Jeri Laber
Jeri Laber; drawing by David Levine

Human rights are under pressure these days. During the cold war, they went from being the insurgent creed of dissidents and activists to something like the ruling ideology of Western governments. Like all official ideologies, it was honored more in the breach than in the observance, but still, it had a palpable impact, legitimizing the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s: in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Now, since September 11, the creed is in trouble. The empire is at war and the imperatives of war seem to trump the imperatives of rights. Why bother with human rights in Uzbekistan as long as the government there provides bases for the war on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?1 Who cares about Sudan’s bloody repression of the Christian south, as long as the government shares its intelligence files on Osama bin Laden? Why criticize Russia’s war against Chechnya when Chechen jihadis are fighting America in the mountains of Afghanistan?

In the Middle East, with the Palestinian and Israeli nations in open war, how are arguments about human rights and humanitarian law even to get a hearing? Physicians for Human Rights, for example, sent a delegation of US doctors to the region to plead for observance of medical neutrality, but the Israeli military alleged that ambulances were used to transport terrorists, and Palestinian doctors hotly denied the allegation. The din of battle is drowning out all appeals by human rights and humanitarian agencies.2

It’s not just that it’s difficult for human rights to get a hearing. It’s difficult to frame an argument for their being a central issue. It’s not hard to denounce rights abuses, or even to do so evenhandedly, condemning suicide bombs in Tel Aviv as well as the targeting of civilians in Jenin. It’s also easy to say that both claims to self-determination in the Middle East can only be met with a two-state solution. The problem now is that desperate refugees with nothing to lose believe that Palestinian claims can only be met by throwing Israel into the sea, while growing numbers of Israelis believe their claims to statehood can only be defended by destroying the authority that carries the hope of statehood for the Palestinians. The two-state solution is itself now very nearly in ruins. It may only survive now if it is imposed, and if it is imposed it may not stick. If it does not stick, human rights may well vanish from the moral landscape of the Middle East.

The human rights movement’s strength—and also what makes it so irritating to state leaders—has been its moral perfectionism, its refusal to allow trade-offs between principle and power, rights and expediency. So it does not matter whether Uzbekistan has gone from being an ignored Central Asian despotism to America’s strategic partner. The detention of Islamic militants there would be wrong, even when the dissenters are hostile to America’s interests. The fact that Russia has become a new-found ally ought not to soften US condemnation of its repression in Chechnya. That China is a new-found friend ought not to allow its rulers to get away with imprisoning scholars whose only mistake is to ask embarrassing questions about their country’s political past, the latest example being Xu Zerong (also known as David Tsui), a former researcher at Harvard and St. Antony’s College, Oxford, now languishing under a ten-year sentence for publishing an academic article about Chinese policy during the Korean War.3

As a language of moral claims, human rights are an anti-politics, a moral code that refuses, a priori, any political justification for the denial of basic rights. But human rights are not just a deck of moral trump cards. As a movement, human rights activists try to exert influence in a world of power and injustice. Reconciling the moral perfectionism of their claims with the hard realities of getting a hearing in a free world at war with terror is putting human rights under increasing strain. It’s hard to be neutral when your country or your friends have been attacked. It’s hard to criticize your government when criticism can be denounced as unpatriotic. It’s hard to plead for observing human rights when insisting that rights be respected looks like putting handcuffs on our military or your police.

Aryeh Neier of the Open Society Institute and other veterans of the human rights movement would say there is nothing new about such difficulties. They argue that the current situation is no worse than it was in the cold war. Then moral panic led to McCarthyite attacks on civil liberties comparable to the detentions of hundreds of Muslim and Arab suspects since September 11. Cold war realists like Henry Kissinger sought to keep human rights issues off the agenda with the Soviets, arguing that they might jeopardize higher goals like détente. The US government has for many years argued that security claims take precedence over human rights. It was doing so during the war against the “evil empire.” We should not be surprised if it continues to do so during the war against the “axis of evil.”


In a new hot and cold war the historical record would suggest this is no time to keep quiet about human rights. The people who insisted that living in the Soviet bloc was like living in a dungeon were vindicated by history. Today, the people who insist that the only war worth winning is one that respects rights will be vindicated too.

Jeri Laber has written a persuasive memoir, The Courage of Strangers, to remind us how important it is to keep protesting on behalf of rights, especially when we are told that higher considerations—security and stability—call for silence. She was the first director of Helsinki Watch, the NGO set up with Ford Foundation money to monitor Soviet and East European compliance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and to support the East European dissident Helsinki groups. When she began working, she recalls, no one even used the term “human rights.” By the time she finished, she had assisted in the creation of human rights activism as a profession. The only available model for activism was Amnesty International, in existence since 1961.4 Laber was already a member of an Amnesty group at Columbia in the early 1970s and already disillusioned with Amnesty letter-writing campaigns on behalf of Soviet prisoners of conscience: “It was hard to believe that [such campaigns] would make a difference.”

