Coming at the end of his twenty-year tenure as the head of George Soros’s mega-philanthropy, 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.