The International Human Rights Movement: A History

By Moyn, Samuel | Ethics & International Affairs, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The International Human Rights Movement: A History


Moyn, Samuel, Ethics & International Affairs


The International Human Rights Movement: A History, Aryeh Neier (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), 379 pp., $35 cloth.

Aryeh Neier has written a fluent and engaging "history" of the international human rights movement, of which he is a senior statesman. Neier, following a prominent career in advocacy, most recently as president of the Open Society Institute, has successfully summarized his own understanding of the movement for a lay audience of those--and I would think they are many--who might like to hear his thoughts on where things stand today.

At the moment of his retirement, at seventy-five years of age, it is generous of Neier to offer up this volume to mark the occasion.

I wish, however, that Neier had not presented his book as a history. It is really a series of essays, only a couple of which offer deeper historical context for the American branch of the human rights movement--which Neier helped launch in 1978 when he participated in the founding of the forerunner to Human Rights Watch. Neier is not really in dialogue with--and, alas, he is far behind--the substantial and controversial professional history of human rights that has appeared in the past decade. There are few new facts or interpretations in the book. No matter: just as Winston Churchill's history of World War II is remembered because it provided a unique perspective on events he had lived through and indeed personally driven, this book is a primary source rather than a scholarly achievement.

Neier is weak on the prehistory of the international movement, whether that of long ago or in the era shortly before he moved in his professional career from domestic civil liberties to global human rights. In his brief exploration of whether human rights antedate the French Revolution, Neier invokes the English historian Christopher Hill to trace a direct line between the pioneering efforts of the famous Diggers and Levellers of seventeenth-century England and his own strenuous activities centuries later. The suggestion is not entirely implausible, but then Christopher Hill was a Marxist who saw these radicals as prefiguring a different movement than that of international human rights today (Neier, in contrast, continues to be very diffident about economic and social rights). I suppose the explanation for Neier's invocation is simple: for a man of his generation, Hill was the person whose books you sought out when you wanted to learn about the England of that period. The stacks of libraries are now full of newer books on seventeenth-century England, not to mention lots of other places and times relevant to Neier's subject, but this fact is not reflected in his autumnal effort to establish a deep past for human rights.

Fortunately, Neier can draw effectively on personal experience in reconstructing the more recent trajectory of the contemporary human rights movement, and in so doing he converges with current trends in isolating the mid-1970s as a crucial breaking point. Two key arguments emerge. First, whatever happened before that date, the construction of a global consciousness of and movements around human rights over the last three decades was an entirely surprising event. Second, in what Neier calls the thesis of his book, the shift occurred because human rights, mired before then in obscure United Nations processes, were reclaimed by non-state actors and, more specifically, by nongovernmental organizations. I think both of these claims are correct.

In chapters on the cold war, Neier gives a valuable overview of the trajectories of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, though without offering any deep explanation for why the groups emerged and how they evolved. Not entirely without a personal stake in the matter, Neier interprets Amnesty as pioneering but ultimately eclipsed by other organizations, especially once American liberals belatedly entered the fray--in part, Neier notes with refreshing candor, simply because they could draw on massive private philanthropy. …

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