Nobel Peace Laureates to Human Rights Watch: Close Your Revolving Door to U.S. Government

The leading human rights organization's close ties to the U.S. government call its independence into question.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Update: Read Nobel Peace Laureates' July 8 response to HRW's rebuttal to this letter.

The following letter was sent today to Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth on behalf of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire; former UN Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck; current UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Richard Falk; and over 100 scholars.

Dear Kenneth Roth,

Human Rights Watch characterizes itself as “one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights.” However, HRW's close ties to the U.S. government call into question its independence.

For example, HRW's Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, previously served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and as a speechwriter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 2013, he left HRW after being nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor under John Kerry.

In her biography, Board of Directors' Vice Chair Susan Manilow describes herself as "a longtime friend to Bill Clinton" who is "highly involved" in his political party, and "has hosted dozens of events" for the Democratic National Committee.

Currently, HRW Americas' advisory committee includes Myles Frechette, a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, and Michael Shifter, one-time Latin America director for the U.S. government-financed National Endowment for Democracy. Miguel Díaz, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst in the 1990s, sat on HRW Americas' advisory committee from 2003-11. Now at the State Department, Díaz serves as "an interlocutor between the intelligence community and non-government experts."

In his capacity as an HRW advocacy director, Malinowski contended in 2009 that "under limited circumstances" there was "a legitimate place" for CIA renditions—the illegal practice of kidnapping and transferring terrorism suspects around the planet. Malinowski was quoted paraphrasing the U.S. government's argument that designing an alternative to sending suspects to "foreign dungeons to be tortured" was "going to take some time."

HRW has not extended similar consideration to Venezuela. In a 2012 letter to President Chávez, HRW criticized the country's candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, alleging that Venezuela had fallen "far short of acceptable standards" and questioning its "ability to serve as a credible voice on human rights." At no point has U.S. membership in the same council merited censure from HRW, despite Washington's secret, global assassination program, its preservation of renditions, and its illegal detention of individuals at Guantánamo Bay.

Likewise, in February 2013, HRW correctly described as "unlawful" Syria's use of missiles in its civil war. However, HRW remained silent on the clear violation of international law constituted by the U.S. threat of missile strikes on Syria in August.

The few examples above, limited to only recent history, might be forgiven as inconsistencies or oversights that could naturally occur in any large, busy organization. But HRW’s close relationships with the U.S. government suffuse such instances with the appearance of a conflict of interest.

We therefore encourage you to institute immediate, concrete measures to strongly assert HRW's independence. Closing what seems to be a revolving door would be a reasonable first step: Bar those who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy from serving as HRW staff, advisors or board members. At a bare minimum, mandate lengthy “cooling-off” periods before and after any associate moves between HRW and that arm of the government.

Your largest donor, investor George Soros, argued in 2010 that "to be more effective, I think the organization has to be seen as more international, less an American organization.” We concur. We urge you to implement the aforementioned proposal to ensure a reputation for genuine independence.


  1. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate

  2. Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Prize laureate

  3. Joel Andreas, Professor of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University

  4. Antony Anghie, Professor of Law, S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah

  5. John M. Archer, Professor of English, New York University

  6. Asma Barlas, Professor of Politics, Director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College

  7. Rosalyn Baxandall, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, State University of New York-Old Westbury

  8. Marc Becker, Professor of Latin American History, Truman State University

  9. Jason A. Beckett, Professor of Law, American University in Cairo

  10. Angélica Bernal, Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

  11. Keane Bhatt, activist, writer

  12. William Blum, author, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II

  13. Audrey Bomse, Co-chair, National Lawyers Guild Palestine Subcommittee

  14. Patrick Bond, Professor of Development Studies, Director of the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

  15. Michael Brenner, Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

  16. Jean Bricmont, Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Louvain; author, Humanitarian Imperialism

  17. Renate Bridenthal, Professor Emerita of History, Brooklyn College, CUNY

  18. Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez, Ph.D., author

  19. Paul Buhle, Professor Emeritus of American Civilization, Brown University

  20. David Camfield, Professor of Labour Studies, University of Manitoba

  21. Leonard L. Cavise, Professor of Law, DePaul College of Law

  22. Robert Chernomas, Professor of Economics, University of Manitoba

  23. Aviva Chomsky, Professor of History, Salem State University

  24. George Ciccariello-Maher, Professor of Political Science, Drexel University

  25. Jeff Cohen, Associate Professor of Journalism, Ithaca College

  26. Marjorie Cohn, Professor of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

  27. Lisa Duggan, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

  28. Carolyn Eisenberg, Professor of History, Hofstra University

  29. Matthew Evangelista, Professor of History and Political Science, Cornell University

  30. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law, Princeton University

  31. Sujatha Fernandes, Professor of Sociology, Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center

  32. Mara Fridell, Professor of Sociology, University of Manitoba

  33. Frances Geteles, Professor Emeritus, Department of Special Programs, CUNY City College

  34. Lesley Gill, Professor of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University

  35. Piero Gleijeses, Professor of American Foreign Policy and Latin American Studies, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

  36. Jeff Goodwin, Professor of Sociology, New York University

  37. Katherine Gordy, Professor of Political Science, San Francisco State University

  38. Manu Goswami, Professor of History, New York University

  39. Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University

  40. Simon Granovsky-Larsen, Professor of Latin American Studies, Centennial College, Toronto

  41. James N. Green, Professor of Latin American History, Brown University

  42. A. Tom Grunfeld, Professor of History, SUNY Empire State College

  43. Julie Guard, Professor of Labor Studies, University of Manitoba

  44. Peter Hallward, Professor of Philosophy, Kingston University; author, Damming the Flood

  45. John L. Hammond, Professor of Sociology, Hunter College, CUNY Graduate Center

  46. Beth Harris, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College

  47. Martin Hart-Landsberg, Professor Economics, Lewis and Clark College

  48. Chris Hedges, journalist; author, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

  49. Doug Henwood, journalist; author, Wall Street

  50. Edward Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance, University of Pennsylvania; co-author, The Political Economy of Human Rights

