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

Video Miami Cubans Divided on New US Policy

While older, more conservative Cuban Americans have promoted anti-Castro political movement for years, younger generations say economically, it is time for change More

2014 Sees Dramatic Uptick in Boko Haram Abductions

Militants suspected in latest mass kidnapping of over 100 people in Gumsuri, Nigeria on Sunday More

Video Cuba Deal Is Major Victory for Pope

Role of Francis hailed throughout US, Latin America - though some Cuban-American Catholics have mixed feelings 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.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid