Standing up for the universality of human rights
INTERVIEW: Aryeh Neier of Open Society Foundations assesses challenges to global rights movement
THE ISSUE of human rights has run like a thread through Aryeh Neier’s life. The septuagenarian retires this year as president of the Open Society Foundations (OSF), a network of organisations, funded by investor and philanthropist George Soros, which promote better governance, human rights and economic, legal and social reform across the globe.
Before taking the helm at the OSF in 1993, Neier served for 12 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch, of which he was a founder in 1978.
Prior to that, he spent 15 years with the American Civil Liberties Union, including eight years as national executive director.
Neier is well placed to assess the ebb and flow of the human rights movement in recent decades, and the challenges it faces in a rapidly changing world with countries such as China in the ascendant. This will be the theme of a lecture he is due to give this Thursday in Dublin.
China, Neier says, poses a major challenge in the field of international human rights. “China is willing to throw its weight around in ways that do damage to human rights. China will let a country like Angola or Sudan know that if they sell their oil to China, then China isn’t going to bother them with strictures about human rights or corruption or transparency. China makes its silence on those issues a competitive advantage when dealing with those governments. So China is an enormous problem. At the same time, I would say that within China there are internal pressures for greater respect for human rights – and the extraordinary efforts to control what is circulated on the internet reflect the Chinese government’s concerns about this.”
Neier also deplores Beijing’s attempts to stifle criticism abroad of its human rights record. “China is the first country that I am aware of that engages in active campaigns against those who try to promote human rights and tries to suggest that it will penalise governments or others who are critical of its human rights practices,” he says, referring to its bid to prevent the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. “That campaign, if anything, did damage to the Chinese government . . . I think it reflects a kind of paranoia within the Chinese leadership – they appear so powerful, yet they behave as if though they are so vulnerable.”