At 88, a man of morals starts over

Advancing Human Rights, Bob Bernstein says, will focus on essential concerns which, until now, have been obfuscated by political agendas.

bob bernstein_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bob bernstein_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – In an effort to “reset the human rights agenda,” a new human rights advocacy group, Advancing Human Rights, has formed with a focus on espousing global human rights in “authoritarian countries without free speech or corrective mechanisms.”
Advancing Human Rights founder Robert Bernstein broke publicly in 2009 with Human Rights Watch – the NGO he had himself founded in 1978 – due to his objections to what he believed to be the group’s disproportionate emphasis on Israel at the expense of research and reporting on the wider region.
An example of such emphasis might be the recent to-do over Judge Richard Goldstone’s rescinding his position on his own report on Operation Cast Lead last week in The Washington Post. Bernstein has called for Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth to “display the same statesmanship.”
“It is time for him to follow Judge Goldstone’s example and issue his own mea culpa,” Bernstein wrote to The Jerusalem Post.
“Instead, he seeks to minimize the importance of Judge Goldstone’s stunning retraction of his war crime accusations against Israel. Judge Goldstone, after reviewing facts disclosed by the extensive investigations by Israel, says, ‘If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been different.’ He adds he would not have not made ‘allegations of intentionality’ because there is no evidence that Gazan civilians were ‘intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.’
“That admission undermines Human Rights Watch’s allegations, which simply repeat the charges now renounced by Judge Goldstone. Judge Goldstone’s disavowal of criminal intent (with which Roth agrees) is crucial because there can be no violations of the laws of war without criminal intent,” Bernstein went on, noting that unlike Roth, the Obama administration had said there were no war crimes of any kind.
“My motivation to start a new organization is that I believe that human rights organizations are failing to report human rights abuses in a fair, accurate, non-partisan manner,” Bernstein told the Post. “There was none of their outrage in the reporting of closed Arab societies that the world is now aware of as the people of these societies try to throw off their tyrannical governments. I also believe that the misreporting of human rights abuses that occur in asymmetrical war is doing great damage to democratic societies having to fight in these wars – this is particularly true in their reporting on civilian death in wartime.”
THE NEW group, according to its executive director, David Keyes, will not be politically left- or right-wing; rather, it will focus on the essential issues of human rights, which too long have been obfuscated, and even hindered, by political skirmishes. “Advancing Human Rights (AHR) will return to the values of the Universal Declaration with a primary focus on unfree states,” the organization’s mission statement reads.
“We believe that nations that adhere to this magnificent doctrine are less likely to engage in armed conflict and more likely resolve their differences peacefully. Open societies, unlike closed societies, have means to correct human rights abuses – a free press, active and independent NGOs, vigilant courts and legislatures. We therefore believe that our time is best spent focusing on authoritarian countries without free speech or corrective mechanisms,” it states.
“We think there’s been a shift in the human rights community away from the universal freedoms outlined in the Declaration of Human Rights,” Keyes told the Post. “We hope to restore the primacy of freedom of speech and women’s rights in particular – without those two rights, all the others are difficult to attain.”
One of AHR’s most potent weapons in this fight is, an Internet organization designed to back and support voices of dissidents. The website highlights writings and activities of dissident bloggers, and attempts to strengthen their voice and defend their freedom of expression. The organization, extant for only a few weeks, has already had ample opportunity to support pro-democracy bloggers in the Middle East, particularly in autocratic countries, due to the recent “thirst for freedom from North Africa to the Gulf,” Keyes said.
“I think Advancing Human Rights will become an important organization for two reasons,” Bernstein said. “Its section is giving dissident voices in the Arab countries a marketplace for their ideas. We have to take the chance with this greater openness, so the Arabs will be able to throw off the tyrannies they have been forced to live under. Change is going to have to come from inside the countries themselves.”
In addition, Bernstein said, the Straight Talk on Human Rights section will try to broaden the discussion on human rights by bringing in voices from other countries like China, Russia, “and certainly the Middle East.”
“We’re highlighting particular issues that we think are of great concern to the human rights community,” Keyes said, “fostering a dialogue and debate and highlighting voices and analysis that often fall through the cracks.”
THE GROUP intends to look at issues of incitement to genocide – “Some human rights groups don’t believe it’s in their mandate to speak out against incitement to genocide, and that’s outrageous,” Keyes said – as well as asymmetric war and human rights – “one of the least-understood interplays between human rights and war.”
Former British colonel Richard Kemp, who headed efforts in counterinsurgency warfare in the British army, will help the group on this particular issue, Keyes added.
Closed societies, Keyes said, are of particular import: “They don’t have a fraction of the mechanisms to enable them to be able to readily correct violations of human rights.”
Keyes was quick to underscore that “our group was not founded to disparage or hate other human rights groups.”
“We just think the focus and work needs to be on the most repressive societies and to get back to the fundamentals of the Declaration of Human Rights,” he explained.
“We’re hoping to affiliate ourselves with all groups interested in promoting free speech and human rights,” Keyes added. The United Nations, he allowed, is “problematic – they allowed the worst human rights repressors on earth to head their Human Rights Council. I hope that we’ll work to increase accountability in the UN, and moral standards that can distinguish between dictatorships and democracies and prohibit serial violations of human rights.”
Bernstein added that “if I had to look back on Advancing Human Rights 10 years from now, I would hope that it will have helped to open closed societies and that the new open societies would have some of the tolerance and balance that democratic societies have today – far from perfect, but infinitely better than the opposite.”
While there is plenty of work for the organization to do – Keyes anticipates much work in Saudi Arabia, China and Russia to start – the executive director is excited.
“After all, it’s not every day the 88-year-old founder of Human Rights Watch founds a new human rights organization,” Keyes said.