They didn’t seem to, at first. The prisoner her group adopted remained in prison for five years after they began writing. More promising was the direct political lobbying and organizing of demonstrations favored by Robert Bernstein, then president of Random House, who had been shocked by Soviet censorship during a publishing trip to Moscow and returned home determined to raise free speech as a human rights issue. Bernstein and Laber met on a picket line in front of the Soviet consulate in New York, but Helsinki Watch itself didn’t begin until Arthur Goldberg, then US Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the CSCE), set up to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, observed during his testimony to Congress in 1978 that there were Helsinki groups already active in Eastern Europe, but none back home in the United States. Goldberg followed that up with a conversation with McGeorge Bundy, the head of the Ford Foundation, which in 1979 gave a grant of $400,000 to set up Helsinki Watch with Laber and Bernstein as its leaders.

Daniel Thomas’s The Helsinki Effect5 also tells this story but describes a wider political setting missing in Laber’s account. The CSCE process had been initiated by the Soviets to secure recognition of the de facto division of Europe into two blocs. In return for acknowledging a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, the Western Europeans insisted on a section of the act—called a basket—which called for the promotion of human rights. They did so, Daniel Thomas writes, to find a way to concede Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe without giving up on the cause of freedom. In this entire process, Americans played a negative part, according to Thomas, largely because Secretary of State Kissinger did not want human rights advocacy to upset détente with the Soviets.

American reticence about human rights must be emphasized, because it is so often argued that the modern ascendancy of human rights is inseparable from the rise of American global hegemony. Human Rights and the End of Empire, Brian Simpson’s long and extremely thorough account of the emergence of the European Convention on Human Rights—the most effective rights enforcement regime in the world—makes the same point: Americans were bystanders. As both he and Andrew Moravcsik of Harvard have pointed out, the Europeans made supranational enforcement of human rights part of their postwar security arrangements in order to make sure that the Germans stayed democratic, the Italians didn’t come under Communist domination, and the Europeans could turn their back on a century of extermination and total war.6

When the European Convention came into force in 1953, with headquarters of the European Court of Human Rights established in Strasbourg, France, Paul Henri Spaak, the Belgian statesman, gave a speech whose title expressed the direction he believed the new convention would give to European history: “From the Europe of Dachau to the Europe of Strasbourg.” But as Simpson also points out, European governments, especially the British, had no idea that they were signing on to a commitment to human rights that would one day limit their own sovereignty, and, even more implausibly, undermine the Soviet system.


The Americans were also taken by surprise. As Robert Gates mused in a memoir of his time as CIA director, the role of human rights in the breakup of the Soviet Union is a story of unintended consequences:

The Soviets desperately wanted the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, they got it and it laid the foundations for the end of their empire. We resisted it for years, went grudgingly, [President Gerald R.] Ford paid a terrible price for going—perhaps reelection itself—only to discover years later that the CSCE had yielded benefits beyond our wildest imagination. Go figure.

Once the Helsinki Act was signed in 1975, the first people to notice the importance of its human rights clauses were neither the Americans nor the Western Europeans, but the Eastern European dissidents. Jirí Hajek, who had been Czech foreign minister under the Dubcek government and had then been dismissed after Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, was one of the first to point out to his government, in 1975, that the act they had just signed made it illegal to imprison or dismiss people for political beliefs. Hajek went on to become one of the founders of Charter 77, the key human rights group in Czechoslovakia. At about the same time, Karol Wojtil/a, then cardinal of Kraków, began using the language of human rights in his battle with the Communist authorities.

Jeri Laber was one of the first Americans to understand the significance of this Eastern Europe ferment and to respond to it. She traveled frequently to the Eastern countries, bringing dissidents everything from dollars to laptop computers. She turned out to be a very effective spy; by now a recently divorced middle-aged woman with college-aged children, she rarely aroused suspicion. She kept her notes in an indecipherable miniscript, and never allowed herself to be compromised. She was able to earn the trust of women like Rita Klimová, a leading Czech dissident who became Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to Washington after 1989. At first, Laber was a romantic innocent, shocked, she writes, by how desperately worn, old, and broken down some of the great dissident heroes actually were when she met them. Some Americans like to imagine that suffering refines, ennobles, even beautifies its victims. It actually crushed them physically, which is one more reason why their moral courage deserves such respect.

