Academic journal article Jewish Political Studies Review

A Partial History of the International Human Rights Movement

Academic journal article Jewish Political Studies Review

A Partial History of the International Human Rights Movement

Article excerpt

A PARTIAL HISTORY OF THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS MOVEMENT The International Human Rights Movement, by Aryeh Neier, Princeton University Press, 2012, 392 pp.

Reviewed by Anne Herzberg

Coming at the end of his twenty-year tenure as the head of George Soros's megaphilanthropy, the Open Society Foundation (OSF), Aryeh Neier has authored The International Human Rights Movement. This work chronicles the history of the human rights movement, arguing that it has been "the driving force behind the protection of human rights for the past 35 years." In particular, Neier focuses on the advent of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), and how the movement has reacted to, adapted to, and influenced significant world events, including the Cold War and its collapse, 9/11, and the 2011 "Arab Spring."

Neier is well-positioned to write this story. Before leading OSF, Neier was executive director of HRW for twelve years, and had an eight-year run leading the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) capping off fifteen years at the organization. Given his lifelong career with three of the most influential groups in the human rights movement, it is clear that Neier was a major player and witness to many of the events he describes in the book.

The book is at its strongest when describing the beginnings of the human rights movement and the dynamics of the Cold War in pushing it to prominence. Yet Neier s book is strangely and disappointingly impersonal. He speaks very little of his time at the ACLU and how he ended up taking the reins of HRW and OSF. Often, Neier lacks critical distance and appears at times to be blinded by the "halo effect," claiming that human rights groups intervene in policy solely for "altruistic reasons" and are "committed to uncovering hidden violations of rights in all parts of the world." There are also several striking omissions throughout the book. These lapses highlight the many ways in which this movement has acted immorally and failed to stay true to the principles of universal human rights.

Neier devotes significant sections of his book to the Cold War and how it fueled the development of the human rights movement. He notes that the rise of investigative journalism in the wake of the Vietnam War and Watergate also bolstered human rights advocacy and led to a symbiotic relationship between the media and activists. While he acknowledges that the influence of human rights groups was not the main factor in ending the Cold War, he argues that Western activists, in "embarrassing their own governments by pointing out claims of freedom were contradicted by support for dictatorships and apartheid," fostered sustained domestic political interest in human rights. He argues that this approach was a significant cause of the Cold War's collapse and the fall of dictators in Latin America and Asia.

Another of Neier s main points is how the human rights movement shifted during the late 1980s from focusing solely on violations of international human rights law to monitoring violations of international humanitarian law (IHL, or laws of armed conflict), which is a primary goal today. According to Neier, the movement has also shifted away from the monitoring of abuses to promoting "accountability," through advocating for international criminal tribunals as well as using litigation and other law-based strategies to advance campaigns.


One of the more interesting sections of the book is his discussion of Amnesty International, one of the pioneers of the human rights movement, and the internal struggles of the organization. For instance, in contrast to todays activists, who are overwhelmingly influenced by postcolonial and Marxist politics, he highlights how Amnesty s founder, Peter Benenson, originally avoided joining the UK-equivalent of the ACLU because it was controlled by Communists. He also describes how at the outset, there was strong commitment to strict adherence to Amnesty's mandate. …

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