The international human rights movement has made significant impacts on the ways that states and state leaders act, according to Aryeh Neier, outgoing President of the Open Society Foundations. One of the architects of the international human rights movement, Neier spoke to a full house at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center February 28th as part of the "Human Rights for the 21st Century: History, Practice, Politics" speaker series.
The international human rights movement has made significant impacts on the ways that states and state leaders act, according to Aryeh Neier, outgoing President of the Open Society Foundations. One of the architects of the international human rights movement, Neier spoke to a full house at the University of Minnesota's McNamara Alumni Center February 28th as part of the "Human Rights for the 21st Century: History, Practice, Politics" speaker series. In his illustrious career, Neier served as National Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and founder and director of Human Rights Watch. Neier is a strong proponent of international justice for grave violations of human rights, having played a critical role in establishing the first international criminal tribunal since Nuremberg - on the former Yugoslavia.
In his public address on Tuesday, Neier tracked the origins of the global human rights movement to the response to global political conditions stemming from the Cold War. Since that time, according to Neier, the movement has become a significant player in shaping world politics. The human rights movement effectively utilized a variety of methodologies including naming and shaming, demanding public accountability, and creating international norms.
The work of University of Minnesota professors Kathryn Sikkink and Leigh Payne has provided empirical evidence to back the trends noted by Neier.
"Aryeh Neier is an extremely influential figure in the creation and the success of the global human rights movement," noted Barbara Frey, Human Rights Program Director. "It was a great opportunity to hear his take on the causes and effects of the movement."
Neier's presentation set forth the scope of his latest book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History, available in April through Princeton University Press. In his view, the ideology of the Cold War gave rise to writers and philosophers, from Orwell and Solzhenitsyn to Berlin and Arendt, who drew attention to human rights abuses by actors on both sides of the East-West divide. Transnational advocacy soon followed, first through Amnesty International, founded in 1961, and then Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and other influential NGOs in the '70s. Neier particularly highlighted the critical inquiries led by Minnesota Congressman Don Fraser in putting human rights on the political agenda in the United States in the 1970s.
Neier identified several impacts of the movement in the 1980s and 1990s: its contributions to the revolutions in the Soviet Bloc states, as well as those in the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa. Since the 1980s, the human rights movement has focused on human rights abuses that occur during armed conflict, leading to demand for accountability for atrocities. Neier specifically pointed to the work of the Argentine Truth Commission and the Yugoslav Tribunal as examples of this trend. That officials at the highest level are being held to account is, according to Neier, "an enormous achievement."
More recently, the international human rights movement has had to contend with backsliding on human rights by the US and other states following the attacks of 9/11. "Certainly abuses have taken place," said Neier, "but the preponderance of non-governmental organizations worldwide working to protect the rights of all greatly curbed human rights abuses that could have been." Neier remains hopeful for human rights because of the millions of people who now identify with and value the movement.
Neier's visit was sponsored by the Human Rights University and the Ohanessian Chair in the College of Liberal Arts.