The Courage of Strangers celebrates their courage, as well as Jeri Laber’s own, and why not? She took many risks, bringing hope and practical assistance to people who felt trapped in history without much chance of escape. Even as late as October 1989, Havel told her in Prague that he thought the system would last another ten years, and that he would remain a dissident for the rest of his life. Two months later, he was president of a free Czechoslovakia.

Laber’s memoir brings home how small a group made up the leadership of the American human rights campaign during that first decade: two foundations, Ford and MacArthur, put up most of the money for it, together with assistance from George Soros. This financial support, invaluable as it was, turned the human rights group into a classic elite interest group rather than a mass-based organization, like the American Civil Liberties Union. As Laber tells it, the movement, for the most part, was a male, upper-middle-class club of largely but not exclusively Jewish lawyers and businessmen who, in a decade, turned New York into the human rights hub of the free world.

Almost immediately, the movement had access to high officials in the US government. While Jeri Laber was helping outsiders in Eastern Europe, she quickly became a quintessential insider, briefing Congress and State Department officials and US ambassadors. Human Rights Watch, the umbrella organization that included Helsinki Watch and other watch committees, distributed invaluable information about persecution of dissidents to the press and got petitions on their behalf published; but it was an insider’s campaign from the beginning.

This is not to say that relations with the US government were cozy. Aryeh Neier, who became the first director of Human Rights Watch, understood that pressure on the Soviets would only be effective if the American government also came in for scrutiny. During the Reagan years, human rights organizations fought on two fronts at once, denouncing Reagan’s support for the death squads in El Salvador and the Nicaraguan contras, while supporting Reagan in putting pressure concerning human rights on Gorbachev at Reykjavik. This secured one of the movement’s major early victories, the release of Yuri Orlov in 1986.

It is fanciful to suppose that the human rights movement brought down the Wall. But it did erode the self-belief of the Communist elite, because it attracted the most honorable people of Eastern Europe and they created an alternative pole of moral legitimacy. Once Gorbachev indicated that he would no longer send tanks against citizens of the Soviet bloc, people flowed, almost by magnetic attraction, it seemed, to that competing pole. This transfer of legitimacy carried Walesa, Havel, and then Yeltsin into power.

The US human rights movement benefited hugely from its association with the Eastern European transition, and from the credit it could also take for the transition from authoritarianism to democracy in some countries in Latin America. As Laber writes, money poured in. Human Rights Watch went from a budget of $200,000 in 1979 to a budget of $20 million by 2001. Other human rights organizations—Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights—also prospered.

But the growth is paradoxical, and so is the success. Apart from Amnesty, these organizations have no mass base. Foundation support meant they could grow without such a base, but support for human rights abroad has never developed a broad constituency within the US. Moreover, in battles for justice at home, civil rights and civil liberties remain much more influential than human rights as a language of moral appeal. Inside the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union acts, in its own words, as “the nation’s largest public interest law firm,” and its staff and volunteers handle some six thousand cases annually. It addresses particular civil liberties problems of particular groups—prisoners, immigrants, gays, voters, and AIDS victims, to name only a few. But the defense of human rights requires a language based on international law and moral obligations that Americans tend to speak only overseas. William Schulz, the director of Amnesty International USA, has done more than anyone in the American human rights movement to make human rights issues known within the United States. His book is an engaging and articulate answer to the question the host once asked him on a radio talk show: “But what does all of this have to do with a person in East Tennessee?” The answer is summed up in his title: In Our Own Best Interest. It’s in America’s long-term interests, he argues, to promote democratic regimes abroad that respect human rights, and it increases the influence of the US overseas if it complies with international standards concerning human rights at home.

These propositions seem incontrovertible, and Schulz effectively uses the language of national interest to bolster the appeal of pure principle. But Amnesty International has had mixed success getting the US to listen to this message. Attempts by Amnesty to use international human rights language in order to mobilize domestic support against American practices like the death penalty have not been successful; the very idea that American justice should be brought before the bar of international standards seems, to many Americans, to be impudent, unpatriotic, or irrelevant. If abolition of the death penalty eventually prevails, it will not be because it offends against the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, but because Americans conclude that the manner by which it is inflicted violates American constitutional norms, chiefly due process and equal protection.

American campaigns for social justice use an American vernacular—civil liberties, civil rights, labor rights—not the international language of human rights. This need not be the case. The intransigent individualism of human rights, its focus on protecting individual human beings, ought to be in the American grain; and the “human” in human rights should capture a claim for inclusion that groups like the disabled and the racially disadvantaged feel expresses their demands to be treated like full members of the human race better than the more limited languages of civil or labor rights. But so far, no movement in the United States has been able to bring human rights home. Human rights groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights have been collaborating with the American Civil Liberties Union to defend refugees and detainees caught up in John Ashcroft’s post–September 11 dragnet, but the civil liberties and the human rights communities remain two distinct camps.

