Eric Rosenthal, founder and executive director of a pioneering international human rights advocacy organization dedicated to ending the segregation and abuse of children and adults with disabilities, is the 2013 recipient of The Charles Bronfman Prize.
Each year, The Charles Bronfman Prize – and an accompanying $100,000 award – goes to a young humanitarian whose work is informed by Jewish values and has global impact that changes lives and inspires others.
As the founder of Disability Rights International (DRI), Rosenthal has provided global leadership and effected worldwide change on this critical issue. He has documented human rights conditions in over two dozen nations, has trained and inspired activists to work to protect people with disabilities in their own countries, and has recently launched the Worldwide Campaign to End the Institutionalization of Children. He and his partners have worked – often under dangerous conditions – to create a world in which all people with disabilities can enjoy basic human rights.
Rosenthal, 49, founded DC-based DRI twenty years ago, deeply affected by the brutal conditions in institutional settings that he witnessed around the world as a human rights activist, and committed to fill a void in the legal, advocacy and humanitarian communities.
“Eric Rosenthal is a tenacious leader and advocate for a segment of humanity that has been largely ignored and forgotten behind institutional walls, separated from their families in often tortuous and inhumane conditions,” said James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank, on behalf of the international panel of Prize judges who selected Rosenthal after a rigorous evaluation process.
“He has pushed the issue of institutional segregation of those with disabilities to the forefront, giving new face to the social justice and human rights movements. He is living Jewish values to global effect, and inspiring others to take notice and action.”
Rosenthal’s path-breaking efforts brought world attention to the rights of people with disabilities, exposing a vacuum in international human rights advocacy that has now been filled by the growth of a new international disability rights movement. His documentation of abuses inflicted upon millions of children and adults with disabilities in more than 25 countries has led nations to end human rights violations and has attracted unprecedented attention from international media and government agencies.
He is an often-heard voice before American and international human rights agencies and is widely credited for bringing attention to the rights of people with disabilities as a fundamental human rights issue. The worldwide attention Rosenthal brought to human rights violations against people with disabilities was instrumental in gaining United Nations support for adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, now ratified by 130 countries.
“Throughout his career, Eric has taken action to bring an end to one of the greatest human rights tragedies taking place in the world today: the abuse of millions of children and adults with disabilities in closed orphanages and state institutions,” wrote Norman Rosenberg, former Executive Director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health, former Director of the New Israel Fund, and Rosenthal’s nominator for The Charles Bronfman Prize.
“The impact of Eric’s work is real and tangible, and has created a new field of international human rights advocacy for a population that had been entirely overlooked. Eric’s exposés and the international media coverage they have garnered have forced countries to undertake drastic reforms. The new UN Convention now gives Eric and his organization a powerful new mechanism to take his work ever further.
“He has brought light to dark places. By training and inspiring a generation of new disability rights leaders, Eric serves as a model for Jewish dedication to tikkun olam.”
Rosenthal has created, trained and led a network of human rights advocates and watchdog groups under the DRI umbrella to document and monitor inhumane institutional conditions and treatment for the mentally disabled in Eastern Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. UNICEF’s annual State of the World’s Children report for 2013 includes a “Perspective” contributed by Disability Rights International.
Rosenthal’s authoritative voice and access to power have created change. Turkey has eliminated the painful and dangerous practice of subjecting people with disabilities to electric shock therapies administered without anesthesia. As a result of DRI’s documentation and advocacy, some 15,000 people every year have been saved from this abusive practice. In Serbia, where DRI exposed abuses against children with disabilities in orphanages, the government adopted a new policy of community integration with the goal of ending new placements of children in institutions.
DRI’s advocacy led the European Union to stop funding segregated institutions and to dedicate millions of euros to Serbia’s new community integration program. In Uruguay and Mexico, following the publication of DRI reports, abusive psychiatric facilities have been closed down. Rosenthal’s group has helped establish Mexico’s first advocacy organization run by former psychiatric patients, and the government of Mexico recently adopted a new law providing a right to community-based mental health care.
