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Harvard school in row over fellowship for human rights advocate


Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, poses after an interview with Reuters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 12, 2021. Picture taken January 12, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

The prestigious Kennedy School at Harvard University is under fire over a decision not to award a fellowship to the former head of Human Rights Watch, which one academic said was due to the campaigner’s criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The school’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy last year approached Kenneth Roth, who served as HRW’s executive director from 1993 to 2022, and agreed on the terms of a fellowship, according to both Roth and the Carr Center. The fellowship was subject to approval by Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf.

Kathryn Sikkink, a human rights academic at the Kennedy School, told The Nation magazine that Elmendorf told her he rejected the appointment because of what he called HRW’s “anti-Israel bias.”

The decision, reported by The Nation last week, drew criticism from some alumni, the American Civil Liberties Union and HRW itself. Freedom of expression advocacy group PEN America said the decision “raises serious questions about the credibility of the Harvard program itself.”

Roth told Reuters by phone on Tuesday he believes the decision was made to avoid upsetting wealthy donors to the school who support Israel, and called on the Kennedy School to “reaffirm its commitment to academic freedom.”

Harvard Kennedy School spokesperson James Smith said by email that Elmendorf decided not to appoint Roth “based on an evaluation of the candidate’s potential contributions to the Kennedy School,” adding that the school does not discuss such deliberations.

The school practices “transparent engagement and funding” in order to avoid “actual or perceived conflicts of interest,” according to its website. It publishes annual lists of donors, including some who are anonymous.

Some pro-Israel groups, including prominent Jewish organizations in the United States like the American Jewish Committee, have said HRW and other rights groups have shown bias against Israel in their reporting, in particular by labeling the treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid,” as HRW did in 2021.