  51. Susan Heuman, Ph.D., independent scholar of history

  52. Forrest Hylton, Lecturer in History & Literature, Harvard University

  53. Matthew Frye Jacobson, Professor of American Studies and History, Yale University

  54. Jennifer Jolly, Co-coordinator of Latin American Studies, Ithaca College

  55. Rebecca E. Karl, Professor of History, New York University

  56. J. Kehaulani Kauanui, Professor of Anthropology and American Studies, Wesleyan University

  57. Ari Kelman, Professor of History, University of California, Davis

  58. Arang Keshavarzian, Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University

  59. Laleh Khalili, Professor of Middle East Politics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

  60. Daniel Kovalik, Professor of International Human Rights, University of Pittsburgh School of Law

  61. Rob Kroes, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Amsterdam

  62. Peter Kuznick, Professor of History, American University

  63. Deborah T. Levenson, Professor of History, Boston College

  64. David Ludden, Professor of History, New York University

  65. Catherine Lutz, Professor of Anthropology and International Studies, Brown University

  66. Arthur MacEwan, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Boston

  67. Viviana MacManus, Professor of Women's and Gender Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

  68. Chase Madar, civil rights attorney; author, The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning

  69. Alfred W. McCoy, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison

  70. Teresa Meade, Professor of History, Union College

  71. Thomas Murphy, Professor of History and Government, University of Maryland, University College Europe

  72. Allan Nairn, independent investigative journalist

  73. Usha Natarajan, Professor of International Law, American University in Cairo

  74. Diane M. Nelson, Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University

  75. Joseph Nevins, Professor of Geography, Vassar College

  76. Mary Nolan, Professor of History, New York University

  77. Anthony O’Brien, Professor Emeritus of English, Queens College, CUNY

  78. Paul O'Connell, Reader in Law, School of Law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

  79. Christian Parenti, Professor of Sustainable Development, School for International Training Graduate Institute

  80. David Peterson, independent writer and researcher

  81. Adrienne Pine, Professor of Anthropology, American University

  82. Claire Potter, Professor of History, The New School

  83. Margaret Power, Professor of History, Illinois Institute of Technology

  84. Pablo Pozzi, Professor of History, Universidad de Buenos Aires

  85. Gyan Prakash, Professor of History, Princeton University

  86. Vijay Prashad, Edward Said Chair of American Studies, American University of Beirut

  87. Peter Ranis, Professor Emeritus of Political Science, CUNY Graduate Center

  88. Michael Ratner, human rights attorney; author, The Prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld

  89. Sanjay Reddy, Professor of Economics, New School for Social Research

  90. Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

  91. Nazih Richani, Director of Latin American Studies, Kean University

  92. Moss Roberts, Professor of Chinese, New York University

  93. Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College, CUNY Graduate Center

  94. William I. Robinson, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara

  95. Patricia Rodriguez, Professor of Politics, Ithaca College

  96. Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

  97. Elizabeth Sanders, Professor of Government, Cornell University

  98. Dean Saranillio, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

  99. T.M. Scruggs, Professor Emeritus of Music, University of Iowa

  100. Ian J. Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Political Economy, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

  101. Denise A. Segura, Professor of Sociology; Chair, Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

  102. Mark Selden, Senior Research Associate, East Asia Program, Cornell University

  103. Falguni A. Sheth, Professor of Philosophy and Political Theory, Hampshire College

  104. Naoko Shibusawa, Professor of History, Brown University

  105. Dina M. Siddiqi, Professor of Anthropology, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh

  106. Francisco Sierra Caballero, Director of the Center for Communication, Politics and Social Change, University of Seville

  107. Brad Simpson, Professor of History, University of Connecticut

  108. Nikhil Pal Singh, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History, New York University

  109. Leslie Sklair, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, London School of Economics

  110. Norman Solomon, author, War Made Easy

  111. Judy Somberg, Chair, National Lawyers Guild Task Force on the Americas

  112. Jeb Sprague, author, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti

  113. Oliver Stone, filmmaker; co-author, The Untold History of the United States

  114. Steve Striffler, Professor of Anthropology, Chair of Latin American Studies, University of New Orleans

  115. Sinclair Thomson, Professor of History, New York University

  116. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of History and Latin American Studies, Pomona College

  117. James S. Uleman, Professor of Psychology, New York University

  118. Alejandro Velasco, Professor of History, New York University

  119. Robert Vitalis, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

  120. Hans Christof von Sponeck, former United Nations Assistant Secretary General (1998-2000)

  121. Hilbourne Watson, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Bucknell University

  122. Barbara Weinstein, Professor of History, New York University

  123. Mark Weisbrot, Ph.D., Co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research

  124. Kirsten Weld, Professor of History, Harvard University

  125. Gregory Wilpert, Ph.D, author, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power

  126. John Womack, Jr., Professor Emeritus of Latin American History and Economics, Harvard University

  127. Michael Yates, Professor Emeritus of Economics, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown

  128. Kevin Young, Ph.D., Latin American History, State University of New York-Stony Brook

  129. Marilyn B. Young, Professor of History, New York University

  130. Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, Professor of History; Co-Director, South Asian Studies, Brown University
  131. Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and Coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies, University of San Francisco