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Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, poses at the organisation offices in Paris, France, January 17, 2018. Picture taken January 17, 2018. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

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By Julie Carriat and Michaela Cabrera

PARIS (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's record on human rights in his first year in office has been a "disaster" and has encouraged oppression by authoritarian leaders from China to Russia, the head of Human Rights Watch said in an interview on Wednesday.

Kenneth Roth was speaking ahead of HRW's annual report launch in Paris, where he said French President Emmanuel Macron needed to fill a void with countries like Britain, which was distracted by Brexit, and the United States which was largely absent from the rights' landscape.

"Trump has been a disaster for the human rights movement, in part because he seems to have this insatiable desire to embrace people who have been able to govern without the checks and balances of democracy." Roth said in an interview.

"Trump seems to wish he could do that himself. That makes it much harder for the human rights movement to uphold human rights, because we gain our power from our ability to shame abusive governments."

Roth singled out Russia and China for conducting an "intense crackdown" on opponents and, after Trump was reported to have described African countries as "shitholes", said the U.S. president had "found political advantage in acting as a racist".

The New York-based group had issued its report in Paris to underline Macron's role in curbing the rise of the far-right in Europe, Roth said, but also to send the French leader a signal that the world was expecting more from him on rights.

Since he came to power in May, Macron has been criticised for only raising human rights with countries when there was little at stake for France, but shying away when its national interests could be hurt.

While Macron has been forceful with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan and Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, he has shown weaknesses elsewhere, Roth said.

He cited Macron's visit to China, where he barely spoke of rights, his failure to support an investigation of Saudi actions in Yemen, and his telling Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that he would not lecture him on human rights.

"It's easy to defend human rights when it's free, when there's no real cost in doing so. But when you're dealing with Chinese or Saudi (business) contracts, or you're dealing with Egypt's potential assistance in fighting terrorism ... Macron has been more resistant to standing up for human rights."

(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Reuters