Moreover, since the high-water mark of success at the end of the cold war, the international challenge facing human rights activists abroad has shifted dramatically. The human rights movement was built to challenge tyranny by strong states and to defend civil and political rights of dissidents. It now faces a world where many of the most urgent human rights challenges come not from strong states, but from collapsing or rogue states. The main problem is often not the civil and political repression of individuals, but the genocide, ethnic cleansing, and massacre of entire communities. The challenge is not just civil war and human violence, moreover, but the catastrophic impact of HIV on governance and development in sub-Saharan Africa. How is an effectively governed and relatively well-off country like Botswana to hold together, for example, with an emerging demographic distribution in which there are a great many orphaned children and old people but relatively few adults of leadership age?7 This demographic profile could lead to the state’s failure unless Botswana can get the international assistance it needs to contain the epidemic. A movement used to concentrating on civil and political rights of detainees now must also learn to concentrate on rights to health. It must ask how to reconcile drug patents as incentives for research with the moral imperative of getting medicines to poor people. Human rights now faces the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and of all of them, plague may be the most terrifying.

After traveling on behalf of human rights for years, not only to Eastern Europe but to such places as Turkey and Cuba, Jeri Laber was entitled to an honorable retirement from the organization she helped to found. But it is no accident that she should have chosen to withdraw as Bosnia and Rwanda descended into horror in 1994. Nothing in her cold war experience would have prepared her for the ensuing human rights battle, which was no longer to rescue or protect individual victims, but to marshal large-scale humanitarian intervention for entire populations at risk. For many human rights groups, especially those that had fought American support for the contras and the death squads in Latin America, it was difficult, to say the least, to accept that the best hope for human rights protection in the Balkans would be the US military. Some human rights groups felt that they would violate their neutrality if they called for military interventions that could only defend some groups of victims by causing injury to others.

So while the reports of human rights groups were providing the evidence that leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton used to marshal domestic support for intervention, most human rights groups tried to avoid explicit support for the use of military force. But it didn’t make much moral sense to advocate the ends—stopping ethnic cleansing—without being willing to support the only available and effective means—air strikes. In the age of humanitarian intervention, human rights groups often felt friendless: castigated by the old left as lackeys of US military imperialism, while despised by conservatives and liberals for impotent moral perfectionism.

Now the age of humanitarian intervention may be over. With a war on terror absorbing all available political and military resources of the United States, it is hard to envisage who is going to be available to stop the next case of genocide comparable to what happened in Rwanda, or even remonstrate with Russia over the next Chechnya. As Aryeh Neier recently wrote in these pages, “Though our intervention in Afghanistan has clearly improved the human rights situation in that country by ending the Taliban’s repressive rule, our current alliances with such regimes as Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan have sharply limited our capacity to speak out about their abuses.”8

Activists may, and should, promote the idea that all states have a basic responsibility to protect their citizens. If national leaders are unable or unwilling to stop massacring or deporting their own people, they render their countries liable to military intervention authorized by the Security Council. This has been the message of the recent report The Responsibility to Protect, by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (of which I was a member).9 But who is listening?

Violations of human rights have been taking new forms and presenting new challenges to human rights groups. It is still necessary to protect individuals from tyrannously strong states; but there is now the additional need to create states strong enough to protect their citizens. Are the human rights organizations ready for such a task? Denouncing the abominations inflicted on women in Afghanistan seems an impotent gesture when no state authority has emerged that is capable of protecting their rights, and almost no willingness among the new warlords of the country to do anything about women’s conditions. Human rights organizations will tell you, rather like the American government, that they are not in the business of “nation-building.” That, they say, is for NGOs concerned with preventing conflict, rehabilitating victims, and giving humanitarian aid. So what then is the role of human rights organizations in stateless societies like Afghanistan, or Somalia, or a nearly stateless place like Sierra Leone? When the battle for human rights shifts to such places, what weapons will work? If the human rights organizations can’t take part in efforts to save and rebuild the capacity of states to govern, they will, in dealing with some of the gravest human rights abuses, be consigned to irrelevance.

The human rights story, as told in Jeri Laber’s memoir and in Brian Simpson’s account, is a story about unintended consequences. No one thought that dissidents and their supporters could drain the moral legitimacy of an empire. No one thought that a human rights treaty could weaken the force of sovereignty among the nations of the continent that had invented sovereignty. Success is certainly better than failure, but success in the cold war did not prepare human rights activists to deal with the challenges facing them in a world where the problem is no longer just tyranny, but chaos.

This Issue

June 13, 2002