Human Rights, and Wrongs
But the most expert of these advocates [of human rights] understand (at least when the microphones are off) that America operates in the real world: that our influence over the internal abuses of other countries is limited; that it’s easier to condemn a relatively inconsequential regime than one that provides us with oil or military bases; that humiliating leaders of countries like China may strengthen the hand of hard-liners; that sometimes quiet diplomacy is more effective than a public rebuke.
So wrote Bill Keller in a recent New York Times op-ed, marking an unusual burst of sensible candor in an article otherwise devoted to the standard line of prominent human rights advocates: that America is only as strong as the fervor with which it upholds the values it espouses; any willingness to compromise on matters of supposed moral principle dangerously miscommunicates America’s resolve to its adversaries. If it’s rare to see the standard line accompanied by the case for taking political context into consideration in the New York Times, it’s perhaps rarer still to see it in a book by one of most prominent human rights advocates of all: Aryeh Neier.
In most ways Neier’s The International Human Rights Movement is exactly the kind of book you would expect from one of the founders of Human Rights Watch and the current president of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations: a soaring survey of the movement’s history that glorifies its triumphs, minimizes its mistakes and demonizes its enemies. But read carefully, Neier suggests a critique of what the human rights movement has become. It doesn’t quite amount to an “off-mic” confession that human rights exist in a real, political world and that advocacy must be contingent on these realities. But it does indicate some level of unease among the old guard that oversees the battle for human rights today.