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.


Tomki Němec

Václav Havel arriving at Prague Castle for the last time during his presidency, 2003

This new politics started in the 1960s but it was not until the late 1970s that human rights activism caught fire. Internationalism on campuses in the Sixties was largely anti-imperialist and, among Marxists, rights were dismissed as bourgeois illusions. There were liberals and social democrats who took rights seriously, to use Ronald Dworkin’s phrase.4 But they were particularly concerned whether citizens had a right to disobey orders, as in Vietnam, and with supporting the entitlement revolution of the welfare state, or initiating what became the rights revolution: liberalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexual sex, equalizing property and employment rights for women. It was when these movements crested and encountered resentful backlash in the oil shock recession of the 1970s that international human rights emerged as a channel for the blocked energies of the Western progressive conscience.

When political energies went transnational, there were both gains and losses. The losses included the draining away of moral attention from domestic issues. It was in the 1970s that income inequality began its rise and it is only now, in the wake of financial meltdown, that inequality has returned as an issue of progressive concern.

Many activists who embraced international human rights in the 1970s did so as a rejection of the anticolonialist and Marxist internationalism of the 1960s. They had supported decolonization, but once they saw that the newly independent states were using their freedom to abuse human rights, especially countries like Cuba, Western activists turned away and focused their energies instead on the last remaining empire, the one behind the Iron Curtain.

Although Jimmy Carter was the first president to make human rights a centerpiece of American foreign policy, human rights activism, as we know it now, began in the East, fully twelve years before. A tiny band of brave Russians gathered in Moscow’s Pushkin Square on December 5, 1965, to demand a fair trial for two imprisoned writers, Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky. This was followed in 1968 by a protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Throughout the early 1970s, figures like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Sergei Kovalev, Yuri Orlov, Pavel Litvinov, and Andrei Sakharov struggled to convince the West to cease acquiescing in Soviet tyranny.

At this time, Henry Kissinger was negotiating the Helsinki Accords, acknowledging the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. He sought something in return to sweeten the pill of American acquiescence. The American team secured language in the Helsinki Final Act that allowed Eastern Europeans and Russians to establish human rights organizations. Neither the Americans nor the Russians took these clauses seriously, yet dissidents instantly realized their significance. Charter 77 was soon circulated in Prague, Solidarity was defending workers’ rights in the shipyards of Gdansk, and a Helsinki committee began in Moscow. When Václav Havel spoke of the “politics of the powerless” he meant a politics that refused to provoke the Soviet empire directly and instead demanded that states live up to the international human rights agreements they had signed. Havel served several terms in prison; but this, it turned out, was the politics that brought the empire down.

It was to support the “politics of the powerless” that the first Helsinki Watch committee formed in New York in 1978. It was to support Soviet Jewry that the Jackson-Vanik amendment passed Congress, denying trade access to regimes that barred emigration. In the ensuing decade, Western activists and intellectuals visited Prague and Warsaw and created the bonds that turned human rights from a lost cause into a political force to be reckoned with. Crucial to that heroic period were the Open Society Foundations, which, among much else, funded the photocopiers that spread the message of dissent throughout the Eastern bloc.

American human rights activists like Neier supported the Eastern bloc dissidents but refused to become cheerleaders for Ronald Reagan’s strident anticommunism. To establish once and for all the new movement’s political independence, Neier plunged his organization into a struggle to deny confirmation to Ernest Lefever—who wanted to reverse the Carter administration’s support for human rights—as the chief human rights official at the State Department.

Blocking Lefever’s nomination, as Neier shows, established the movement as a force to be reckoned with in Washington. After that victory, Neier’s organization went on to report on American complicity in the repression in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, attacking that complicity without becoming an apologist for the insurgents. Winning the battle with the Reagan administration, Neier writes, was crucial to the domestic growth of the American human rights movement:

What Reagan, Kirkpatrick, Abrams, and other members of the administration had failed to grasp is that by becoming apologists for rights abuses in countries allied with the United States, they contributed to the view by many Americans that those were American abuses of rights.

By the end of the 1980s, under steady human rights pressure, the Reagan administration withdrew support for Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, and Augusto Pinochet of Chile, and democratic transitions began in these countries, as well as in Indonesia and Korea. Human rights ceased to be a progressive monopoly and were taken up by American conservatives, though often with a selective focus on religious freedom for Christians and a blind spot about authoritarian but anti-Communist regimes.

As anti-Communist tyrannies began to give way to democratic rule, Communist elites in Eastern Europe awoke to the bankruptcy of the Communist model. “We can’t go on like this” became the phrase the figures around Mikhail Gorbachev began muttering to each other. They tried glasnost, but it could not save them. Slowly the legitimacy of the Eastern European tyrannies diminished and when the crack-up came in 1989, it proved that the politics of the powerless had the power to move history.

Aryeh Neier’s account of these momentous events is careful not to take more credit than the movement is due, acknowledging that other factors besides human rights pressure brought the Soviet Union down and pulled Latin America toward democracy. Still the movement has a right to feel it shaped history.

American foundations played an important part in the story. The Ford Foundation provided the seed money for the Helsinki, Asia, and America Watches, and later George Soros’s Open Society Foundations was decisive in helping to globalize what had been largely an American and British movement. Soros, working with Neier, displayed almost perfect pitch during the cold war transition, channeling more than $8 billion between 1979 and 2010 into local rights organizations throughout Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. If human rights have gone global by going local, the local implantation of civil society organization in the new democracies was largely the work of American foundations.

