Founding “Human Rights Watch” and Advancing Human Rights
Meet Robert Bernstein, a Jewish philanthropist who founded two of the biggest names in human rights – “Human Rights Watch” and “Advancing Human Rights.” Having witnessed the plight of his fellow Jews during the Second World War at the hands of powerful dictators, as well as witnessing numerous cases of racial discrimination and social injustice, Robert devoted his life and career to fighting for human rights by establishing two organizations that monitor, research and promote human rights issues worldwide.
When it comes to the concept of human rights, Robert has a very strong moral compass. Although he agrees that human rights violations happen in every part of the world, in both democratic and non-democratic nations, he also stresses the importance of drawing the line in terms of the extent of the violations. He often cites the difference between a dictatorial government and a democratic government as an example of this, in which he believes that violations committed by or under the two are never equal.
Robert clarifies this in an interview:
“There is no question that democracies have their faults, and those need to be addressed. What human-rights organizations often fail to understand, recognize, and emphasize is that there are many people working to improve open societies. We don’t gain credibility by criticizing two human-rights violations in a dictatorship and two human-rights violations in a nearby democracy. The failure to stress the enormous difference between democracies and dictatorships is a profound betrayal of the principles of human rights. There is no moral equivalence between the two at all.”
Robert believes in inspiring people to rise up and defend their rights. Most often, those who suffer the worst of human rights violations are those who stay silent and let allow the powerful to step over them. This is why Robert believes the campaign to promote human rights is more effective in places where even a few, in spite of seemingly-overwhelming obstacles, choose to fight for their rights.
As Robert said:
“My experience has been that once people are engaged in their own country in risky work fighting for their freedom, the more publicity and the more their name is picked up by free societies, the safer they are.”
Little is known about Robert’s early life, except that he was born outside of Israel in 1923. His parents were Jewish refugees who immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. As a young man, Robert exhibited amazing intellect and talent, which enabled him to excel in his studies and graduate with high marks. At home, Robert not only learned the values and principles of the Jewish religion, but his parents instilled in him the value of serving others and respecting others’ rights.
During the Second World War, Robert saw the terrible injustices that were forced upon fellow European Jews, particularly in the areas occupied by Germany, while serving in the United States Army Air Corps. Seeing the plight of a race that was persecuted just because they were ‘different’ first opened Robert’s eyes to the global issue of human rights. This incident planted a seed within him to create a better world for mankind, but it was not until twenty years later that the seed finally sprang to life.
Life after the War
After the war, Robert completed his studies at Harvard University and took a job as an office boy at Simon & Schuster in 1946. During his time at Simon & Schuster, Robert became very fond of books, and often found himself browsing through a wide range of literary pieces. Robert’s love for reading greatly broadened his perspective, which contributed to his developing stance on human rights.
Ten years later, in 1956, Robert left Simon & Schuster and joined Random House. He found tremendous success soon after and steadily rose in rank until, in 1962, he became the company’s first Vice President. Four years later, he took the helm of leadership and became Random House’s President/Chief Executive Officer (CEO), a position he held for twenty-five years.
Under his leadership, Random House published a wide range of great American authors, including James Michener, Dr. Seuss, William Styron, William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Robert also developed an interest in international authors, such as Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner, Vaclav Havel, Wei Jingsheng and Jacobo Timerman, whose writings were banned in their own countries for liberal ideas that were contrary to those of the dictatorial regimes.
In the early 1970s, Robert took an interest in the concept of freedom of expression after learning from the books of his favorite liberal authors. A few years later, he became the Chairman of the Association of American Publishers and visited Russia (Soviet Union, at the time) as part of the delegation of the group in a formal event. Seeing the effects of Communism first-hand, and why the government would not permit the writings of liberal authors, Robert decided something had to be done - that the works of those authors should not be in vain.
Upon returning to the United States, Robert established the “Committee on International Freedom to Publish,” which aimed to promote the authors whose works were banned in their own countries. That same year, Robert also founded the “Fund for Free Expression,” a non-profit organization which promotes the freedom of expression worldwide. The launches of both organizations were successful, with thousands supporting their causes. Later, the Fund for Free Expression started the “Helsinki Watch,” which is today known as “Human Rights Watch.” Robert was named as its Founding Chairman and held the position until 1990, when he was named the organization’s “Founding Chair Emeritus.”
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Robert became very active in the campaign against human rights violations. One of his main campaigns was to inspire people to fight for their rights, as he believes that rights are abused when people are silent. This is what he emphasized when he described the work of Human Rights Watch in an interview:
“At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.”
Growth of Human Rights Watch
Robert’s work with Human Rights Watch was highly influential, so much that it even stimulated the prevalence of human rights activists in countries under totalitarian rule. Robert and Human Rights Watch played a significant role in the protection of Jews living under Communist rule in the Soviet Union, and they also inspired the establishment of the organization “Human Rights in China,” which named Robert as its “Chairman Emeritus.”
In 1997, Yale University started the “Bernstein Fellowship” in honor of Robert’s work in protecting human rights. With the cooperation of Robert’s wife, Helen, and their three sons, Tom, William and Peter, the Bernstein Fellowship was given to those who championed the cause of human rights. In 2006, the New York University School of Law also established the “Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights” in honor of his work.
Focusing on the Middle East
In the 2000s, Robert began focusing his attention on the Middle East, and started to distance himself from Human Rights Watch as believed the organization was becoming “biased” in their campaign. Two years prior, he had resigned from his position as Chairman Emeritus to begin other campaigns.
