Groups to Help Online Activists in Authoritarian Countries

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WASHINGTON -- From Egyptian bloggers to Russian Twitterati, activists around the world have turned the Internet into a tool for political change, even as governments have learned its usefulness for surveillance.

Now two small American human rights groups, one co-founded by a 30-year-old State Department official turned Google executive and one by an 89-year-old veteran activist who once championed Soviet dissidents, are joining forces to support online activists in authoritarian countries. Google has no direct involvement in the venture, but intends to donate money, with the amount still being discussed, according to a company official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The merger involves Movements.org, co-founded in 2008 by Jared Cohen, now the director of Google Ideas, the company's research arm, and Advancing Human Rights, created two years ago by Robert L. Bernstein, a retired publishing executive who started Human Rights Watch in 1978. Their age difference gives the combination an intergenerational character that both men said added to its appeal.

"I'm learning a lot," Mr. Bernstein said in an interview. "My grandkids work these machines like crazy, and I'm catching on."

Mr. Bernstein said that in more than three decades as a rights advocate, "What I've discovered is that it's difficult to lecture people in other countries. So what you can do is free up speech." In the merged organization, which will retain the name Advancing Human Rights, he said, "We will be trying to say to people in closed societies that we will do everything we can to give you a voice."

Mr. Cohen, a State Department official when he helped start Movements.org, said his group decided to look for a partner and reviewed many rights organizations before approaching Advancing Human Rights. Besides Mr. Bernstein's decades of experience, Mr. Cohen said, the group was impressed by the activists abroad who had been connected by one of its programs, CyberDissidents.org, run by David Keyes, 28. An advocate and a pioneer in online activism, Mr. Keyes is also executive director of Advancing Human Rights.

"David is a creative young guy with a phenomenal network of cyberactivists in the Middle East and North Africa," Mr. Cohen said. "The combination of Bob and David was irresistible."

In addition to providing connections, technical advice and other support to dissidents abroad, Advancing Human Rights intends to publish their work in a series of e-books, as Mr. Bernstein, the retired chairman of Random House, once published the work of the physicist Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents.

Apart from its online orientation, Advancing Human Rights is distinguished by its embrace of a disputed philosophy in the human rights world: it will focus exclusively on authoritarian countries.

In 2009, Mr. Bernstein broke publicly with Human Rights Watch, where he was chairman for 20 years, over what he had come to believe was its excessive attention to the misdeeds of Israel. More broadly, he said, he thought the group devoted too much energy on "open societies" like Israel and the United States, rather than on dictatorships.

"Open societies are far from perfect, but they have a lot of institutions other than human rights groups working on making things better," he said. He argued in a 2009 Op-Ed article in The New York Times that Human Rights Watch should concentrate on the most repressive countries. The organization's leaders considered his argument and rejected it, saying it would be "a violation of our core principle that human rights are universal" to ignore problems in Israel or the United States.

In 2008, Mr. Cohen was serving as an aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when American officials learned that a protest involving millions of Colombians against kidnappings by a rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had been organized in part via Facebook.

On the State Department's policy staff, Mr. Cohen said, he became "the go-to person on tech stuff just because I was young." He found that few American embassies were tracking online activists around the world, and he helped to start an annual summit of the activists. The summits gave rise to Movements.org and have linked older, traditional dissidents with younger masters of the Web.

In a sense, that is what is happening with Advancing Human Rights, which has raised about $2 million with an initial budget goal of about $3 million a year, Mr. Bernstein said.

Advancing Human Rights is already getting a steady stream of requests for help. In recent days, Mr. Keyes said, he received a call via Skype from a Saudi woman who fears that she could become a victim of an honor killing by her family.

"I'll get an e-mail every other day from activists in Syria or Saudi Arabia or somewhere else," Mr. Keyes said. They are looking for help reaching the international news media, contacting American officials, learning about asylum laws or simply linking up with like-minded activists, he said.

"These guys have jobs and families and limited time and resources," he said. "I think we can help thousands of people."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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