The Charles Bronfman Prize Awarded to International Human Rights Advocate Eric Rosenthal
Eric Rosenthal, a trailblazing global advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and Founder and Executive Director of an international human rights organization dedicated to ending their segregation and abuse, formally received the 2013 Charles Bronfman Prize today.
Each year, The Charles Bronfman Prize – with an accompanying $100,000 award – goes to a young humanitarian whose work is informed by Jewish values and has global impact changing lives and inspiring a younger generation.
“You are a humanitarian among humanitarians,” said Charles Bronfman, presenting the Prize to Rosenthal at a ceremony attended by officials from human rights organizations, philanthropy, government, media, Jewish affairs and community service, as well as former Prize laureates, at the New York Historical Society.
Rosenthal, 49, founded DC-based Disability Rights International (DRI) twenty years ago, deeply affected by brutal conditions at institutional settings that he visited around the world as a human rights activist and committing to fill a void in the legal and humanitarian spheres.
Accepting the Prize, Rosenthal cited a multitude of factors that molded him and pointed him toward the humanitarian path that he set upon, including his Jewish upbringing, his parents’ work in international development, years in his youth living as a white Jew in West Africa, and his grandmother’s own struggle with mental illness.
“At Passover, when we read the words – do not oppress the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt – those words meant an enormous amount to me in a very concrete way because I was a stranger pretty close to the land of Egypt. As I came to terms with the history of mental illness in my own family, and as I went to college and studied mental health and saw what was going on in psychiatric institutions, the concept of the stranger has taken on great new meaning.
“Strangers can be defined by how we label people, how we treat people, how we exclude people. But difference can lead to oppression when it results in people being arbitrarily separated and dehumanized. And that is what I’ve seen in the psychiatric institutions and orphanages of the world. When people can be written off and we can dehumanize anyone, then we can dehumanize everyone, and that is what we as human rights supporters and a Jewish community stand up against.”
As founder of DRI, Rosenthal has provided global leadership and effected worldwide change on this critical issue. He has documented human rights conditions in over two dozen countries, trained and inspired activists to work to protect people with disabilities in their own countries, and recently launched the Worldwide Campaign to End the Institutionalization of Children.
His efforts have brought world attention to the rights of people with disabilities, exposing a vacuum in international human rights advocacy now being filled by a global disability rights movement. His documentations of abuses and injustices inflicted upon millions of children and adults with disabilities has led nations to end human rights violations and has attracted attention from international media and government agencies.
This worldwide attention generated by Rosenthal and DRI was key to gaining United Nations support for adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now with 158 signatories and ratified by 138 countries. UNICEF’s annual State of the World’s Children report this year includes a “Perspective” contribute by DRI.
“The Jewish community knows what happens when people are being dehumanized, because we have been dehumanized and we cannot let that happen to any person,” Rosenthal said. “Every human life is sacred. Our Torah commands us time and time again to not oppress the stranger. Let us stand up for those with disabilities. Let us not write them off.”
An international panel of judges selected Rosenthal after a rigorous nomination process produced candidates from across the spectrum of humanitarian endeavors.
James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank and Chairman of that panel, spoke by videotape at the Prize presentation and described how Rosenthal’s leadership and impact reflect the Prize’s purposes and objectives.
“The human beings that Eric deals with are those who to a large extent are forgotten and certainly unprotected. They are subject to all sorts of crimes, and to my great regret, I have seen too many of such places. There are very few people ready to stand up for this forgotten part of mankind. Eric is one of those rare human beings who expose abuse, who talks to their rights and who gathers momentum.
“As an individual he has affected the developments in 26 countries with regard to the whole issue of disability and rights. You then know why the work he is doing is so important. We need leaders like Eric and we need to support the work he is doing. This is why we choose Eric and this is why he is presented to you tonight.”
Sehnaz Layikel, Founder and General Coordinator of RUSIHAK, the Human Rights in Mental Health Initiative Association based in Istanbul – whose own father died in a Turkish institution – testified to the critical nature of Rosenthal’s work and how he encouraged and mentored her in starting an advocacy organization for those with mental disabilities in Turkey.
“Without Eric, I don’t think there would be a human rights movement in this field in the world,” she said. “He is a pioneer of this movement.
“Without his encouragement, my dreams would not be real. When I went through my father’s experience, I had a dream to change the conditions there. People are segregated and forgotten and isolated. No one was aware of them. I wanted to change this. Without DRI, I would not have been able to do this.”
2013 marks the ninth year that The Charles Bronfman Prize is being awarded. Ellen Bronfman Hauptman and Stephen Bronfman, along with their spouses, Andrew Hauptman and Claudine Blondin Bronfman, established the Prize in honor of their father and his commitment to applying Jewish values to better the world and to serve as a model for younger generations.
“Each year, the Prize teaches us that there are remarkable individuals in this world who refuse to accept the unacceptable, and through their brilliance and their commitment seek to overcome the intolerable,” said Stephen Bronfman.
Noting the presence of former Prize laureates at the presentation, Charles Bronfman cited the connections between and among those on the growing list of laureates, and the expanding body of humanitarian work and impact that they represent individually and collectively.
“The laureates of this Prize have become a family,” he said. “They celebrate each other, they celebrate with each other, and they have become a group of friends who stay in contact and who applaud each other’s work and victories. I have to thank the judges for having made very wise decisions to select a group of laureates who since winning the Prize have used it and their talents to go even further.”
Ellen Bronfman Hauptman echoed her father’s remarks, welcoming Rosenthal into the cohort of Prize laureates.
“When we created this Prize, our goal was to celebrate and draw attention to those doing very good work in the world, even when the long, hard days, and deepest of commitments is required. Even when the task is extraordinarily difficult, the highest Jewish values and human values call upon us to care for those who cannot always care for themselves. You press on and you fight every day for the children and adults who cannot advocate for themselves, fighting for their human rights, fair treatment, kindness, respect and opportunity to reach their potential. There is so much we can learn from your example and we are so humbled by everything that you do.”
Nominations for the 2014 Charles Bronfman Prize, which will mark its one-decade mark, will be accepted beginning November 1. Selection criteria and forms are at www.thecharlesbronfmanprize.com.
The Charles Bronfman Prize celebrates the vision and endeavor of an individual or team under the age of 50 whose humanitarian work is inspired by Jewish values and whose accomplishments are of universal benefit. The Prize brings public recognition to their work and impact, providing inspiration to the next generations. An internationally recognized panel of Judges selects the Prize recipient(s) and bestows an award of $100,000.
The Charles Bronfman Prize Foundation, a United States 501(c)(3) corporation headquartered in New York, administers the Prize. For more information about Charles Bronfman, The Prize or prior recipients and their accomplishments, please visit www.TheCharlesBronfmanPrize.com.