Robert L. Bernstein, Human Rights Watch Founder Who Later Criticized Its Anti-Israel Bias, Dies at 96
The founder of the influential NGO Human Rights Watch, who later took the organization to task for its bias against Israel, has died at age 96.
Robert L. Bernstein, born in New York City in 1923, had a sterling career in the publishing industry at Random House while founding several human rights NGOs in the late 1970s that ultimately merged into Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group is now among the most well-known and significant NGOs in the world.
The organizations monitored and reported on human rights abuses around the world, beginning with the Soviet Union and then spreading to regimes in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. Among the dissidents Bernstein championed was Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky, later an Israeli politician and head of the Jewish Agency.
In 2009, however, Bernstein, by then chairman emeritus of HRW, slammed the organization he founded for what he described as a persistent bias against Israel.
In an editorial for The New York Times, Bernstein wrote that HRW “has been issuing reports on the Israeli-Arab conflict that are helping those who wish to turn Israel into a pariah state.”
Pointing out that Israel was a democracy while most regimes in the Middle East were undemocratic and authoritarian, Bernstein said, “The plight of their citizens who would most benefit from the kind of attention a large and well-financed international human rights organization can provide is being ignored as Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division prepares report after report on Israel.”
“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,” he said.
“Leaders of Human Rights Watch know that Hamas and Hezbollah chose to wage war from densely populated areas, deliberately transforming neighborhoods into battlefields,” Bernstein asserted. “They know that more and better arms are flowing into both Gaza and Lebanon and are poised to strike again. And they know that this militancy continues to deprive Palestinians of any chance for the peaceful and productive life they deserve.”
“Yet Israel, the repeated victim of aggression, faces the brunt of Human Rights Watch’s criticism,” he added.
“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,” Bernstein warned. “If it fails to do that, its credibility will be seriously undermined and its important role in the world significantly diminished.”