The American Interest
The International Human Rights Movement: A History
by Aryeh Neier
Princeton University Press, 2012, 392 pp., $35
In most ways Neier’s The International Human Rights Movement is exactly the kind of book you would expect from one of the founders of Human Rights Watch and the current president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations: a soaring survey of the movement’s history that glorifies its triumphs, minimizes its mistakes and demonizes its enemies. But read carefully, Neier suggests a critique of what the human rights movement has become. It doesn’t quite amount to an “off-mic” confession that human rights exist in a real, political world and that advocacy must be contingent on these realities. But it does indicate some level of unease among the old guard that oversees the battle for human rights today.
As a work of history, Neier’s book is unsurprisingly dull, to the point of numbing. But at only 360-some pages to cover such a protean topic, it’s mercifully hagiographic rather than exhaustively so. It doesn’t try to problematize any aspects of the human rights movement, nor does it wax abstractly about the philosophy that underpins it.1 Its style is that of an introductory undergraduate text, meant to be read for the most part by those who already hope for a career in advocacy or service NGO work—in other words, those who don’t need much convincing as to the merits of their chosen path. It’s not uninformative to those new to the field, and, while there is a very unambiguous slant here, Neier doesn’t hide his biases.
The first part of the book, by far the strongest, traces the early development of the movement from its intellectual roots in natural law doctrine through its struggles against slavery and for universal suffrage. Neier shows how the common law tradition in England and the United States, based as it is in first principles, was more conducive to the development of human rights activism than the statute-based civil law tradition of continental Europe. He presents thumbnail sketches of some important personalities: Henry J. Morgenthau, Sr., the American Ambassador to Turkey who forcefully denounced the Armenian massacre in 1915; and Edmund Morel, the enterprising chronicler of King Leopold’s bloody-minded rape of the Congo and the prototype for many of today’s activists. However successful these early movements may have been, Neier points out, their goals were rarely universal in nature. Indeed, once the proximate goal was achieved (women given the right to vote, the global slave trade ended, King Leopold deprived of his African fiefdom), the movements tended to dissipate.
World War II changed all that. The horrors of the war, both on the battlefield and in the concentration camps, focused global opinion on preventing such enormities from ever happening again. Neier’s synoptic presentation of the relevant treaties, covenants and agreements serves as a cogent backgrounder for those hazy on the contours of international law. He also sketches out the efforts of idealists like Eleanor Roosevelt and crusaders like Raphael Lemkin, outlining how the non-binding Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were birthed at the still brand new United Nations. He describes how the Declaration became a legally binding agreement some 24 years later in the shape of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the more controversial International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Neier goes on to explain how these new frameworks encouraged the flowering of political dissent on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as well as the concomitant rise in the West of NGOs such as Amnesty International and his own Human Rights Watch. The chapters on Amnesty and especially Human Rights Watch in the 1980s are probably the least nuanced in the book, but they are inadvertently revealing in places. For example, Neier tells us that his organization’s senior staffers routinely referred to the Reagan Administration as “proxy villains”, and he details how the Reaganites’ often strident opposition redounded positively to Human Rights Watch’s reputation with donors and activist allies. Such tidbits won’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to the human rights industry over the years. Many will see it as further proof, if any were needed, of the anti-Western bias and opportunism ingrained within these institutions. Defenders—Neier foremost among them—will argue that episodes such as these prove that Human Rights Watch and its ilk tower above the national and ideological fray, naming and shaming those most deserving of opprobrium regardless of what “side” they’re on.
The book’s final chapters deal with human rights in the post-9/11 age. While not exculpatory, the narrative here at least suggests that Neier is arguing in good faith. He acknowledges that in al-Qaeda the West faces an enemy that cannot be cowed by shame, for it rejects the ethical norms the human rights movement insists are universal. Neier laments that the United States under George W. Bush decided to prioritize preventing another attack over pursuing the perpetrators of the first one by means of the international legal frameworks available to it. But he seems at least to understand the decision and its nearly unalloyed popularity with the public. He spends his last chapter urging the new generation of human rights activists to think creatively about how to fit their moral passions into new geopolitical realities, helping to adapt and expand the international law toolset to function in an age of terrorism.
And so the sun rises, and the clouds bring rain—what’s new? A reader could be forgiven for having missed it there near the end: Neier’s ever-so-subtle concession to the exigencies of reality on the practice of human rights advocacy. Indeed, one could be forgiven for failing to pick it out even on a second or third reading, buried as it is amid a torrent of complaints over the lack of due process, the employment of military tribunals, the widespread use of U.S.-sanctioned torture—and, most of all, the failure of Barack Obama to reverse many of these trends after promising to do so during the 2008 campaign. But it’s there, and it’s significant.