More than anyone else, Neier transformed human rights activism from its amateurish beginnings to the professionalism of today. It was Neier who enlarged the responsibilities of Human Rights Watch to include the Geneva Conventions, transforming HRW into the major independent monitor of the conduct of US and foreign militaries as well as armed insurgents. It was Neier who moved the organization into support for women’s rights and who led the call for international tribunals, first to try the ethnic cleansers of the former Yugoslavia and the murderers in Rwanda. Creating the ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court became a personal crusade for Neier and if some heads of government—most recently Charles Taylor of Liberia—are paying for the crimes they committed in office, Neier is entitled to take some personal credit.

The history Neier recounts, therefore, is a history that he more than any other individual helped to shape. This lends authority to the tale, though he probably takes modesty too far in not saying more about his own formative role. For example, he devotes an entire chapter to the emerging human rights organizations of the 1980s and 1990s, from Physicians for Human Rights to the Lawyers Committee, Global Rights, and others, disclosing only in a footnote that the Open Society Foundations he chaired funded all of them, sometimes up to 30 percent of their operating budgets.

Twenty years later, as Soros and Neier would be the first to admit, open societies may be alive in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, but they are struggling for oxygen in Russia, China, and the authoritarian regimes bordering Russia, from Belarus to Turkmenistan. As repressive regimes have become more sophisticated, human rights groups have had to master new technologies. When the Iranian regime shuts down access to free online discussion sites in Farsi, activists in the huge Iranian diaspora find ways to get the sites working again. New technology has given life to diaspora human rights activism not just for Iranians in exile, but for Tamils, Syrians, Congolese, and other refugees from tyranny.

When human rights organizations helping the Tibetans find their websites under attack and their documents stolen from their electronic files, human rights engineers go to work, providing encryption and protection from denial of service attacks. When the Syrian regime attacks the servers of its human rights critics, activists in Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus keep managing, somehow, to post devastating images of regime violence and brutality on YouTube. In an era when the Internet has become the front line in the battle for human rights, the movement now needs software engineers and coders as much as it needs lawyers. Keeping the state from taking over global Internet governance is now essential to the defense of political freedom everywhere.

The challenges that lie ahead for human rights are to refuse to make everything a human rights issue and to concentrate on those central concerns of discrimination, injustice, torture, and tyranny that are the movement’s special cause. There are wrongs to right everywhere, from Mali to Saudi Arabia, but the two states with the biggest strategic capacity to do harm to freedom in the world are Russia and China. Both are something new in the annals of political science: single-party tyrannies busy perfecting crony capitalism, regimes built on corruption and privilege, where only growth keeps discontent at bay and where a middle class with precarious economic freedom chafes under restrictions to its civil and political rights.

They are a new kind of despotism but while Russia is a thieving tyranny with only the capacity to intimidate its neighbors and its energy partners, China is another matter: it takes its growth as an ideological validation and believes it has a model of authoritarian capitalism to offer the world. This model is antithetical to everything the human rights movement believes about the interdependence of political and economic freedom. The key unanswered question in global human rights is whether Chinese citizens will eventually force their own regime to acknowledge that economic freedom can never be secure without political and civil rights. As China goes, so goes the story of freedom everywhere in Asia.

Amnesty’s founding slogan in 1961 was “the truth shall set you free.” The slogan was a strategy: letter-writing campaigns and reports would name and shame the persecutors and force them to open the jail doors. Fifty years later, some critics argue that naming and shaming works with regimes that understand what shame is, but less well with ones that are shameless. What is remarkable is that with the exception of North Korea there appears to be no regime entirely immune to human rights shaming. No regime or person can afford to boast of violence and abuse. Even Dick Cheney resorted to circumlocution to conceal his enthusiasm for the “dark side” of counterterrorism. Vladimir Putin’s regime may be shameless in its casual brutality toward crusading journalists but Putin himself takes care to remove his own fingerprints from the crime. China’s cops and security thugs evict peasants and put down workers’ demonstrations, but the regime itself is invested in an international image of progress and dialogue on human rights.

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad shells his own citizens on the one hand, while on the other waging a desperate campaign to convince his remaining supporters and the world at large that he is all that stands between Syria and chaos. In all these cases, we may be looking only at the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but even so we are in a different world than the one in which Stalin or Hitler brazenly rejoiced in brutality. In the modern world that the human rights movement has created, even tyranny feels obliged to justify or conceal its violence. The world’s opinion, channeled by a global civic movement, has become a power that even the most brutal must reckon with. The abuses continue, but so does the resistance. The human twig can be bent but not held down indefinitely. The day eventually comes when the twig snaps back with avenging force. Thanks to the determination of human rights activists around the world, the lawlessness of US detention policy, the brutality of Putin’s rule, the callous expropriations in China, and the ruthless cruelty of Assad’s regime will meet their match.

Until that day comes, the movement founded fifty years ago has miles to go. But it should pause and thank the people who got it this far. It can thank Aryeh Neier especially for an exemplary career. He and the thousands of people he drew into the movement have demonstrated what discipline, toughness, professionalism, and integrity can accomplish when up against the despots of our time.