Kenneth Roth
Executive Director, Human Rights Watch

Re: What is human nature?

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We are adaptable and instinctive, Roth says.

Kenneth Roth

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch since 1993, has investigated human rights abuses around the globe, with special expertise on issues of justice and accountability for atrocities committed in the quest for peace; military conduct in war under the requirements of international humanitarian law; counterterrorism policy including resort to torture and arbitrary detention; the human rights policies of the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations; and the human rights responsibilities of multinational businesses. Mr. Roth has published more than 100 articles and chapters on a range of human rights topics. Before joining HRW as deputy director in 1987, Mr. Roth was a federal prosecutor for both the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York and the Iran-Contra investigation in Washington. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and Brown University.

I think human nature is very adaptable. There are certain instinctual identities with one’s family, with one’s tribe, with one’s co-religionists. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into decency toward the other, however that’s defined, even if the other is your next door neighbor. And I think the challenge for the human rights movement is to overcome what are countervailing tendencies toward treating that other as the enemy; as a lesser human being; as somebody who can be used purely instrumentally; who doesn’t have to be treated with respect; who can be killed if necessary. That is also an element of human nature. And I think our task is to expand the concept of community sufficiently so that people are willing to treat large numbers of people with the basic respect that rights require, ideally at a global level – which is not easy because it’s hard to speak of the global community in any meaningful sense. But that obviously is the goal, so that all of us act as if everyone on earth has the entitlement to these same basic rights. But I don’t think that that in any sense is a natural inclination. It’s a possibility, one that needs to be nurtured by building up public morality; building up public expectations about behavior; building up institutions that reinforce those instincts or behavior, and gradually getting to the point where we can, with greater degrees of dependability and expectations, see people live and treat each other with respect for these basic rights. But it by no means is an inevitability.

Recorded on: 8/14/07