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The Man Who Shaped History

Damon Lynch
Aryeh Neier giving a talk about the international human rights movement at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, February 2012

When the blind human rights activist and lawyer Chen Guangcheng arrived from Beijing to begin a new life at New York University in mid-May, with the camera flashes ricocheting off his dark glasses, his first moments in freedom recalled the euphoric day in 1986 when the diminutive Anatoly Shcharansky crossed the Glienecke Bridge from East to West Berlin with an impish grin on his face. In both cases, a single person demonstrated the asymmetric power that humbles powerful regimes. When Shcharansky—a dissident who had spent nine years in the Gulag—won his freedom, he and those who had gone before—Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn—helped to weaken tyranny and set it on the downward slope to its eventual collapse.

The question today is whether human rights activists still possess the power to drain legitimacy away from repressive regimes. Then and now the United States had no desire to upset its relations with a powerful rival just for the sake of human rights, and yet, in the 1980s, human rights demands in Eastern Europe began wearing away the façade and inner confidence of Soviet rule. China now is what the Soviet system was to the human rights movement in the cold war: its largest strategic challenge, the one regime with global reach that believes it can deny full civil and political rights in perpetuity and permanently deny its citizens access to the Internet and the information revolution. The unanswered question and unmet challenge for the contemporary human rights movement is whether the example of activists like Cheng Guangcheng will be able to do, one day in China, what Shcharansky and his fellow human rights activists did to the Soviet system.

Shcharansky’s and Chen’s stories also remind us that international human rights are not a Western construct. It was Solzhenitsyn who first said that in the modern age there were no truly domestic affairs of states, and it was the Democracy Wall activists in Beijing in 1978 who showed that democracy was not just a Western idea. The true inspiration in human rights has always come from the East, from the moral witness and incorruptible courage of those in the prisons of empire. The modern human rights movement was built up from the 1960s onward from this dialectic between the moral example of the East and the dynamic organizational resources of the West.

The dialectic between Eastern courage and Western organization deserves a historian and it has found one in Aryeh Neier, a figure who helped to make the history he writes. Neier was the founding executive director of what became Human Rights Watch until 1993 and then the president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations until June 2012. A well-worn joke about Neier has it that if Soros is the only American citizen with a foreign policy all his own, Neier has been his secretary of state. The foreign policy they’ve both pursued has had an overriding goal: to promote Karl Popper’s “open societies” in countries struggling to be free of authoritarian rule. Together Soros and Neier provided the resources to build the entire infrastructure of human rights organizations throughout Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and its near abroad, as well as in Africa and Asia. What Bill and Melinda Gates have tried to do for global health, Soros and Neier have done for global human rights.

With Aryeh Neier’s retirement from the Open Society Foundations this June, the human rights movement marks the end of an era, and his book on the history of the movement is an occasion to reflect on how far the movement has come and what it must do next.

Neier describes the end of the cold war, the restoration of democracy in Eastern Europe, and the democratic transitions in Latin America as human rights’ golden age. Since then, it must be said, the history of human rights has been a tough slog. Euphoria at Eastern freedom gave way to ethnic slaughter in the Balkans, and the subsequent debates about when to intervene to stop human rights abuses have been divisive. Where Western interventions succeeded in stopping the killing in Bosnia and Kosovo, the prestige of human rights grew, but where human rights arguments were deployed in more contentious cases, like Iraq and Afghanistan, the movement has been split. The movement’s leaders—Human Rights Watch, for example—supported intervention in Kosovo but opposed it in Iraq and objected when others took up the human rights creed to justify America’s imperial misadventures.

After September 11, the debates over intervention of the 1990s gave way to the civil liberties debate at home. The war on terror brought home just how easily rights commitments can crumble in Western democracies when put under the pressure of fear and official assertions of unrestricted power. Human rights and civil liberties lawyers battled courageously, and at first alone, to right the balance between security and liberty. Only now are Supreme Court rulings—Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Rasul v. Bush, and Boumediene v. Rumsfeld—beginning to grant some basic due process rights to Guantánamo detainees. The battle to control the security state, however, is never over and the test of whether a democracy actually respects liberty is always what it does to its enemies in secret.

As the aftermath of September 11 so clearly shows, democracy is not always a friend to rights. Majoritarian pressures to “do what it takes to make us safe” have supported every executive attack on civil liberties in the post–September 11 era. Elsewhere, as democracies have taken root in Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe, local activists have had to struggle to defend minority rights against an unleashed and enfranchised general will. Free elections in the Balkans brought to power governments that carried out ethnic cleansing. Democratic regimes in the Czech Republic and Hungary have failed to stop the persecution of Gypsies. Democratic South Africa has left gays and lesbians to struggle against violence. As Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt take their first steps away from dictatorship, only committed political action will determine whether democracy will entrench or endanger the human rights of Christians, sexual minorities, dissidents, and women. The outcome of the battle will depend on the civic courage of those in these countries. The function of the human rights movement outside the Arab world is to strengthen the hand of insiders, to help them stand up against those in the military, the security police, or the mosques who want to deny people the rights they fought for in the Arab Spring.

