Case Studies

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch uses the power of information to pressure governments to respect their people’s rights. It investigates abuses in 90 countries and disseminates its findings to wide audiences. It also pushes governments, the United Nations, the African and European Unions, financial institutions, and corporations to enact policies that prevent atrocities and to punish those who violate the rights of others.


The organization deploys researchers—lawyers, journalists, and academics—in or near countries where serious human rights abuses occur. These researchers conduct rigorous, accurate investigations of violations, and Human Rights Watch publishes their findings in print, video, and social media. “We are able to shine a very intense spotlight on abuse and misconduct,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director. “We are then able to use that attention to go to powerful governments and ask them to put pressure on the abusive governments to change. In extreme cases where there have been mass atrocities, crimes against humanity, and genocide, we convince the UN Security Council to deploy peacekeepers to protect people and try to bring the perpetrators of mass atrocities to justice.”

Roth says that the way to stop violence is to make sure that dictators and mass murderers are tried and punished, in order to exact justice and deter others. “Dictators are rational actors,” he says. “They weigh the costs and benefits of their actions: ‘If I kill all these people, I’ll get rid of the opposition; what’s the downside?’ The downside should be that there’s a reasonable prospect that they’ll find themselves in prison. So the aim of international justice is to change that cost-benefit analysis. We want dictators or rebel groups thinking twice before they take the route of mass atrocity.”


Human Rights Watch’s work has influenced governments around the world. Its efforts in Burundi provide an example. The president, Pierre Nkurunziza, was constitutionally barred from a third term but claimed that it was his right to remain in power regardless, which set off protests. He then began to kill protesters. “We sounded the alarm about the mounting violence and were able to impart the urgency of the situation to the US government, the European Union, the United Nations, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others. They warned Nkurunziza that his actions were not happening in obscurity,” says Roth. “It’s still a tenuous situation, but because Nkurunziza is now under intense scrutiny, the threat of mass murder has been staved off.”

The organization also mounted a lengthy campaign to prosecute Hissène Habré, the former dictator of Chad. “He presided over a prison system that tortured prisoners and conducted mass executions. He was overthrown and went into exile in Senegal, where he was living very comfortably. We were able to convince the African Union to create a special tribunal in Senegal to prosecute him,” says Roth. In May of 2016, Habré was found guilty of torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, including rape, and was sentenced to life in prison.

How The Satter Foundation Has Helped

The Satter Foundation’s support is targeted to Human Rights Watch’s international justice program. Roth particularly values Muneer’s keen understanding of how a relatively small number of people working together can change the conduct of a government. “Muneer is unusual in his appreciation of the importance of justice. He understands that when particularly evil people in the world rise to a position of power, they can do enormous harm. He wants to see those people brought to justice,” says Roth.

What's Next

The organization is working to stave off opposition to the International Criminal Court by a group of African leaders. The court is a permanent tribunal that can try the worst criminals in its member countries. The African leaders at the helm of the opposition feel threatened by the court, and Human Rights Watch is building coalitions of African NGOs to demonstrate how ending impunity and atrocities is good for Africa—and the world at large.

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