In all the bloodshed and violence of the twentieth century, a conspicuously hopeful development was the emergence of human rights as a concern that governments can no longer ignore. The official reaction to the 1915 massacre of 800,000 Armenians by the Turks or to Hitler’s first anti-Semitic atrocities was that no government had a right to interfere in the domestic affairs of another state. The final years of the century saw at least one major armed international intervention to stop a gross abuse of human rights in Kosovo, as well as the arraignment of two former heads of state (Milosevic and Pinochet), and many other politicians, soldiers, and officials, for crimes against humanity.
After the genocidal horrors of World War II became widely known, the United Nations adopted, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other human rights conventions soon joined the declaration, but action to give them practical effect was slow to follow. For twenty years or more that responsibility was left largely to governments and to the intergovernmental UN Commission on Human Rights, whose treatment of human rights abuses was absurdly selective and severely constrained by political considerations. The commission ignored, for example, the Soviet Gulag, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, as well as Idi Amin and Pol Pot. Until the establishment of a UN high commissioner for human rights in 1993, the UN approach to human rights was a notable case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
The burgeoning of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the 1960s gave life and reality to many important causes. An early result was the birth of a worldwide environmental movement. In the 1970s NGOs throughout the world, sometimes at considerable risk to themselves, began to campaign against violations of human rights. Amnesty International, the champion of “prisoners of conscience,” won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977. In the United States the Helsinki Watch Committee, founded in 1978, grew over the next ten years into Human Rights Watch, an unprecedented undertaking that challenged governments by meticulously documenting, and publishing, their violations of human rights.
As director of Human Rights Watch in its formative years, Aryeh Neier was a leader and major innovator in this revolutionary process, and his new book, Taking Liberties, is a wonderfully detailed account of his career. An effective human rights activist needs moral and physical courage, an unfailing sense of outrage, an unflagging urge to take the initiative, and the intellectual capacity to hold on to basic principles in confused and highly emotional situations. Neier’s book gives a vivid picture of the patience and ingenuity required to translate noble principles and good intentions into practical reality.
Neier’s early years were a good conditioning for his chosen career. He was born in Berlin on April 22, 1937, two days, as he points out, after the parades and festivities marking the annual celebration of Hitler’s birthday. His parents were Jews from Poland who had made a …