Bob Bernstein and Human Rights Watch: A Mixed Record

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein

by Helena Cobban

Washington DC, May 28—Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a pioneering leader of the publishing company Random House, died earlier this week, aged 96. His passing provides a good opportunity to examine the role that HRW and its sometimes outspoken founder have played regarding the Palestinians’ pursuit of their fundamental human rights—as well as other key issues in the Middle East.

From 1993 through 2019, I was a member of HRW’s “Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee.” I got a fairly close-up look at the way that, throughout those years, this organization based on adherence to a number of fundamental, universally applicable human-rights norms would repeatedly pull its punches when it came to assessing Israel’s rights record.

The MENA Committee is only an advisory body. It meets a couple of times a year in New York, to review the work of HRW’s well-staffed MENA Division and offer suggestions for future directions. I traveled to New York for the meetings whenever I could, though sometimes I could attend only via the satellite link with HRW’s Washington office, or via speakerphone. Most other members were colleagues whom I knew had solid credentials as experts in some aspect of Middle East politics, but there were always a few non-expert participants. One of these was very frequently Bob Bernstein himself. My friends on the HRW staff explained that the other mystery participants were, like Bernstein, HRW board members who “had a special interest in the work of the MENA Division.”

I’ll say!

One of these was Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, a long-time Vice-Chair of the HRW Board. Sheinberg (who died last March) would generally take part by speakerphone, deploying his well-known irascibility to flay anyone who spoke up wanting to criticize Israel’s actions. Sheinberg was also on the boards of strongly pro-Israel organizations the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Another frequent participant was Edith Everett, a retired investment advisor who was a significant donor to HRW and whose family foundation, with $7.2 million in assets reported in 2015, makes several large annual gifts to institutions in Israel. I recall one MENA Committee meeting in the late 1990s when Ms. Everett wanted to talk about a trip she had made to Israel-Palestine. She enthused about a nice visit she’d made while there to some friends in a new Israeli “neighborhood” in East Jerusalem—that is, an illegal Jewish settlement in occupied territory.

So that was the atmosphere in HRW in those years. The staff members had to engage in considerable mental gymnastics to square the strong support most of them had for the idea of the universality of rights norms with the daily practice of an organization that always had to please these strongly pro-Israel board members (and donors). Some of us on the advisory committee tried hard in these committee meetings to push back against the biases of those board participants. But our role was only ever “advisory.” They were on the board.

My time on the committee came to an abrupt end in September 2009, when the Director of the Middle East Division told me they had decided to institute “terms” for the advisory committee members and that—surprise!—my “term” had just expired. (And now, a decade later, I find that several of the people who were on the committee when I joined it in 1993 are still there! I confess I don’t wholly understand their “limited-term” system…)

Over the years I was on the committee, I think that engaged staff members with perhaps some help from some of us on the committee succeeded in pulling HRW to be somewhat less biased in the way it reported on matters to do with Israel. But the bias was still there. In February 2009, as a shocked world assessed the devastation caused by the assault that Israel’s military had waged against Gaza the previous December-January, former Crisis Group researcher Mouin Rabbani produced this report, which detailed the many ways HRW’s reporting and recommendations continued to show strong pro-Israeli bias.

But clearly, the degree of this bias was still not enough for Bob Bernstein. Bernstein had retired from his position as HRW Board Chair back in 1998, though he remained on the board for some time after that. In October 2009, he came out swinging in a sharply critical op-ed published in The New York Times. He argued that ever since he had founded HRW back in 1988, “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. That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity…”

He described Israel as an extremely democratic society, contrasting it with the “Arab and Iranian regimes” that, he said, “remain brutal, closed and autocratic, permitting little or no internal dissent.” And he concluded that HRW “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…”

Ken Roth, a longtime Bernstein protégé who has been HRW’s Executive Director since 1993, hit back speedily with a public statement defending the organization’s work. The statement tamped down speculation that Bernstein’s criticisms might split the board by noting that the whole board had heard from Mr. Bernstein at a meeting the previous April and that, “The board unanimously rejected his view that Human Rights Watch should report only on closed societies, and expressed its full support for the organization’s work.”

Over the decade since 2009, HRW’s record in the Middle East and around the world has continued to be mixed. During the Obama years, several HRW staff members went through a revolving door into various parts of the Obama administration. (The longtime director of HRW’s Washington Office, Tom Malinowski, served as Assistant Secretary of State for democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2014 through 2017; then, in 2018 he was elected to Congress from New Jersey’s 7th District.)

HRW now has Egyptian-American financier Hassan Elmasry as Co-Chair of its board. Its reporting on Palestine has continued to show some amount of pro-Israeli bias. But over the past few years both the organization itself and its Executive Director Ken Roth have shown huge bias in regard to Syria. For many years now, Roth (take-home pay in 2017: more than $600,000) has maintained a hyper-active personal Twitter presence on which, sometimes several times a day, he pours out a stream of invective and accusations against the Syrian government, along with calls for regime change in Damascus, while ignoring or glossing over the many abuses committed by all the strands of the Syrian opposition.

(Back in the “old” days of human rights activism, rights activists maintained a strong taboo on expressing overtly political positions in their activism. But it seems that, for Ken Roth at least, that taboo has now disappeared.)

At HRW itself, the anti-Damascus bias has been less pronounced but it is still evident. For example, in the four years since Mohammad bin Salman took over the effective reins of power in Saudi Arabia, authorizing his military to commit (with U.S. help) numerous war crimes in Yemen and numerous gross abuses against Saudi citizens, HRW has issued a total of five reports about Saudi Arabia. In the same period, it has issued twelve about abuses in Syria—though three or four of these focus on abuses committed by either the Syrian opposition or the U.S. military.

At a broad level, the concept of “rights watch” organizations—organizations of citizens that monitor the rights-related behavior of various governments—seems like a good one. In practice, it is a concept that is inherently somewhat opaque and is itself easily open to abuse or bias. Even Amnesty International, which in principle was built on strong traditions of self-governance by its generally active membership, has been suffering from grave internal problems. But HRW never had any of the internal checks and balances that an engaged membership can provide. It has always operated at the whim of its donors and in line with the preferences of a handsomely compensated professional staff that (to put it crudely) knows which side its bread is buttered. 

A decade ago, Bob Bernstein went off the rails in a pretty disturbing way. But the organization he founded continues to be, as it was before, a body with a decidedly mixed record. It has done some good work detailing rights abuses in numerous situations around the world—including those committed by the U.S. military and the U.S. Homeland Security-industrial complex. But especially in the Middle East, it has often acted—as it did over Libya in 2011 and as it has done ever since 2011 regarding Syria—in line with the generally pro-Israel bias of its donor base. As a result, it has ended up being a key member of the allegedly “humanitarian” portion of a very destructive military-interventionist complex.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran Middle East analyst and author Helena Cobban is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and the CEO of both Just World Books and the nonprofit Just World Educational. JWE’s website Justworldeducational.org makes freely available to the public a variety of resources on war, peace, justice, and the Middle East. The views she expresses here are her own.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent article by one with huge experience in the region.

  2. Thanks for the insight about the process of HR, the ‘public relations’ wing of the military industry complex!

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