News / Asia

Dinner & Diplomacy: Top Human Rights Executive Joins Hu at White House

A table setting for the state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama for Chinese President Hu Jintao is shown at the White House, 19 Jan 2011.
A table setting for the state dinner hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama for Chinese President Hu Jintao is shown at the White House, 19 Jan 2011.

Multimedia

Audio
  • Listen to Kenneth Roth discuss his dinner at the White House

  • Listen to Kenneth Roth discuss global human rights trends

Human Rights Watch takes aim at U.S. President Barack Obama in its latest report on the state of human rights around the world. The group says the American leader has been too soft on repressive regimes that are also key trade partners, like China, opting for eloquent statements and quiet dialogue rather than concrete public actions.

But Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, says the recent U.S.-Sino summit in Washington shows the Obama administration is taking human rights in China more seriously. Not only did the issue come up in Mr. Obama's talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and at a White House press conference, but the administration also invited Roth to the state dinner. Roth shares his experiences with VOA’s Kate Woodsome.

Listen to the full interview:

The White House was practicing some pretty creative diplomacy by inviting you to the dinner.

“I think having me as the executive director of Human Rights Watch present at the dinner was a statement. And to my pleasant surprise, I wasn’t just a token presence. I was seated in the main state dining room at a table that included the top China director at the White House, the U.S. ambassador to China and the Chinese ambassador to the United States — a  very senior figure within the Chinese foreign ministry. And I was seated only one seat away from him with only the U.S. ambassador’s wife in between us.

We had a spirited conversation, a lengthy conversation about everything from whether or not Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, was appropriately imprisoned, whether he was a threat to China.  I, of course, was arguing that he was simply exercising his right to free expression and should have been freed. The ambassador [Zhang Yesui] arguing that he represented a danger to China and for some reason should be imprisoned.  We didn’t agree in the end, but it was very important that with the U.S. government’s backing, I was able to make this argument in a pointed, direct, prolonged way, of the sort that I doubt the ambassador hears very often.

So we had a very long conversation that touched on a range of human rights issues, including the Chinese government’s disinclination to have serious conversations with human rights groups. I said to the ambassador that I hoped the evening was the beginning of a new trend rather than a one-time exception.”

Listen to Kenneth Roth discuss global human rights trends:

Were you able to have any relaxed banter with the Chinese ambassador?

“We actually did, yeah. We actually talked a bit about family and life. It wasn’t all business, because naturally you want to build a certain rapport in a situation like that. I was very much helped by Mrs. Huntsman, the wife of the U.S ambassador to China, who was the one sitting between me and Zhang. The three of us talked about some personal things as well as business, and I thought that was important to do, because it did help to build a connection and that can be important over the long term.”

You also had a face-to-face encounter with President Hu Jintao.

“I did.I only saw him in the receiving line. It wasn’t as if he was mingling at the cocktail hour or table-hopping during the dinner. So my ability to speak with him was more limited. And after briefly saying hello to President Obama, I went on to President Hu and said who I was, explained that I was the director of Human Rights Watch. And said I that I was interested in having a very public dialogue, a very candid dialogue, with the Chinese government of the sort we maintain with governments around the world, including the United States.  That this is normal practice, that governments around the world deal with Human Rights Watch and our colleague organizations, and we would hope that China would do the same.

Now unlike my conversation with the Chinese ambassador, which was a real sustained conversation, this exchange with the Chinese president was fairly perfunctory. It was in the receiving line and had to go through a translator. He kind of smiled and shook my hand and we had to move on because there were people behind us in the line. So I can’t say that that was the most satisfying exchange. But the one with the Chinese ambassador was much more real.”

Could you have gained this kind of access in any other setting?

“I think there was no way I could have seen President Hu in any other setting. I have not at this stage  met anyone else quite at Ambassador Zhang’s level. I mean, formally, yes, I had met other Chinese ambassadors but Ambassador Zhang is seen as a likely future foreign minister and he has personally refused to meet with Human Rights Watch over the years, both with his posting in Washington and earlier during a posting in New York when he was China’s ambassador to the United Nations.

So this was an opportunity not only to meet with, but have a serious conversation with a fairly senior Chinese government official, one who is on the rise, who is part of China’s future. He was frankly my most important target, if you will, when I went into the White House and to my delight I was seated one seat away from him.”

What were you thinking?

“Well, I frankly was very grateful Jeffrey Bader [the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian Affairs] and the people in the White House that put this together. They knew what they were doing. So, that I took as a sign that the Obama administration was adopting a more serious approach to human rights in China. That it was not going to try the misguided approach of last time in which it tried to sweep human rights under the rug. But, rather, it was going to stay true to its values and talk about human rights in a serious kind of central way, even if that would have been uncomfortable to the Chinese.”

You May Like

Ukraine Purges Interior Ministry Leadership With Pro-Russian Ties

Interior Minister Avakov says 91 people 'in positions of leadership' have been fired, including 8 generals found to have links to past pro-Moscow governments More

US Airlines Point to Additional Problems of any Ebola Travel Ban

Airline officials note that even under travel ban, they may not be able to determine where passenger set out from, as there are no direct flights from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone More

Nigerian President to Seek Another Term

Goodluck Jonathan has faced intense criticism for failing to stop Boko Haram militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
October 25, 2014 4:21 PM
Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Talks to Resume on Winter Gas for Ukraine

Ukrainian and Russian officials will meet again next week in an effort to settle their dispute over natural gas supplies that threatens to leave Ukraine short of heating fuel for the coming winter. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London the dispute is complex, and has both economic and geopolitical dimensions.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.

All About America

AppleAndroid