With $100 million Soros gift, Human Rights Watch looks to expand global reach

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 4:12 AM

NEW YORK - The $100 million gift to Human Rights Watch from billionaire George Soros announced last week will extend the overseas presence of the influential American rights champion and ensure its financial health for years to come.

But the goal of the gift is more ambitious still: to alter the way human rights are promoted in the 21st century, making rights advocacy less of an exclusively American and European cause.

The donation, the largest single gift ever from the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist, is premised on the belief that U.S. leadership on human rights has been diminished by a decade of harsh policies in the war on terrorism. Soros said he hopes the money will cultivate a much broader constituency of foreign policymakers and philanthropists who embrace the notion that human rights should be observed universally.

"Unfortunately, we lost the moral high ground during the Bush administration and the Obama administration has not done enough to regain it," Soros said in an interview. "Therefore human rights as an American cause is often resisted because it comes from America.

"Yet the principal of human rights is a universal principal, and people in other parts of the world believe it is as strongly as we do, even more strongly," he said. "To be more efficient, Human Rights Watch has to become a truly international organization."

The rights group, which covers more than 90 countries from 45 locations, will build its research capacity, adding more than 120 employees to an organization of 300. The group will also set up regional headquarters in the capitals of emerging political and economic powers, where leaders have frequently criticized human rights advocacy as a Western tool to impose their will on small countries.

"We need to be able to shape the foreign policies of these emerging powers, much as we have traditionally done with Western powers," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Our aim is to enlist places like Brazil, South Africa, India and Japan, all governments that are democracies."

Human Rights Watch regularly comes under attack from governments around the world, including China, Russia, Israel, Iran, Syria, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

"American organizations, including HRW, have no credibility," a Syrian minister told the Washington Post last year after the rights group issued a critical report on the government. "Let them go check the violations undertaken by the previous administration from Guantanamo to the flying prisons to the violations of human rights in Gaza before they talk about other countries."

Human Rights Watch notes that it has conducted extensive inquiries into allegations of abuses in Gaza and at Guantanamo.

Soros, 80, has stepped up his philanthropy, spending more than $700 million over the past year on causes ranging from supplies for New York City schoolchildren to Pakistan flood relief efforts.

A shrewd hedge fund investor who famously helped force the devaluation of the British pound in 1990s by betting heavily against it, he has long been a stalwart supporter of Democratic causes. In 2004, he spent tens of millions of dollars on political groups including MoveOn.org in an effort to defeat President George W. Bush's reelection campaign. He also provided financial support for Barack Obama's election bid.

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