Charles Bronfman, the namesake of the Prize, said Rosenthal brings a unique contribution, body of achievement and inspiring vision to the growing cohort of Prize Laureates. “Embedded in Eric’s heart is the belief that we are all created in the image of God, and so every human must be treated with respect. By tirelessly exposing the horrendous conditions under which some of the most vulnerable among us are institutionalized and forgotten, and forcing the world to take notice and make change, he exemplifies how one individual can turn values into impact.”
As the son of a career diplomat, Rosenthal was raised in Washington, DC and in Africa. He attended the University of Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Economics, Rhetoric and Law (PERL) in 1985, and went on to law school at Georgetown University, graduating in 1992.
His time in Africa, he said, planted in him the seeds of a worldview and a connection to global Jewish community that drives his work as a humanitarian and advocate for the rights of the disabled.
“The Jewish principle from the Torah — Do not oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt — has been very powerful in my life. I feel that from personal experience and from our collective history we as a people should be extra aware of excluding people from society. We are a people who care deeply about family and community, so if there is any group that is going to care about helping the disabled among us grow up with families and be part of communities and not marginalize and put them away, it ought to be our own Jewish community.”
He credits his grandmother, an émigré from Eastern Europe, for helping to frame in historical terms the imperative of being a humanitarian. “My grandmother was herself diagnosed with manic depression. As a young person, I was exposed to the impact of a mental disability on her and on the broader family. I remember the very intense conversations that I had with her. She told me about the family that perished in the Holocaust and I remember the moment when she sat me down and said, ‘Remember the people who were left behind.’
“As Jews, one generation from a Holocaust, we should understand why we must not allow any group of people or any person to be excluded or be dehumanized or be put away and allowed to die,” he said. “The promise I made my grandmother to remember is very much core to the work that I do. We must not only remember the six million who perished in the Holocaust, we must also act to protect the 10 million children left behind in orphanages and other custodial institutions.
“The UN Disability Convention gives us a new legal tool to fight the fight against segregation,” he said. “The Convention is making a profound difference on the world today. To have been a part of bringing that to the United Nations, and seeing 130 countries ratify and commit themselves to protecting disability rights is a true game changer. But we still have a lot to do. The abuses on the ground still exist. The segregation still exists. But I hope within 10 years we’ll be able to bring about a change in attitude and an understanding that human rights law prohibits placing any child in an institution on the basis of their disability.”
His work has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine, ABC News and elsewhere, and his cause has been the subject of editorials in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The International Herald Tribune. Rosenthal has been the recipient of prestigious human rights awards, including the Henry B. Betts Award, the highest honor in the field of disability rights. He is an Ashoka Fellow and former Echoing Green Public Service Fellow.
He has served as a consultant to the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the US National Council on Disability (NCD), for which he co-authored US Foreign Policy and Disability, a report that led to legislation to make American foreign assistance accessible to people with disabilities.
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 to honor their father and his commitment to applying Jewish values to better the world and to inspire the next generations.
“Embracing one’s Jewish values means striving to create a more just world,” said Stephen Bronfman, on behalf of the Prize founders. “Eric Rosenthal personifies this underlying principle of The Charles Bronfman Prize. By seeking to lift the lives of a marginalized population, he is elevating us all and demonstrating what a visionary humanitarian can accomplish.”
Previous recipients are Jay Feinberg, Founder and Executive Director of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation; Dr. Alon Tal, Founder of Israel’s Arava Institute for Environmental Studies; Dr. Amitai Ziv, Founder and Director of the Israel Center for Medical Simulation; Rachel Andres, Founder and Director of Jewish World Watch’s Solar Cooker Project; Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, Co-Founders of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP); Sasha Chanoff, Founder and Executive Director, RefugePoint; Jared Genser, Founder and President of Freedom Now; Karen Tal, Former Principal of The Bialik-Rogozin School and Co-Founder of Education Insights; and Eric Greitens, Founder and CEO of The Mission Continues.
The Charles Bronfman Prize is a humanitarian award that celebrates the vision and endeavor of an individual or team, under fifty years of age, whose humanitarian work has contributed significantly to the betterment of the world. Its goal is to bring public recognition to young, dynamic individuals whose Jewish values infuse their humanitarian accomplishments and provide 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.