October 5, 2011

Robert L. Bernstein on Human Rights and Why Words Matter

Robert L. Bernstein is the former president and chairman of Random House and founding chairman emeritus of Human Rights Watch.

He is is presently chairman of the group Advancing Human Rights, an NGO to promote values of the Universal Declaration with a primary focus on unfree states that, unlike open societies, have small means to correct human rights abuses—a free press, active and independent NGOs, vigilant courts and legislatures.
AHR also examines current procedures for an improved understanding of the interplay between war and human rights and the treatment of international humanitarian law by human rights groups.  This is an areas where controversy exists concerning the methodology of "expert" analysis.

Bernstein wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on September 27, entitled: "Why do human rights groups ignore Palestinians’ war of words?"  He begins:
Two dominant forces have defined Arab nations in modern times: autocratic leadership that has denied basic freedoms to its own people, and a deeply ingrained and institutionalized anti-Semitism, centered on a hatred of Israel. Freedom is a growing possibility in light of the Arab Spring, but for this freedom to lead to peace, progress must be made in ending hate speech and incitement to genocide. This is particularly true in Gaza, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran.
He believes a vote to add to the United Nations a new member state that calls for the elimination of its neighbor and glorifies terrorism will make peace harder to achieve, not easier. He cites Hamas’s blatant calls for genocide and deceptions of the Palestinian Authority, even when engaged in peace talks, such as Abbas's said flatly last October that “we refuse to recognize a Jewish state.”

He calls out human rights groups as "unwitting accomplices" and that "almost every mainstream human rights group has ignored hate speech and incitement to genocide, not only against Israel but against all Jews." 
Human Rights Watch, which I founded 33 years ago, continues to attack many of Israel’s defensive measures during war, yet it says nothing about hate speech and incitement to genocide. To cite just one example, the speaker of the Hamas parliament, Ahmad Bahr, called in April 2007 for the murder of Jews, “down to the very last one.” Imagine what leading human rights groups would say if this same speech and incitement were coming from Israel, aimed at the Palestinians.
He also faults human rights groups for choosing to focus primarily on Israel and discounting Israeli actions to protect civilians on both sides, steps approved by military experts, while "whitewashing Hamas’s desire to eliminate a whole country as just bluster and meaningless words." 
One would think that, of all organizations in the world, human rights groups would particularly believe that words matter. Words inform intent and influence action. Words and actions need to be taken seriously, especially when they are sponsored by governments.
To Bernstein and others, including myself, the real obstacle to long-term peace are words of hate and incitement to genocide effectively spread to Arabs, such as in Saudi textbooks, distributed in the Arab world and beyond, that label Jews “monkeys and pigs,” fomenting discord, radicalism and violence.

He concludes: 
The absence of criticism by the United Nations and human rights groups is more than just a lack of judgment and fairness. It is proof that the Arab Spring has yet to thaw the old thinking that has stymied progress toward peace for far too long. [...] Human rights groups should be leading this battle — not ignoring it.
This is what astounds me about so many in the human rights community, the clamor against one side and the virtual silence with regard to the other, as if the Universal Declaration is anything but universal in application, and must accede to cultural relativism.  This may also be attributable to a double standard, what Gerstenfeld calls "humanitarian racism."  More on that in a later post.  No matter the cause, there is no justification as I see it, nor any right to lecture others about what is dignity and tolerance.

As a postscript, Bernstein gave an incredible speech in Omaha about a year ago, the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights University of Nebraska at Omaha.  Entitled, “Human Rights in the Middle East,” it begins: 
You may wonder why a man just shy of his 88th birthday would get up at 5 in the morning to fly to Omaha to give a speech. Frankly, since accepting this kind offer, I’ve wondered myself. Here’s why. Having devoted much of my life to trying to make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come alive in many places in the world, I have become alarmed at how some human rights organizations, including the one I founded, are reporting on human rights in the Middle East.
I highly commend the entire speech for anyone who cares about human rights, the Universal Declaration, and humanitarian law.


  1. The guy is right on and he knows the territory. But we should all have known too given Gramsci told us there would be a long march through the institutions.

  2. Can't say I know much about Gramsci, but will look at what he says.

    Is the long march to make things better or worse? If the former, it will be a very long march.

  3. Gramsci was an early 20th century, or late 19th century, socialist / communist.

    He was imprisoned in Italy, if I am not mistaken, where he wrote his famous journals.

    I see him as a sort Chomsky type. His significance is in pointing toward how the media shapes perception and how the bourgeoisie shapes the media.

    Something quite like that.

  4. Cultural Marxist extraordinaire, Gramsci pretty much gave the world the idea of cultural hegemony aspart of his explanation as to why the workers had not arisen as predicted by Marx. Gramsci blamed the Christian West as a sort of brainwashing agent which would have to be destroyed/replaced by the new proletariat comprised of many criminals, women, and racial minorities. Thus a long march through the Western Christian Institutions tearing down and replacing their hegemonies. He meant all institutions: the traditional family ,churches, schools, media, entertainment, civic organizations, literature, science, and history.

    Recognize the notion?