Why We Need A New Human Rights Organization

Robert L. Bernstein

This is the very first public meeting of a new human rights organization, Advancing Human Rights. We weren’t quite ready to launch, but one of our esteemed board members, Colonel Richard Kemp, is on one of his rare trips to the U.S. and we didn’t want to lose this opportunity to have him in New York to speak on one of the most important topics being debated - not only among human rights advocates - but by governments and all those interested in the battle against terrorism.  That topic is Asymmetric War, the kind of war we have been having since 1950, that is after World War II – wars in which many fighting are not uniformed.  Before introducing Colonel Kemp, let me say a word about the new organization that he has so kindly been willing to join.  It is our hope to keep this discussion based on the issues that divide us, not on personalities.

As many of you know, I founded Human Rights Watch and am today Founding Chair Emeritus of the organization. I am Chair of Advancing Human Rights. A fair question is:  Why is a new organization needed, especially one headed by someone who devoted so much of his life to one of the largest, best financed human rights organizations in the world?  Let me give a partial answer. Human Rights Watch started as an organization believing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was an important document starting with free speech and that it should try and get closed societies to recognize it.

Somewhere along the way, it became another critical voice by joining other human rights organizations already doing this in an open society.  Some of these human rights organizations have gone one step further and decided to become arbiter in wars and believe that the Geneva Conventions, rules of war and international law are a major human rights concern.

This has been particularly true in Israel’s fight with the Arab world, and centered, of course, on the Israel–Palestine problems just as the Arabs wished.  I found myself having sharp disagreements with the actions and statements of Human Rights Watch concerning the Middle East and, in my view, the board’s increasing unwillingness to address these differences. Following my op-ed in the New York Times on Oct. 19, 2009 in which I said Human Rights Watch was a major voice in trying to make Israel into a pariah state, I have had no contact with the board.

It is probably just as well that my differences with some of the leading human rights organizations be aired publicly and that those who share my views pursue our own course. I believe genocide is one of the worst, if not the worst human rights offenses and should be instantly opposed.  As you know, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas have declared it is their intention to commit genocide of not only Israelis but all Jews.

Some human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch, do not condemn incitement to genocide, Arab hate speech being spewed daily in Gaza, particularly, and Saudi textbooks being taught to young children calling Jews “monkeys and pigs.” Hate speech is the precursor to genocide. I understand giving hate speech a lot of latitude in an open society where it is sure to be criticized - but in a closed society it goes unanswered and encouraged by the government, governments that control all the media.

If I’ve misinterpreted the positions of these human rights organizations, I’m happy to be corrected.

Human Rights Watch believes it is its job to protect civilians on both sides in a war. This is where we really disagree. In the Israel-Palestine conflict they cannot protect either side for reasons Colonel Kemp will address.  Worse, their methodology which is to analyze a war after it is over is flawed and in my view its staff has little knowledge of the realities of asymmetric war and makes accusations of war crimes where others would understand the sad collateral damage of war. In the Israel-Palestine war, it seems to me, the Israelis are usually the party accused.  Hamas, I believe, is fighting a war of attrition, and doesn’t subscribe to the Geneva conventions etc.  I will leave the rest to Colonel Kemp.

The other reasons why a new organization is desirable will be spelled out in the near future when we will issue what I would call a “white paper” outlining them. We will then move on in our own way, leaving open societies to fend for themselves most of the time. When we are critical, we will note that while open societies must maintain the highest standards, even when they slip, they start from a much higher standard. In judging open societies you can be sure there will be more than one judge.

I believe that creating Advancing Human Rights is the most important thing I’ve done in my life.  I never imagined that at 88 years old I would be founding a new human rights organization. But, I am doing it out of necessity because I believe there are trends which are doing great damage to democracies throughout the world. 

I want to stress that our organization is not right or left wing – not in the least.  I don’t think of myself as either.  We focus on issues from a human rights perspective, case by case.  I’m sure people will try to label and corner us, but there is no need for this.  Initially, our work will be on the Middle East, China and Russia where we start with good information and sources.  We have groups in each hot spot that have expressed interest to work with us. 

We will focus on women’s rights and free speech.  These two rights – the spearhead of most totalitarian repression – are so important because where they are absent, achieving the other very important human rights is practically impossible.  We will, of course, go into closed societies.  The very idea of human rights organizations spending some of their small resources to be another voice in an open society with what we see happening all over the world in closed societies is almost ludicrous. Now that these closed societies are exploding, they will need every ounce of the human rights community’s attention so that we don’t have another Iran.

Advancing Human Rights has an incredible board in formation including former Canadian Justice Minister, Irwin Cotler, famed Soviet dissident, Yelena Bonner, and former assistant attorney general of NY, Scott Greathead. 

Leading our new organization as executive director is David Keyes.  David and I started working together one year ago.  He has built a phenomenal organization, CyberDissidents.org, which is a central part of our new human rights organization.  It supports pro-democracy Internet activists throughout the Middle East and has been on the cutting edge of human rights.

David worked with Natan Sharansky and I published Natan, so that is one of the reasons we see eye to eye on so much.  Before Colonel Kemp speaks, I want to give David a few minutes to introduce himself and to outline our mission and work.  After he speaks, I will introduce Colonel Kemp.

As many of you know Colonel Kemp who led the British Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq came forward after the fighting in Gaza and declared that the Israeli forces had tried to protect civilians probably harder than any Army in history and that the allegations in the Goldstone report which were and remain strongly supported by Human Rights Watch are deeply flawed. Let me say here: I believe all of us, those involved in human rights and most people living in democracies are deeply concerned about civilian death in war and send our armies into war with all sorts of caveats. It is interesting to note that Moshe Halbertal, the Israeli legal philosopher who wrote a devastating analysis of the Goldstone report, also wrote the moral code the Israeli Army should follow in battle.

When you hear Colonel Kemp I believe you will understand why you can be proud of the judgment military officers and their civilian defense counterparts make most of the time. I hope you will question whether human rights professionals, most of whom are sincere and devoted, have better knowledge of the risks democratic, uniformed troops can take to save civilians without undue risks to themselves and their own forces, than the military experts that lead them.

This is a very serious question as Hamas rearms in Gaza and Iran has supplied over 40,000 rockets, guided missiles, some reportedly with chemical war heads to Hezbollah. These arms are in villages along the Lebanon-Israel border and were put there under the noses of the U.N. Forces, over 12,000 troops, despite U.N. resolution 1701 which ordered the disarming of Hezbollah. The rockets have a range which will allow them to reach deep into Israel.  As Colonel Kemp speaks to us, think about what you would want our government to do if the buildup was on the other side of the Hudson River, instead of the Litani River, 15 miles from Israel.  The U.N, is so busy issuing resolutions against Israel it doesn’t seem to have noticed, and neither do major human rights organizations.

It is a great honor to introduce Colonel Richard Kemp.

This was Mr. Bernstein’s prepared statement at the pre-launch of Advancing Human Rights, featuring Colonel Richard Kemp on February 24, 2011.

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