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

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go 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.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More