How many Americans take their rights for granted? Last month an impressive number of antiwar demonstrators converged on San Francisco and New York in chartered buses. Similarly, more than 30 years ago, various protest organizers chartered buses to bring anti-Vietnam-War demonstrators to Washington. After that peace demonstration, the largest of that war, FBI agents secretly asked private banks to open their proprietary records to identify the people who had signed the checks to pay for the buses. “We found out when a bank clerk called to alert us,” writes Aryeh Neier, who was then executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, “which allowed us to rush into federal court to halt the practice.”
Born in Nazi Germany to Jewish parents, Aryeh Neier is America’s foremost rights advocate. Today, at 65, he runs the Open Society Institute funded by the philanthropist financier George Soros. Neier previously founded and led Human Rights Watch, a once-small organization that has surpassed even Amnesty International as the world’s most authoritative voice on international human rights. Before that, Neier successfully guided the ACLU through some of its most challenging years, including the recovery of its prestige after the revelation that some previous leaders had secretly collaborated with the FBI during and after America’s “Red scare.”
Anyone looking to learn much more about Aryeh Neier himself will only be disappointed by this book. Instead of being a revealing personal memoir, Taking Liberties, as its subtitle suggests, reads more like an intellectual history of the rights movement in the United States and abroad, as told by a perhaps self-serving but no doubt highly effective protagonist.
Neier was executive director of the New York ACLU before he was elected to run the national organization, and the first issue he confronted was brutality by New York City police officers, including the practice of forced confessions. While at the ACLU, he also exposed abuses in prisons and mental-health asylums, and he was a pioneer in challenging the then-illegality of abortion. But his defense of the right of neo-Nazis to march through a Skokie, Ill., neighborhood whose residents included Holocaust survivors was even more controversial. Although many ACLU members resigned, as widely reported at the time, the drop was only short-lived, and the organization rebounded in the 1980s during President Ronald Reagan’s term in office.
By then, Neier had already left the ACLU to join with others, most notably Robert L. Bernstein, then chairman and chief executive officer of Random House, to form the U.S. Helsinki Watch Committee “to protest repression against dissenters in the Soviet Union.” Neier writes that “as one who had followed closely accounts of resistance to Soviet repression since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 . . . I welcomed Bob Bernstein’s call.” Soon the founders of Helsinki Watch added America’s Watch, which battled President Ronald Reagan’s administration over the facts of human-rights cases, first in El Salvador and later elsewhere.
Taking Liberties reminds readers that defenders of rights are ironically indebted to the Reagan administration. Officials such as Elliott Abrams (White House director of Middle East policy today) erroneously argued that only communist regimes committed the worst offenses. When the Watch committees proved him and others wrong, together they established the tenet that human rights deserve a central place in U.S. foreign policy.
Along the way, Neier’s sometimes uncompromising style provoked more than a few internecine conflicts. In Taking Liberties, he avoids reopening old wounds over different strategic approaches. But the book does take some swings at, among others, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and his allies on the Supreme Court, who Neier maintains have only eroded our rights.
Today, as director of the well-funded Open Society Institute, Neier has even more latitude to defend rights at home and abroad. He chronicles his own lead role in promoting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. He laments the loss of his friend Fred Cuny, who volunteered to go to Chechnya to help provide health and reconstruction services. “Every day,” writes Neier, “[I] rue my part in [his disappearance].”
But there is one area that this otherwise intrepid activist steps over. Watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch under Neier’s leadership sharply criticized U.S. military aid to many human-rights-abusing countries, but after the Cold War, Human Rights Watch, still under Neier, began to lobby for international military intervention to stop similar abuses by other non-U.S.-backed parties and regimes. Unfortunately, he papers over what he fails to mention was a watershed dispute among human-rights advocates over whether to back U.S. intervention in Somalia. (The last Bush administration began the intervention that the Clinton administration continued.) Aryeh Neier was among those hoping to use the African Horn intervention as a springboard to stopping both alleged and many already proven acts of genocide and other crimes throughout the 1990s in Bosnia and later in Rwanda and Kosovo.
Neier deserves credit for his lead role in helping establish the notion that the same standards that apply to international war crimes also apply to civil conflicts. In the early 1980s, he began promoting accountability for disappearances and other political crimes in Argentina. Two decades later, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s ex-president Slobodan Milosevic was indicted at the Hague for humanitarian crimes he had allegedly ordered in his own nation’s southern province of Kosovo.
Taking Liberties tells us more about where we came from than where we are going. But it is a timely story told by one American who never took any right anywhere for granted. *
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has collaborated with many human-rights organizations. He is writing a book about the 1991 uprisings against Saddam Hussein.