lawmaker who had supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Mr. Roth, she said, “annihilated” his opponent.
“I was impressed enough to think if I ever did want to get married, I could marry that man,” she said. The couple married in 2011.
It remains unclear who will succeed Mr. Roth.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who could mount an ironclad argument and beat up on dictators with the clarity, confidence and the capacity that Ken has,” Dr. Sparrow said. “Who is going to beat up on the dictators now?”