We can only hope freedom will win in the Middle East. History has no libretto, as Isaiah Berlin liked to say. Victories in human rights are always a reprieve, not a harbinger of radiant tomorrows. The battle against abuse never ends; the virtue the movement needs most is endurance and the vice it must avoid is wishful thinking. While Columbia historian Samuel Moyn has called human rights the last utopia,1 Neier shows that the movement has been at its best when it refuses the temptations of utopian thinking. The best human rights activists can ever hope for is to keep democratic regimes honest and to shame undemocratic ones into being less brutal.

What the history also shows, however, is that violence and cruelty can eventually meet their match. The regime thugs who beat Chen Guangcheng never supposed that a blind man could scale a wall and make his escape, still less that he would create an international incident and secure safe passage to the United States. When Aung San Suu Kyi refused to leave her Burmese homeland even for the funeral of her husband, the Burmese regime understood that it was faced with a figure of truly implacable moral conviction.

What transformed her moral courage into raw political power was the regime’s realization that she had supporters around the world. If the generals wanted to open up the country for economic development and counter the rising influence of the Chinese, they would have to let her go. There have been few more dramatic instances of the power of a global movement than the moment when Aung took her seat in the Burmese parliament.

Human rights’ rise to power was made possible by the globalization of resources and organization. When Amnesty International was founded in 1961, it was an amateur’s committee of lawyers in London defending a handful of prisoners of conscience. Since then Amnesty has grown into a worldwide organization with more than three million members. Its mission has expanded beyond prisoners of conscience to the economic and social rights of the global poor.

Amnesty, as Neier suggests, pioneered a new kind of politics. Beginning in 1961, Amnesty members adopted prisoners of conscience—one from the Soviet bloc, one from the capitalist bloc, one from the nonaligned countries—and wrote letters to governments to secure their release. This highly individualized politics—one case, one abuse at a time—represented a turning away from a politics of ideology and party and it proved astonishingly successful.

Peter Benenson, Amnesty’s founder, summed up the new politics when he remarked that he saw no point fighting to get a man out of jail if he was going to use his newfound freedom to toss his political opponents behind bars.2 Benenson also declared that Amnesty couldn’t support prisoners who advocated violence. When activists asked why Nelson Mandela, then locked up in Robbin Island for advocating armed resistance to apartheid, could not be adopted as a prisoner of conscience,Amnesty held firm: to be a human rights activist was not to take sides, even against evil regimes, but to defend the victims of their murderous certainties.3

When Helsinki Watch was formed in New York in 1978 by Aryeh Neier, Bob Bernstein, and a handful of others, it was a hand-to-mouth organization set up to support Eastern European dissidents and to campaign for the right of Jewish refuseniks to emigrate to Israel. Today, its successor, Human Rights Watch, boasts an annual budget of $64 million, a challenge grant of $100 million from the Open Society Foundations, a staff of 330, and a presence in ninety countries. Once its chief political focus was on influencing policies in Washington, but now it is opening offices in the capitals that will count tomorrow: Brasília, Buenos Aires, New Delhi, Ankara, Johannesburg, and Beijing.

As the number of governments it addresses has increased, so has its human rights mandate. Human Rights Watch now defends the plight of gays and lesbians in Africa, the rights of prisoners at Guantánamo, and the protection of civilians living under occupation and caught in the middle of the unrelenting struggle between Israel, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Its legitimacy is built on accurate human rights reporting, and HRW’s reports meet the highest standard in the field. Its credibility also depends on being unafraid to court controversy. It has not been afraid to criticize Israel for breaches of the laws of war, though it has faced furious criticism for doing so, including from its founding chairman, Bob Bernstein.

The new politics, pioneered by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, reflected a key assumption: that with some honorable exceptions, like the UN high commissioner for human rights and some of the rapporteurs, the UN human rights machinery had been captured by the states it was charged to regulate. To this day, human rights are enforced more by activists than by international lawyers. To be sure, the human rights movement does litigate: it takes states to court, it enters amicus curiae briefs at Guantánamo hearings, it takes up individual cases, but the core of human rights work is naming and shaming those who commit abuses and pressuring governments to put the screws to abusing states. As a result, human rights conventions are unique among international law instruments in depending for their enforcement mostly on the activism of a global civil society movement.

  1. 1

    Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2010). 

  2. 2

    Tom Buchanan, “‘The Truth Will Set You Free’: The Making of Amnesty International,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37 (2002). 

  3. 3

    Joshua Rubenstein, longtime Amnesty International director of the US Northeast section, defended Amnesty’s position at a conference in Toronto in 1981: “It may be that blacks in South Africa have no choice but to engage in violent revolutionary activities; but if they’re caught we can’t define them as prisoners of conscience—they’re something else.” 

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