Human Rights Watch was founded by Robert L. Bernstein as a private American NGO in 1978, under the name Helsinki Watch, to monitor the former Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Helsinki Watch adopted a practice of publicly "naming and shaming" abusive governments through media coverage and through direct exchanges with policymakers. By shining the international spotlight on human rights violations in the Soviet Union and its European partners, Helsinki Watch contributed to the democratic transformations of the region in the late 1980s.
Americas Watch was founded in 1981 while bloody civil wars engulfed Central America. Relying on extensive on-the-ground fact-finding, Americas Watch not only addressed perceived abuses by government forces but also applied international humanitarian law to investigate and expose war crimes by rebel groups. In addition to raising its concerns in the affected countries, Americas Watch also examined the role played by foreign governments, particularly the United States government, in providing military and political support to abusive regimes.
Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989) were added to what was known as "The Watch Committees". In 1988, all of these committees were united under one umbrella to form Human Rights Watch.
Pursuant to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Human Rights Watch (HRW) opposes violations of what it considers basic human rights. This includes capital punishment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. HRW advocates freedoms in connection with fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
Human Rights Watch publishes research reports on violations of international human rights norms as set out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and what it perceives to be other internationally accepted, human-rights norms. These reports are used as the basis for drawing international attention to abuses and pressuring governments and international organizations to reform. Researchers conduct fact-finding missions to investigate suspect situations also using diplomacy, staying in touch with victims, making files about public and individuals, and providing required security for them in critical situations and in a proper time generate coverage in local and international media. Issues raised by Human Rights Watch in its reports include social and gender discrimination, torture, military use of children, political corruption, abuses in criminal justice systems, and the legalization of abortion. HRW has documented and reported various violations of the laws of war and international humanitarian law.
Human Rights Watch also supports writers worldwide, who are being persecuted for their work and are in need of financial assistance. The Hellman/Hammett grants are financed by the estate of the playwright Lillian Hellman in funds set up in her name and that of her long-time companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. In addition to providing financial assistance, the Hellman/Hammett grants help raise international awareness of activists who are being silenced for speaking out in defense of human rights.
Each year, Human Rights Watch presents the Human Rights Defenders Award to activists around the world who demonstrate leadership and courage in defending human rights. The award winners work closely with HRW in investigating and exposing human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch was one of six international NGOs that founded the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 1998. It is also the co-chair of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a global coalition of civil society groups that successfully lobbied to introduce the Ottawa Treaty, a treaty that prohibits the use of anti-personnel landmines.
Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global network of non-governmental organizations that monitor censorship worldwide. It also co-founded the Cluster Munition Coalition, which brought about an international convention banning the weapons. HRW employs more than 275 staff—country experts, lawyers, journalists, and academics – and operates in more than 90 countries around the world.
The current executive director of HRW is Kenneth Roth, who has held the position since 1993. Roth conducted investigations on abuses in Poland after martial law was declared 1981. He later focused on Haiti, which had just emerged from the Duvalier dictatorship but continued to be plagued with problems. Roth’s awareness of the importance of human rights began with stories his father had told about escaping Nazi Germany in 1938. Roth graduated from Yale Law School and Brown University.
HRW has been criticized for perceived bias by the national governments it has investigated for human rights abuses, and by NGO Monitor, and HRW's founder, and former Chairman, Robert L. Bernstein. Bias allegations include undue influence by United States government policy, and claims that HRW is biased both for Israel and against Israel. HRW has routinely publicly responded to, and often rejected, criticism of its reporting and findings.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are the only two Western-oriented international human rights organizations operating in most situations of severe oppression or abuse worldwide. The major differences lie in the group's structure and methods for promoting change.
Amnesty International is a mass-membership organization. Mobilization of those members is the organization's central advocacy tool. Human Rights Watch's main products are its crisis-directed research and lengthy reports, whereas Amnesty International lobbies and writes detailed reports, but also focuses on mass letter-writing campaigns, adopting individuals as "prisoners of conscience" and lobbying for their release. Human Rights Watch will openly lobby for specific actions for other governments to take against human rights offenders, including naming specific individuals for arrest, or for sanctions to be levied against certain countries, recently calling for punitive sanctions against the top leaders in Sudan who have overseen a killing campaign in Darfur. The group has also called for human rights activists who have been detained in Sudan to be released.
Its documentations of human rights abuses often include extensive analysis of the political and historical backgrounds of the conflicts concerned, some of which have been published in academic journals. AI's reports, on the other hand, tend to contain less analysis, and instead focus on specific abuses of rights.
In 2010, The Times of London wrote that HRW has "all but eclipsed" Amnesty International. According to The Times, instead of being supported by a mass membership, as AI is, HRW depends on wealthy donors who like to see the organization's reports make headlines. For this reason, according to The Times, HRW tends to "concentrate too much on places that the media already cares about", especially in disproportionate coverage of Israel.
For the financial year ending June 2008, HRW reported receiving approximately US$44 million in public donations. In 2009, Human Rights Watch stated that they receive almost 75% of their financial support from North America, 25% from Western Europe and less than 1% from the rest of the world.
According to a 2008 financial assessment, HRW reports that it does not accept any direct or indirect funding from governments and is financed through contributions from private individuals and foundations.
Financier and philanthropist George Soros of the Open Society Foundation announced in 2010 his intention to grant US $100 million to HRW over a period of ten years to help it expand its efforts internationally. He said, "Human Rights Watch is one of the most effective organizations I support. Human rights underpin our greatest aspirations: they're at the heart of open societies." The donation increases Human Rights Watch's operating staff of 300 by 120 people. The donation was the largest in the organization's history.
Charity Navigator gave Human Rights Watch a four-star rating overall, and its financial rating increased from three stars in 2015 to the maximum four as of June 2016. The Better Business Bureau said Human Rights Watch meets its standards for charity accountability.
Human Rights Watch published the following program and support services spending details for the financial year ending June 2011.
Human Rights Watch published the following program and support services spending details for the financial year ending June 2008.
Some notable current and former staff members of Human Rights Watch have included:Robert L. Bernstein, Founding Chair Emeritus
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director
Jan Egeland, Deputy Director and the Director of Human Rights Watch Europe
John Studzinski, Vice Chair; developed European arm; former Director; member of Executive Committee; Chairman of Investment Committee
Minky Worden, Media Director
Jamie Fellner, Senior Counsel for the United States Program of Human Rights Watch
Brad Adams, Asia Director
Scott Long, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Director
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director
Marc Garlasco, former staff member, resigned due to a scandal involving his Nazi memorabilia collection
Tae-Ung Baik, former research consultant
Nabeel Rajab, member of the Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch's Middle East Division
Human Rights Watch publishes reports on many different topics and compiles an annual World Report presenting an overview of the worldwide state of human rights. It has been published by Seven Stories Press since 2006; the current edition, World Report 2015, was released in February 2015, and covers events of 2014. Human Rights Watch has reported extensively on subjects such as the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, Democratic Republic of the Congo and US sex offender registries due to their over-breadth and application to juveniles.
In the summer of 2004, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University in New York became the depository institution for the Human Rights Watch Archive, an active collection that documents decades of human rights investigations around the world. The archive was transferred from its previous location at the Norlin Library at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The archive includes administrative files, public relations documents, as well as case and country files. With some exceptions for security considerations, the Columbia University community and the public have access to field notes, taped and transcribed interviews with alleged victims of human rights violations, video and audio tapes, and other materials documenting the organization’s activities since its founding in 1978 as Helsinki Watch.