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.


  • 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 Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
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.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs

Day in Photos

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.

A dog, with his fur dyed green and wearing antlers made out of red fabric, poses for a photograph before participating in the Thanksgiving Day Parade in El Paso, Texas, United States, Nov. 26, 2015.