Aryeh Neier is President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations. He was for twelve years the Executive Director of ­Human Rights Watch.

Under Lock & Key: How Long?

Olivia de Havilland and Betsy Blair as inmates at a mental hospital in The Snake Pit, 1948
Although few people are satisfied with the quality of mental health services in the US, it is still startling to find physicians and psychiatrists enthusiastically calling for a return to asylums. One might think that the grim history of confinement would have precluded such advocacy. Whether in popular imagination (think …

The Burglars Who Exposed the FBI

Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, Washington D.C., May 1969
On the night of March 8, 1971, eight activists in the movement to end American involvement in the war in Vietnam broke into the small office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Media, Pennsylvania, a town near Philadelphia, and stole all its files. One of the burglars, William Davidon, …

Guatemala’s Shameful Repudiation of Justice

Guatemala's Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz at a press conference in Guatemala City, October 11, 2012

If countries were ranked by lawlessness, Guatemala would score near the top. The country is ridden by crime and corruption and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Now, a decision to remove Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz seems aimed at derailing her pursuit of those who committed genocidal violence in the 1980s.

Spying on Americans: A Very Old Story

J. Edgar Hoover; drawing by David Levine

Much of the political surveillance of the 1960s and the 1970s consisted in efforts to identify organizations that were critical of government policies and gather information on their adherents. The surveillance practices of the NSA revealed in recent weeks are fundamentally different. They attempt to identify patterns of electronic behavior that arouse the government’s suspicion rather than individuals associated with certain organizations or causes. Yet these new forms of surveillance, over time, may lead in the same direction. Those who are targeted may be excluded from certain benefits or opportunities on the basis of having been identified for engaging in activities that are legitimate. If that were to happen, they are unlikely ever to find out that they have been blocked on such grounds.

Guatemala: Will Justice Be Done?

Efraín Ríos Montt, center, at the time of his military coup in Guatemala, March 1982
Between 1990 and 2009 there were some sixty-seven prosecutions of heads of state or heads of government for human rights abuses or corruption, or both, a far greater number than ever before. Yet the trial of former dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as president of Guatemala from the time of his military coup in March 1982 until he was forced out in August 1983, was unique. For the first time, a former head of state was tried for genocide in the courts of his own country. In effect, the prosecution of Ríos Montt also condemned the policies of the Reagan administration, which was a resolute apologist for the Guatemalan dictator.

Reckoning with Genocide

General Efraín Ríos Montt (center) announcing his military coup, Guatemala City, March 23, 1982

The trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as president of Guatemala from the time he seized power in a military coup in March 1982 until he was forced out in another military coup in August 1983, began on March 19 in Guatemala City. The prosecutor alleged that Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez, his chief of intelligence, were responsible for the killing of 1,771 Ixils—one of Guatemala’s twenty-two distinct indigenous peoples—and the forced displacement of another 29,000, many them tortured or sexually abused by the army. For the first time, a former head of state is being tried for genocide in the courts of his own country.

The Death of the Good Bishop

In April 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, the seventy-five-year-old auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City, issued a report compiled, under his direction, by a Catholic human rights group that documented the cases of more than 52,000 civilian victims of Guatemala’s civil war and, in most cases, named them. The report attributed …

The Attack on Human Rights Watch

On August 3—three weeks after a Lebanese Hezbollah raid into Israel set off a war that lasted until August 14—Human Rights Watch published a report, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” that inspired a series of vitriolic attacks on the organization’s credibility. According to some of the …

Russia: The Persecution of Civil Society

On January 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law “Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,” which radically curtail the independence of the country’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Russia’s parliament, the Duma, had passed the bill in its third reading in late December by a huge majority: 357 …


In December 1986, Soviet officials suddenly installed a telephone in the apartment to which Andrei Sakharov had been exiled in Gorky for almost seven years. The KGB agents who had kept him under constant surveillance disappeared, and President Mikhail Gorbachev telephoned to inform him that he was free to return …

The Military Tribunals on Trial

Among the many defects of President Bush’s order for military commissions to try suspected al-Qaeda members or supporters is that it lumps together at least four categories of persons who have distinct sets of rights under either domestic or international law. The four categories of persons subject to trial by …

The Quest for Justice

In an interview with Le Figaro in December Vojislav Kostunica, the president of Yugoslavia, objected once again to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Among other failings, he said, it was biased against Serbs. Yet he apparently felt he could not rule out every attempt to confront the …

Impasse in Kosovo

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia discourages visits to Kosovo. Before I returned there this summer with my colleagues from the Open Society Institute, the government had for three years turned down my requests for a visa. Many others seeking to go there have met the same rejection, whether they were …

Kosovo Survives!

When I arrived in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in December, one of the first things I noticed was the fresh fruit—including large quantities of imported clementine oranges—on display in the windows of several grocery stores. I had just left Belgrade, where the food shops were empty or had only …

Putting Saddam Hussein on Trial

Though the United States long supported Saddam Hussein in order to challenge the regional ambitions of Khomeini’s Iran, George Bush compared the Iraqi dictator to Hitler when it came time to rally support for Desert Storm. A mountain of evidence now suggests that while this comparison was off the mark …

India’s Awful Prisons

India has strong claims to being the world’s largest democracy. It has genuinely free elections and these have twice turned the once-dominant Congress party out of office. Its press is exceptionally outspoken and its judiciary, especially in the higher courts, is aggressively independent. Moreover, a variety of private and government …

What Should Be Done about the Guilty?

During the 1980s dictatorships gave way, or began to give way, to elected civilian governments. The trend was most wide-spread in Central America and South America, and was most astonishing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It also included such Asian governments as Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan, and the Philippines.