Articles of Faith: Are Human Rights Still Relevant?

Human rights campaigner Aryeh Neier believes in the power of popular opinion, but is agnostic about the Occupy movement

Aryeh Neier, speaking on 8 Nov. at Vienna’s Institute for Human Sciences | Photo: IWM

As Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad continues his bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in defiance of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the question of the human rights movement’s political force is as timely as ever.

As such, this was the topic of November’s “political salon” convened by the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM). Some 40 people had gathered in the institute’s library to hear from the veteran human rights campaigner Aryeh Neier. He has been the president of the Open Society Foundation since its inception in 1993, following posts as executive director of the Human Rights Watch and national director of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was flanked on the panel by Christian Ultsch, editor for foreign affairs at the Austrian daily Die Presse, and Leonard Novy, IWM’s director for research and development.

Neier opened the salon by recounting the rise of the human rights movement in the political landscape of the Cold War: The Human Rights Watch began as Helsinki Watch in response to the imprisonment of members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, formed to document the USSR’s adherence to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which enshrined civil liberties on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

In 1993, the Human Rights Watch, under Neier’s leadership, marked one of its greatest victories when the UN Security Council followed its call to set up the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). With the arrest of Goran Hadžić last July, the ICTY has brought all of the living individuals indicted by the tribunal to court.

Neier pointed out that the movement’s strongest weapon has always been an informed public capable of holding its political leaders to account: Even dictators ignore popular opinion indefinitely at their peril.

Yet during the Q&A, audience members questioned the effectiveness of this “public shaming system”. Neier reiterated his firm belief that all nations, perhaps with the exception of North Korea, were indeed sensitive to global opinion. It seemed that this article of faith stood in for the lack of more concrete tools of enforcement. Indeed, Neier admitted that human rights’ legal enforceability was still pitifully incomplete. Nonetheless, somewhat optimistically, he expected international courts and regional tribunals to be expanded in the future.

One topic Neier seemed unwilling to discuss was the ongoing Occupy movement. He explained that he drew a sharp distinction between civil rights and economic rights, citing a South African court case in which a man unsuccessfully sued for the right to a kidney transplant. While “rights trump everything else”, Neier said that economic matters remain the subject of compromise. But even putting aside protesters’ demands for the redistribution of wealth, wasn’t the New York police’s use of LRAD cannons, which emit pain-inducing acoustic signals to disperse crowds, an infringement of human rights? Neier answered evasively: If they were, it would be an issue for the ACLU, and not a concern for international human rights organisations.

Here was a political movement whose force could be harnessed, yet Neier was passing on the ball to another court. His response seemed to illustrate the compromises human rights advocates have had to make by entering the political mainstream. While this diplomatic approach has yielded results – such as the Tribunal for former Yugoslavia – months of bloodshed in Syria illustrate that progress can be grindingly slow. Moreover, an overly legalistic approach risks alienating the very grassroots groups whose activism, according to Neier, gives human rights their political force. At the IWM, it seemed Neier wanted it both ways.

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