Human Rights Watch founder questions mission


By Katerina Marcotte – Assistant Section Editor

Publisher and Human R ights Watch founder Robert Bernstein presented his lecture “Are Human Rights Organizations Helping or Hurting Relations Between Israel, Palestine and the Arabs?” on Nov. 10 at UNO’s Thompson Alumni Center.

Bernstein spoke in front of an audience of approximately 50 people. The event was part of the 12th Annual Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights.

Bernstein has won numerous awards and honorary degrees and has worked with writers such as William Faulkner, Jacobo Timerman and Dr. Suess. He developed an interest in those whose works could not be published after he visited the Soviet Union in 1973 to discuss copyrights. He then created the Fund for Free Expression, an organization that eventually became the Human Rights Watch.

“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,” Bernstein said. “They are instead the key to achieving those things and anything else of urgent importance in the world.”

His experiences stemmed from 20 years of working with 200 other Human Rights Watch staff members in support of free speech.

“My concentration on free speech came both from my background as a book publisher,” Bernstein said. “I was at Random House for over 34 years, the last 25 as chairman and president. And from my belief that if there was free speech, those free to speak would be sure to bring attention to all the other important human rights issues.”

Bernstein became a member of the Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee six years ago in response to news about attacks on the state of Israel.

Berstein commented on the almost continuous warfare in Israel and its surrounding states, specifically Palestine and Iran. The War “[of ] Attrition,” as Bernstein put it, also calling it “asymmetrical,” goes back to long-stemmed issues from wars past.

“I had spent little time on Israel,” Bernstein said. “It was an open society, it had 80 human rights organizations. They had more newspaper reporters in Jerusalem than in any city in the world, except New York and London. Hence, I tried to get the organization to work on some of the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, particularly free speech, into closed societies.”

As he expected, this proved to be a struggle, but not from where he was expecting. “The faults of democratic countries proved much less of a priority, not because there were faults, but because there were so many human rights groups openly criticizing them,” Bernstein said. “Human Rights Watch and others, in what they described as being even-handed, said that Israel, proffered for being an advocate of human rights, was actually one of its principal offenders.”

Bernstein began to question the accuracy of this “hostile” realm of thought. He read an article written by Princeton professor Richard Falk (who had recently been appointed to be the UN Recorder for the West Bank in Gaza). Falk likened Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Bernstein found this standing extreme.

Bernstein visited Israel in October and came back “convinced, more than ever, that Human Rights Watch attacks on Israel as the country tried to defend itself were badly distorting the issues because Human Rights Watch had little expertise about modern asymmetrical war.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 40 years of human rights work, it’s is that you must separate the people that you’re talking about from their governments,” Bernsteinsaid. “When a totalitarian or authoritarian government are the rulers, the people, whatever they believe, are shut down and they’re shut down hard. Only the views of the government rule while those with other views are imprisoned, tortured, exiled, anything to silence them. People, I believe, are the same everywhere, and that given a chance, good things can happen.”

To learn more about the Human Rights Watch and its projects visit An in-depth “Crisis Guide” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is available at the Council at the Foreign Relations website, publication/13850/crisis_guide.html.


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