Robert L. Bernstein, 1997. 

© Viviane Moos/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

(New York) – Human Rights Watch mourns the death of Robert L. Bernstein, the publishing leader and rights advocate who organized the people and groups that ultimately became Human Rights Watch. Bernstein served as the first chair of the board of Human Rights Watch until 1990, and then was elected Founding Chair Emeritus. He died on May 27, 2019, aged 96. 

“Bob Bernstein had the vision to uphold international human rights when few recognized their importance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “He was particularly committed to defending dissidents who had the courage to stand up to repressive governments, applying his creativity and energy on their behalf.”

Bernstein came to human rights work first as a defender of the freedom to write – he helped authors fighting the Soviet Union’s censors during the Moscow Book Fairs in the 1970s. Those initiatives led him to found and chair the Fund for Free Expression in 1975 and later Helsinki Watch in 1978, groups that ultimately became Human Rights Watch. 

Bob Bernstein demonstrates on behalf of jailed writer Vladimir Bukovsky, on the sidewalk outside the Soviet Consulate in New York, 1978. 

“Bob’s extraordinary ability to inspire others to join the human rights cause derived in large part from his ability to convey his personal outrage against those who commit abuses and his deep empathy with their victims,” said Aryeh Neier, the leading activist who co-founded Helsinki Watch with Bernstein and writer Jeri Laber.

Bernstein became CEO of Random House in 1966. As head of Random House, he was one of the top publishers of his generation and a leading champion of free expression. He hired the novelist Toni Morrison as an editor at Random House and promoted Dr. Seuss. He defended persecuted activists such as Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, and Wei Jingsheng and gave them a global audience by publishing their writings.

When Bernstein, Neier, Laber, and others founded Helsinki Watch in 1978, it was a small nonprofit with a big mission: monitoring the compliance of Soviet Bloc governments with the human rights provisions of the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Soon after, Americas Watch was created, examining human rights and laws-of-war violations in Latin America, including the role played by the United States. The other regional “Watch Committees” were added in the 1980s. After the Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing in June 1989, Bernstein took a special interest in promoting human rights in China and providing support for the embattled activists there.

Today, Human Rights Watch has grown to almost 500 full-time staff members working regularly in 100 countries, covering a range of international human rights and humanitarian law issues, encompassing economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights, and investigating abuses by governments, insurgent groups, corporations, and others.

“Bob Bernstein thought big. He believed that private citizens could take on entrenched dictatorships and get them to change their ways. He also thought small, by focusing on victims of human rights abuse – not just their suffering but who they were: Do they have a job? A family? Need medical attention? A place to live? He would help,” said Laber, the long-time executive director of Helsinki Watch. “Bob showed by example that bulldog tenacity pays off in human rights work, that it is okay to show emotion about human rights abuse, and that there is room in the workplace for friendship and humor. He never let us forget the word ‘human’ in Human Rights Watch.”

Robert Bernstein attends the Human Rights Watch Annual Dinner in New York, March 13, 2019.

© 2019 Jason Smith

In 2009, Bernstein publicly criticized Human Rights Watch’s reporting on human rights in Israel. Human Rights Watch and its board responded that the organization’s work on the region was tough and accurate, holding Israel to the same principles and standards applied to all governments around the world. Bernstein continued to serve on Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa advisory committee until shortly before his death. 

The Bernstein family established law school fellowships in human rights in Bernstein’s name at Yale and New York University. Fellows have subsequently worked at Human Rights Watch and in rights organizations worldwide. 

“Bernstein was a force of nature and until the end he was passionately advocating for his vision of a better world,” said Sari Bashi, a Bernstein fellow who founded the Israeli human rights group Gisha and later served as Israel-Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.

“Bernstein launched an idea with deep roots: that the ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy are not just for governments to respect, but for individuals to defend,” Roth said. 

Human Rights Watch sends our deepest condolences to his widow, Helen; his sons Peter, Tom and William; and the extended Bernstein family, and to the many Bernstein fellows who will continue his work.