The Foundation was fortunate to host a dynamic speaker straight from the turmoil of Washington, DC this week, with several events featuring Rob Berschinski, Senior Vice President for Policy at Human Rights First, one of the Foundation’s grantees. Rob was most recently serving in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. He previously served under Ambassador Samantha Power at the UN.
Rob spoke with our Jackson Fellows about his unusual career path, which began as an intelligence officer in the Air Force and subsequently an Iraq War veteran. He came to understand the U.S. role in human rights as integral to America’s national security and fundamental values, a position close to the heart of the Jackson legacy. He spoke to the Fellows of wanting to make a difference in that arena and finding policy making in Washington as the outlet for his convictions. The young professionals were particularly interested as to how Rob tries to be effective in a polarized political environment. In Human Rights First he found an organization – and a role – where he can champion a bipartisan, reasonably centrist viewpoint, crossing both sides of the aisle, “working with folks on a quiet basis.” He acknowledged the challenges: “This is the most fractured U.S. foreign policy in recent memory,” he said.
Rob and I also had a discussion in partnership with the World Affairs Council, to a packed room of interested community members, students and retired military leaders. Russia came up a lot — both with the current focus on Russia’s role in Europe and the United States, stirring up trouble and meddling in elections, but also with the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin on other right-wing leaning states in Europe and elsewhere. “He is empowering and supporting other strongmen who are modeling themselves after him,” Rob said.
The Jackson Foundation and Human Rights First have been working together for several years to bring attention to Russia’s negative influence on a democratic Europe and its efforts to rile up social and political divisions in our own country, something of which we are now well aware. “Russia’s weaponized info-war – disinformation and hate speech – is undercutting values that we thought were well-established in post-War Europe,” he warned.
The Trump Administration, the enfeebled and demoralized State Department, and the lack of American political leadership also came up often, particularly in the questions Rob fielded throughout his two days in Seattle. “This administration doesn’t place a premium on diplomacy,” he lamented.
We are grateful that Rob could also meet with students and faculty at the University’s Jackson School, where despite being the first week of classes, the audience was eager to get an overview of pressing human rights concerns such as the Rohingya Muslims killings in Burma and the ensuing refugee crisis, the Saudi bombing in Yemen, and the many other hotspots and humanitarian flashpoints that crowd today’s front pages. In all his appearances, the question of human rights at home came up again and again.
Rob acknowledged a growing activism at the state and local level and urged his audiences, young and old, to stay engaged and committed to American democratic values. “The world has always looked to us for leadership,” he concluded. Let us hope that will continue in these challenging times.
Lara Iglitzin, Executive Director