Robert always dreamt of working with Human Rights Watch to advance human rights around the world. In spite of numerous criticisms against the organization, Robert remained one of its strongest defenders, as he was confident in the organization’s work and international impacts.
However, this began to change in the 1990s when several changes prompted Robert to leave the organization. Among these was the issue of “moral equivalency,” which he was against. In an interview many years later, Robert described what he and his team at Human Rights Watch originally wanted to do:
“We sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.”
Robert advocated fairness and equality, but also understood the major difference between open and closed societies, which he thought was not seen by the then-leaders of Human Rights Watch. Because of this, Robert began moving in a different direction than the organization he originally started himself.
While Robert maintained his support for Human Rights Watch, an issue regarding the organization’s treatment of Israel soon turned him into one of its critics. In 2009, Robert wrote an Op-Ed article for the New York Times which criticized Human Rights Watch for their biased treatment of Israel under the guise of maintaining equality. Robert wrote in the article:
“Human Rights Watch has lost critical perspective on a conflict in which Israel has been repeatedly attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that go after Israeli citizens and use their own people as human shields. These groups are supported by the government of Iran, which has openly declared its intention not just to destroy Israel but to murder Jews everywhere. This incitement to genocide is a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”
Robert’s statement against Human Rights Watch was supported by many human rights activists worldwide, as well as long-time critics of the organization. Not long after, HRW released a statement criticizing Robert for stating that other organizations should judge Israel for their actions against Hamas and Hezbollah, the rebel Palestinian groups in opposition to the nation. In response to this, Robert stated:
“I believe that Israel should be judged by the highest possible standard and I have never argued anything else. What is more important than what I believe, or what Human Rights Watch believes, is that Israelis themselves believe they should be held to the highest standard… Only by returning to its founding mission and the spirit of humility that animated it can Human Rights Watch resurrect itself as a moral force in the Middle East and throughout the world. If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.”
Founding “Advancing Human Rights”
The following year, in 2010, Robert was invited to give the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights at the University of Nebraska. In the lecture, Robert defended Israel and criticized the non-profit organizations that were treating the country as if it was the “offender,” including Human Rights Watch. He explained that, while Israel is the only “free” country in the Middle East, it was still attacked the most by human rights organizations.
In 2011, Robert founded “Advancing Human Rights,” a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the values and principles of human rights of which he believed his former organization was starting to lose sight, as well as inspiring the citizens of closed societies to become more vocal in fighting for their rights. The following year, CyberDissidents.org and Movements.org, headed by David Keyes and Jared Cohen, respectively, joined Advancing Human Rights.
Robert spoke about the merging in an interview:
“I’m so excited about the joining together of Movements.org, cofounded by the current head of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, and CyberDissidents.org, cofounded by our executive director, David Keyes. Combining the online technology of human-rights organizations with the technology of the new press, like The Daily Beast, should be a powerful tool in moving societies to become more open.”
Today, at age eighty-eight, Robert continues to participate in the fight for human rights. He remains the leader of Advancing Human Rights and, with partner organizations, continues to seek better ways of turning closed societies into open societies, with human rights respected by both the government and the people. His work is a tremendous inspiration and encouragement for people suffering from abuse and persecution around the world, as it gives them a ray of hope in the midst of even the darkest situations.
“Human rights are not a luxury, or something to be observed if they don’t conflict with some other priority, like peace or economic development. They are instead the key to achieving those things and anything else of urgent importance to the world.”
- 1962-1966: Vice President of Random House
- 1966-1989: President of Random House
- 1967-1989: CEO of Random House
- 1972-1973: Chairman of the “Association of American Publishers”
- 1973-1976: Founding Chair of the “Committee on International Freedom to Publish”
- 1973-1990: Founding Chair of “Human Rights Watch”
- 1989- “Chair Emeritus of Human Rights” in China
- 1990-1998: Founding Chair Emeritus of “Human Rights Watch”
- 2011 -: Founding Chair of “Advancing Human Rights”
Organizations and Progammes Supported
- 1976: Received the “Florina Lasker Award”
- 1976: Conferred the “Gordon Grand Fellowship”
- 1987: Received the “Human Rights Award” from Human Rights First (formerly Lawyers Committee for Human Rights)
- 1989: Received the “Spirit of Liberty Award” from the People for the American Way
- 1990: Awarded the “Barnard College Medal of Distinction”
- 1996: Awarded the “Lotus Blub Medal for Merit” and the “Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing”
- 1997: “Bernstein Fellowship” established in Yale Law School
- 1998: Received the first-ever “Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award”
- 2006: “Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights” established by New York University’s School of Law
- 2013: Won the “Dr. Bernard Heller Prize”
- 1997: Honorary Doctor of Laws from Swarthmore College, U.S.A.
- 1998: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Bard College, U.S.A.
- 1999: Honorary Doctorate from Hofstra University, U.S.A.
- 2000: Honorary Doctorate from Bates College, U.S.A.
- 2003: Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Yale University, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctor of Laws from The New School of Social Research, U.S.A.
- Honorary Doctorate from Tougaloo College
Wikipedia (Robert L. Bernstein)
Yale Law School (Biography of Robert L. Bernstein)
The New York Times (Rights Watchdog, Lost in the Mideast)
Daled Amos (Robert Bernstein Defends His Criticism Of Human Rights Watch)
The Daily Beast (Human-Rights Activist Robert Bernstein on Alliance With Movements.org)