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The Rights Stuff

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 comfortable middle-class life for themselves in Germany, and they left their escape from Nazi Germany dangerously late, leaving for England only on August 16, 1939, two weeks before the war started. Neier’s father, a teacher and writer in Berlin, had to look for work as a manual laborer in wartime Britain, and Neier’s earliest memory is of a traumatic eleven-month stay in a “hostel” for refugee children. He attributes his lifelong preoccupation with prisons and other forms of confinement to his loathing for that institution. He even suggests that it was the source of a career in which he could always be in control.

After the war, Neier moved with his family to the United States. In 1963, at the age of twenty-six, he began work as field director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and two years later became the executive director of its New York branch. In 1970 he was appointed executive director of the national organization. In 1978 he took a break as a visiting professor at NYU, but the accession of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 caused him to leave academic life in order to become involved once again in public policy work. He became overseer of Helsinki Watch and the new Americas Watch, and subsequently the director of the new global organization, Human Rights Watch. In 1993 Neier left Human Rights Watch for the George Soros Foundations and the Open Society Institute. It has been said that if George Soros is the only American to have his own foreign policy, Aryeh Neier is his secretary of state.

Throughout his career Neier has shown an extraordinary ability to formulate both clear basic principles and well-thought-out practical objectives and campaigns. At the ACLU the aim was, in the words of a New York Times editorial, “to extend the reach of the Bill of Rights to new groups and subject areas.” This reach included prison conditions, unnecessary government secrecy, and the rights of women, the mentally ill, and children in foster care. Neier and his remarkable team of associates, including at various times Morton Halperin, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Shattuck, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, never shied away from unpopular or controversial issues such as police abuse, then one of the most bitterly divisive issues in New York City. When Vietnam War protesters were subjected to police violence, Neier attended the protest demonstrations and was himself arrested; he also observed and documented the police breakup of the protest takeover of Columbia University in 1968.

During the Vietnam War the ACLU was especially concerned with defending the First Amendment and the principle of freedom of expression. It intervened in the cases brought by the government against The New York Times and The Washington Post over the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It attacked the compilation and dissemination of political dossiers by government agencies, especially the FBI. When protesters came to Washington for a huge anti–Vietnam War demonstration and the FBI got the names of thousands of them from the bus companies that had brought them there, the ACLU went to federal court and got the practice stopped. When the ACLU went to court to stop its compilation of political dossiers, the New York City Police Department hastily started to destroy files on nearly one million people.

The Watergate affair provided a new opportunity for a campaign against political surveillance. In October 1973, the ACLU called for Nixon’s impeachment for using the IRS, the FBI, and other federal institutions as instruments of illegal political surveillance. In fact Neier believes that the dismantling by Congress, after Nixon’s resignation, of America’s political surveillance system—parts of which went back to the time of Senator Joseph McCarthy and beyond—by means of the Privacy Act, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, and other legislation, was the most important victory of all for civil liberties. It is a victory that needs to be carefully guarded today when terrorism has become a national priority and obsession.

Its 1977 defense of the right of the American Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Illinois, got the ACLU more publicity, and more ridicule, than any of its hundreds of other cases, and Neier devotes a persuasive chapter to all the paradoxes, accusations, and resignations that the case engendered. In a letter setting out at length the argument for the ACLU position, Neier wrote,

Civil liberties is [sic] the antithesis of Nazism.

Perhaps that explains best why we defend free speech for Nazis…. We defend free speech for Nazis—or anyone else—because we say that government may not put any person or group beyond the pale of constitutional protection.

In a striking practical demonstration of this spirit Eleanor Holmes Norton publicly defended, on behalf of the ACLU, the right of the then ultra-segregationist George Wallace to speak at Shea Stadium in New York City. An impatient critic accused the ACLU of “poisonous evenhandedness.”

Neier gives poignant and often surprising details of the scores of cases in which he was involved: racial discrimination; women’s right to abortion; drug addicts’ right of access to methadone; prison conditions (which Governor George Wallace described as “hotel-like comfort”); the horror of casual commitment to a mental asylum; the often appalling institutional conditions in facilities for the retarded and mentally ill. Sometimes the ACLU won and sometimes it lost, and sometimes it made mistakes. For example, it failed to ensure that adequate services were available for the large number of mental patients throughout the US whom it helped to set free from hellish mental institutions during the 1970s and 1980s. The cases range from the horrific to the simply weird. Because his father said he was paranoid, a young and perfectly sane Florida carpenter, Kenneth Donaldson, was confined in a mental asylum for fifteen years until the ACLU managed to get him out. A prison warden barred an inmate in a draft case from receiving The New York Review of Books.


While at NYU, Neier worked with Robert L. Bernstein and Orville Schell, the founders of the Helsinki Watch Committee, whose purpose was to document and protest the repression of dissenters in the Soviet Union, and of the recently created Americas Watch. Neier became the overseer of both organizations, as well as of Asia Watch (1985), Africa Watch (1988), and Middle East Watch (1989), which now make up the global Human Rights Watch. In its early years Human Rights Watch was sometimes looked at skeptically by older human rights groups. It shifted the focus of human rights work from the traditional target of abused individuals to the policies of abusive governments and the “surrogate villains,” as Neier calls their supporters.

Over the opposition of President Ford, Congress had mandated the establishment of a Bureau of Human Rights in the State Department and barred United States assistance to governments who were deemed human rights violators. President Jimmy Carter and his assistant secretary of state for human rights, Patricia Derian, had, with considerable success, made human rights an important factor in US foreign policy, especially in Latin America. The Reagan administration appeared to be bent on reversing the advances that had been made. By determined lobbying, Neier and Bernstein were able to block the appointment of Alexander Haig’s candidate as assistant secretary of state for human rights, Ernest Lefever, a conservative with a record of opposition to human rights as an element of United States foreign policy.

In 1980 the human rights situation in the Soviet Union was desperate, and the local supporters and activists of Soviet Helsinki Watch had been virtually wiped out. The first priority was therefore to produce credible reports on Soviet human rights abuses. Unlike other Human Rights Watch initiatives, this activity was popular with the Reagan administration. Neier’s proposal for a ban on the use of landmines, however, was unwelcome. And, for an administration in which the obsession with communism had virtually replaced the concern for human rights, his organization’s attack on US support of despots and human rights violators, especially in Latin America, was anathema. Elliott Abrams, who had been appointed assistant secretary of state instead of Lefever, challenged many Americas Watch initiatives in Central America.1 The resulting struggle strengthened the new human rights organization.

  1. 1

    Abrams is now senior director for Near East and North African Affairs in the Bush administration.

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