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.”

We discuss how UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who was then seeking China’s support for another term in office, was notably mealy-mouthed in his response to Liu’s Nobel prize. On a visit to the European Parliament, Ban declined to comment when I asked him about the fact the Chinese authorities had put Liu’s wife under house arrest after the award was announced.

“One of the most serious problems in the human rights field today is that the cause does not have champions among governments or among intergovernmental bodies,” says Neier. “Europe is focused inwards, the US is not eager to provide leadership internationally on human rights, and intergovernmental bodies like the UN, the EU and the African Union are not willing to provide such leadership.”

He argues the initiative now tends to comes from the non-governmental (NGO) sector. “The non-governmental human rights movement is continuing to grow in size and significance,” he says, singling out Dublin-based Front Line Defenders, which is hosting Neier’s lecture this week.

“The human rights defenders whom Front Line defends play a crucial role worldwide and therefore the work such an organisation does is of heightened value.”

Neier believes the toppling of autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya last year amid popular protests that swept much of north Africa and the Middle East will have an impact beyond the region. “There is something contagious about demands for increased political freedom,” he says, though he acknowledges the initial euphoria of what became known as the Arab Spring has now given way to the difficult pangs of societies emerging from decades of authoritarianism.

“When people who have suffered from oppression rise up and demand changes, we don’t necessarily know what the outcome will be . . . I am quite optimistic about Tunisia, more so than other countries in the region, like Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. I do think Tunisia has a significant chance of becoming the first rights respected democratic government among the 22 Arab countries, and that in itself would be very significant.”

In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Islamist movements have gained ground as the new order takes shape, prompting fresh debate on the role of Islam in political life.

Neier cites Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, and Turkey, as providing possible lessons. “[These] are two of the countries that have made the greatest headway in the last 10 years, and both are large Muslim countries. Things are by no means perfect in either country, but considering where they were, an immense amount of progress has been made on rights and on democracy in both countries.” Organisations such as the OSF have had to tread carefully in the Middle East due to accusations that foreign NGOs have helped foment popular protests, whether during the Arab Spring or following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election.

In Egypt, more than 40 civil society activists, including 16 Americans, have been targeted in a court action. “There has been a backlash,” says Neier, adding that some of the groups linked to that case seemed, in a New York Times article published shortly after Mubarak was ousted, to be boasting about their supposed role in bringing about the revolution in Egypt.

“[The OSF] has a presence in Egypt and we have had to operate with a great deal of care. We don’t go around claiming that we engineered what took place, because we didn’t,” he says. “We have supported over the years various groups that are concerned with human rights broadly, with women’s rights, legal process and assistance for the poor and so forth.

“There were some organisations that always made clear to us that they didn’t want to obtain foreign funding because they thought this would undermine their legitimacy. It’s something we encounter in all parts of the world.” When it comes to the debate on human rights, one question that has never really gone away is the old chestnut of whether human rights can be considered universal. In the 1990s, the so-called “Asian values” debate saw several prominent east Asian leaders, including Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, argue that human rights are culturally relative to western societies. The new political realities in the Middle East prompt similar questions. Neier rejects the argument outright. “I’m a little cynical about that kind of scepticism of universal values, because it is only those who are engaged in political repression that seem to be the sceptics,” he says. “It is never the people who are victims of repression.”

Aryeh Neier’s lecture ‘Five Decades on the Front Line: Reflections on what the Human Rights Movement has Accomplished’ is held at the Civic Offices, Wood Quay, Dublin at 7pm this Thursday, June 7th.