In his 25 years at Random House, Robert Bernstein published authors from William Faulkner to Dr. Seuss. After traveling to the Soviet Union in 1973, Bernstein began a second long career in the human-rights movement, advocating for Soviet dissidents and fighting to publish writers, like Vaclav Havel, who were censored in their own countries. Now Bernstein’s organization, Advancing Human Rights, is merging with Movements.org, another small human-rights group founded by 30-year-old Jared Cohen, a former State Department official who now leads Google Ideas. Bernstein told The Daily Beast about his activism and his vision for his new project.
Talk a little about the mission of Advancing Human Rights. How will that change now that you’re merging with Movements.org?
Advancing Human Rights seeks to amplify the voices of human rights defenders in closed societies. We support democratic dissidents, particularly by leveraging the power of the Internet through CyberDissidents.org and our new alliance with Movements.org. We have a network of online activists that is amplified by Movements.org’s tremendous following of 300,000 people on Twitter. We are frequently contacted by bloggers and women’s-rights advocates who need help. We connect them with policymakers and the press. Their faces and names must become known to the world. We’ve done briefings with the U.S. secretary of State, the National Security Council, Congress, and others. Some of our board members, like former justice minister of Canada Irwin Cotler, have provided invaluable legal assistance to imprisoned activists in the Middle East.
We are also creating a publishing division of Advancing Human Rights to give brave defenders of freedom an even wider platform. When I was head of Random House, I published the books of Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Natan Sharansky, and others. Their words helped shape the way the world understands dictatorships, and we have a similar opportunity today. We’ve already received dozens of proposals from human-rights activists throughout the world.
Movements.org now joins CyberDissidents.org as a division of Advancing Human Rights. It adds a technical dimension to our work. Movements.org has convened several very impressive summits in Mexico City, London, and New York that brought together leading online activists. Technological know-how can be a critical factor in helping today’s dissidents be heard and seen. In the days when I visited Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, dissidents could only dream of having such tools at their disposal. They often went to prison and no one heard about them. Today it’s hard to move an inch anywhere without it appearing all over the Internet. All dictatorships fear freedom of speech and now online freedom. This shows their inner weakness. I believe, as Justice Brandeis did, that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
In three decades of human rights work, I’ve come to believe that the two most pressing human-rights concerns today are free speech and women’s rights. If you take care of those two, it will go a long way toward solving all the other problems.
What’s your personal involvement like on a daily basis?
We have offices and I’m in them almost every day. The reason is that this is a very important moment for human-rights organizations, particularly in the Middle East and China, and it is imperative that they enable people in those countries who want change to have a chance at it. I work on trying to develop the mandate of our organization so that it concentrates on closed societies. Through our staff, I’m in touch with some of the bloggers myself, talk to them by email, and some come to my office when they’re in this country. I’ve personally met with Egyptian bloggers, Saudi women drivers, Chinese dissidents, and Syrian human-rights activists, and will continue to do so. I am in touch with high-ranking members of the U.S. government, and I’m trying to bring together human-rights organizations who are doing good work.
For the past two and a half years, I’ve worked every day with our executive director, David Keyes, who has done a phenomenal job. We’ve built a young team of experts and activists dedicated to human rights. I believe that building this organization is one of the most important things I have done in my life. I’m thankful that I’m still active, in good health, and travel. Recently, I went to the Middle East with David, and we met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, among others.
You argued famously that human-rights activists should work in the world’s most repressive countries, and that seems to be reflected in your mission. For people who aren’t familiar with the debate, can you explain why you think that focus is best and why others disagree?
There is no question that democracies have their faults, and those need to be addressed. What human-rights organizations often fail to understand, recognize, and emphasize is that there are many people working to improve open societies. There is a free press, civil society, NGOs, independent judiciary, and fair elections. Dictatorships like Syria, Iran, China, and Saudi Arabia don’t have a fraction of those rights. We don’t gain credibility by criticizing two human-rights violations in a dictatorship and two human-rights violations in a nearby democracy. Dictatorships must be brought up to the level of democracies. The failure to stress the enormous difference between democracies and dictatorships is a profound betrayal of the principles of human rights. There is no moral equivalence between the two at all.
There is also great confusion about war. Democratic armies, which are often demonized, take great pains to avoid civilian damage. Terrorist organizations like Hamas and al Qaeda, on the other hand, specifically hide among civilians in order to increase the damage. Some in the human-rights community also believe that they should be neutral in war. I don’t see how you can ever be neutral about those that call for genocide, like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, and democratic states.
Hate speech also exists everywhere in the world, but how can one compare between a small number of extremists in an open society who are firmly castigated and the president of a country like Iran who is guilty state-sponsored incitement to genocide? State-sponsored incitement is the problem, and human-rights reporting is not challenging it. It is an enormous and pressing problem, as state-sponsored incitement to genocide is almost always the precursor to genocide.
Saudi Arabia also has an enormous industry of textbooks calling Jews and Christians “monkeys and pigs.” This has been going on for decades and is certainly something human-rights organizations should be actively trying to end. State-sponsored hate speech has nothing to do with preserving free speech. It is frightening to think that we sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of arms and can’t even get them to stop printing textbooks calling others, many of whom live in the United States, “monkeys and pigs.”
There have been arguments in the media about how much technology and social media help dissidents under oppressive regimes. What’s your opinion on that? Does technology have any limitations in helping to advance human rights?
A few months ago, the Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer was re-imprisoned during the Egyptian revolution. He had already spent four years in prison under Hosni Mubarak. David Keyes asked me to go on TV to appeal for his release. At first I wondered if it would do any good. But I was convinced to go on Bloomberg TV to speak about Kareem’s disappearance. The video of me was quickly uploaded on YouTube, and a short time later I was speaking to a young woman on Skype wearing a hijab in Cairo who had just returned from Tahrir Square thanking me for speaking out about Kareem Amer. It was amazing how fast all of this happened.
My experience has been that once people are engaged in their own country in risky work fighting for their freedom, the more publicity and the more their name is picked up by free societies, the safer they are. Like all generalities, there may be exceptions, but I think if you talk to most dissidents, they will tell you that it helps to keep them better treated while in prison. While it’s impossible to measure, hopefully it helps them get released.
When I think back how hard it was to keep these names prominent in the times of the Soviet Union, which is where I started, and how the Internet has increased contact, information, and made it practically impossible to keep things secret, there is no question that this is going to be the greatest tool made available to human rights. That’s why I’m so excited about the joining together of Movements.org, cofounded by the current head of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen, and CyberDissidents.org, cofounded by our executive director, David Keyes. Combining the online technology of human-rights organizations with the technology of the new press, like The Daily Beast, should be a powerful tool in moving societies to become more open.
—Interview by David Sessions