Its significance is highlighted by a passing lament earlier in the book, one that seems a bit esoteric on the surface. At the end of a lengthy discussion of the three tiers of rights—civil and political, economic and social, and the newfangled “green” rights to a healthy environment and to peace—Neier assertively downplays these latter two tiers and urges focusing on the first. His argument is that most rights advocacy ends up seeking redress to grievances through whatever court system is available to it, but that this is absolutely not a proper way for the judiciary in a functioning democracy to operate. “Economic and security matters ought to be, and are, constant questions of public debate”, he warns. “Some who question the concept of economic rights believe that to withdraw such questions from politics, and to attempt to settle them on the basis of rights . . . is to carve the heart out of the democratic process.” He ends the chapter thus:
An instructive parallel drama overtook Human Rights Watch about two years ago concerning shenanigans in its work having to do with Israel when another of its founders, Robert Bernstein, complained publicly about the way his own institution was unfairly and disproportionately focusing on Israel in its report-writing. He raised two points of context that Human Rights Watch studiously avoided.
First, there are important differences between open and closed societies. Israel is clearly open, with “at least 80 human rights organizations, a vibrant free press, a democratically elected government, a judiciary that frequently rules against the government, a politically active academia, multiple political parties and, judging by the amount of news coverage, probably more journalists per capita than any other country in the world—many of whom are there expressly to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The Arab states surrounding Israel were by and large “brutal, closed and autocratic.” This distinction, argued Bernstein, does not mean that Israel is necessarily blameless in everything it does, but it does suggest that Israel can and does do a better job at policing itself.
Second, and perhaps more important, Israel’s wars with Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza were defensive in nature and were deliberately provoked by malevolent actors who repeatedly called for the eradication of the Jewish state. Furthermore, when these conflicts started, both Hamas and Hizballah waged their campaigns from within densely populated areas, using civilians as human shields. Again, Bernstein does not contend that “anything goes” in a defensive war, only that context is critical to sound judgment.
Neier all too briefly summarizes and dismisses Bernstein’s complaints in his chapter on Human Rights Watch. Siding with the moral absolutists on this particular issue, he replies blithely that, while Bernstein is correct about the differences between open and closed societies, “he is wrong to suggest that open societies should be spared criticism for human rights abuses.” It would be difficult to conjure up a more disingenuous strawman argument, as if Bernstein ever suggested as much. And it’s therefore particularly disconcerting when, only a few chapters later, Neier urges the broader human rights community to think more contextually about these very issues. For Neier, the wholly secular Jewish child refugee from Nazi Germany, this adjuration seems to apply to every case, except that of Israel.
Why does any of this matter in the larger frame? It turns out, to our peril, that the human rights movement has been more successful than Aryeh Neier dares to imagine: In addition to a pundit class that continues to draw deeply from the well of comforting moral certainties and platitudes that are the movement’s greatest legacy, more than four decades’ worth of politicians and civil servants have come up through the system believing that America’s responsibility in the world is to actively promote and protect human rights everywhere it can, regardless of context. Those same politicians and civil servants no longer readily understand that the cold-blooded calculations and preparations required to prevent large and gruesome wars have any moral significance whatsoever. America’s foreign policy decision-making is far from dominated by the blinkered idealist set, but there are enough of them floating around to get the United States involved in counterproductive interventions (the war in Libya), empty grandstanding (the proposed Magnitsky bill against Russia), and potentially disruptive brinksmanship with a country that might one day evolve into an adversary (the Chen Guangcheng case).
America, of course, neither can nor should become a Machiavellian great power. Natural law first principles reside in its DNA; completely ignoring them, as some realist thinkers counsel, is neither realistic nor likely to succeed politically. We still require the wise stewardship of hard as well as soft power, and we still require strategic thinking to operate within the realm of the possible. That wisdom will ever demand that our leaders know the difference between championing human rights as a good in itself and wielding it as carefully as necessary as a cudgel against our adversaries. The older generation of human rights activists, like Robert Bernstein and, to a lesser extent, Aryeh Neier, seems to get this, at least in private. One can only hope that the next generation will get it too.
1See Francis Fukuyama, “Natural Rights and Human History”, The National Interest (Summer 2001).
2For a more full-throated yet nuanced critique of this new kind of maximalism, see Richard Thompson Ford, Universal Rights Down To Earth (W.W. North & Co., 2011).