John Sifton: St. John’s Alum and Human Rights Advocate

March 5, 2020 | By Les Poling

John Sifton (A96) is an advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

The Report, the 2019 film starring Adam Driver and Annette Benning, tells the story of the U.S. Senate investigation into the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” practices after 9/11; an investigation that concluded with the public release of a heavily redacted “torture report.” It’s a chilling account of government overreach and systematic human rights violations. It’s also a true story—one that St. John’s Annapolis alum John Sifton (A96) experienced firsthand. Since the late 1990s, Sifton has devoted his career to international human rights, first with humanitarian work in the Balkans, then as a researcher, senior researcher, and advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

Long before he had even considered a career in international justice, Sifton had other worries—namely, what college to attend. He had been waitlisted at every school he applied to; then, he heard about St. John’s from Chris Stokes (A86). “I checked it out, and I thought: this is exactly the place I want to go,” he recalls. “I was particularly interested in the idea of learning science and mathematics by reading through the original texts. I thought, ‘what a better way to learn.’” Sifton fully embraced the St. John’s curriculum. He even planned to parlay his liberal arts degree into further study, entering a philosophy PhD program at the University of Minnesota. But, he says, “while I enjoyed St. John’s, I didn’t enjoy graduate work. All the joy had been taken out of it.” He transferred to the School of Law at NYU, and almost immediately decided to focus on international human rights.

Most people know what “human rights” means; not as many know what human rights work entails. Sifton describes it as a relentless pursuit of the truth and a constant but often unrewarding effort to bring abusers to justice. Unlike humanitarian organizations—which provide direct assistance to people in need—groups like Human Rights Watch don’t deliver services or rely on governmental collaboration. They focus on investigation, fact-finding, and advocacy. What that means in practice, Sifton explains, is that they can operate more clandestinely. “The idea is to go into a country, gather information, and expose abuses,” he says. “We interview victims, we interview witnesses, we interview people who are familiar with the issues, and then we bundle it all together into a report and add some recommendations to governments and other actors.”

“We focus on issues that aren’t getting enough attention,” he continues, “and then we go to the policymakers to expose it, and either shame them or pressure them into action.”

It can feel like a fruitless fight. Oftentimes, Human Rights Watch will publish information on abuses only for those responsible to reject culpability. Sifton brings up a recent report on CIA-backed militias in Afghanistan that was met with total denial. “There’s a lot of futility,” he says.

That being said, there’s also victory—even in defeat. “I worked a lot on the CIA abuses against detainees during the Bush administration,” Sifton says. “Even after Obama took office, there were a lot of questions about whether people would be prosecuted for the torture that was committed.” Ultimately, infuriatingly, no one was held accountable. “But we exposed the program,” Sifton notes. Along with the ACLU and journalists from a range of publications, Human Rights Watch helped put the CIA under pressure from the Senate, the European Union, and even the International Criminal Court. “We broke it open,” Sifton says, “and we’d like to think that, because of that, if it was ever proposed again to hold people in secret prisons and torture them, the CIA would say ‘no.’”

In those days, Sifton was a researcher in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, in a directorial role, Sifton helps shape advocacy initiatives throughout Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. “I work with researchers to craft recommendations to policymakers and try to get [abusers] to change their behavior,” Sifton explains. Methods include convincing governments to impose targeted sanctions, freeze bank accounts, and seize assets from abusers. “It’s not jail time,” he acknowledges, “but we’d like to think it changes behavior and makes people think twice about engaging in abusive conduct in the future.”

In addition to advocacy, Sifton is a writer, starting with a New York Times article published after 9/11 and leading up to his 2015 book, Violence All Around. Another St. John’s graduate, Dan Lee (A98), gave Sifton’s name to an editor at Harvard University Press—the editor asked Sifton if he could produce a full-length work. Praised by The New Yorker, the Huffington Post, and more, Violence All Around is full of insights into human rights work, as well as philosophical meditations on the nature of violence. For example, Sifton remarks that the act of shooting a gun is violent no matter who pulls the trigger—so why are some acts considered right and others wrong? “These are very deep norms that have underpinnings in hundreds of years of history,” he says. “And I just don’t get the sense that a lot of the people who work in human rights think about that.”

The critical analysis exemplified in Violence All Around is a vital part of Sifton’s career. It’s also an intellectual trait that can be traced directly to St. John’s. He recalls studying Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations in a senior year preceptorial, focusing on Wittgenstein’s exploration of the inescapable power that words wield when they are actually used in language. “You have to pay very, very close attention to the use of words [in human rights work],” Sifton says, pointing to the recontextualization and weaponization of the phrase “the war on terror.” “The work with [tutor] John Verdi in that preceptorial, that’s what set the stage for me to even be able to begin to grasp how language is utilized in real life.”

But he believes the true benefit of the Program is less concrete. “I would say to a prospective student: This is not a school for everyone, but if you want to utilize these texts to broaden your capacity to reason, to think, and to work through everyday problems, give it a try,” Sifton says. “So many St. John’s students say this, but it’s true: the school began to teach me how to think, how to analyze what I was thinking.” And more importantly, St. John’s creates a foundation for lifelong education. “I’ve learned so much since leaving St. John’s,” he says. “It was just the beginning.”