Taking Liberties—Four Decades in the Struggle for Civil Rights

OSI President Aryeh Neier's sixth book, Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights, was recently published by PublicAffairs. In addition to being a memoir of Neier's human rights work since the 1960s, the book is a policy document that spells out the author's distinctive views on what human rights are and how governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and individuals can and should seek to achieve them in various circumstances.

To mark the book's publication, OSI hosted a forum on January 8, 2003 in which two leading human rights experts shared their thoughts positive and negative about Taking Liberties and offered Neier the opportunity to respond to their differences of opinion over some of his analysis and conclusions. The two non-OSI panelists, Stephen Holmes and Harold Hongju Koh, are both law professors and published authors in their own right who have examined human rights issues in the past, both in the United States and abroad.

See the PublicAffairs website for more information about the book.


In his talk, Holmes initially focused on his belief that "justice depends on power." He argued that since the powerful have more rights than others, it is necessary for disenfranchised groups to acquire power in order to effect social, political, and judicial change. Human rights advocates must therefore form viable and vocal organizations—such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch, two groups headed by Neier in the past—with a knack for mounting campaigns that influence those in power. According to Holmes, in the book Neier seems suspicious of attaining such power even though his human rights work is an example of the value of organizing and lobbying.

Holmes also questioned Neier's support for two high-profile human rights issues—monitoring and international tribunals. The former refers to a strategy in which NGOs analyze and report on countries' human rights conditions. Holmes wondered why it helps to monitor human rights in situations—such as the repression of dissidents in China—where it seems clear that nothing can and will be done because those in power feel little pressure to take action.

Neier was more optimistic about the efficacy of monitoring, arguing that it encourages those whose rights are in question, providing them with further incentive to mobilize on their own behalf. He also said that monitoring reports have indirect benefits that may not be immediately clear: for instance, certain countries (including the United States in some circumstances) condition the provision of financial aid and/or trade privileges on decent or improving human rights conditions. In addition, he said, monitoring "gives lie to pretenses" some governments make, thus exposing their hypocrisy and making it more difficult for other governments to ignore the abuses. Monitoring reports can pressure so-called supporting governments (or "surrogate villains") to justify their close relationships with targeted nations, thus prompting them to influence change in those countries.

Holmes was also critical of the decade-old International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), contending that it was "weird" to have judges make decisions about countries in which they don't have to live. Why, he asked, would people trust these judges—and what's to prevent the seating of a judge hostile to human rights such as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist?

Neier acknowledged that there was much that was wrong with the ICTY's performance, and he noted in particular that he felt many experienced people with "encyclopedic knowledge" of the Balkans conflicts had not been utilized adequately because of rigid procedural rules. But he said that overall he supports the ICTY and its sister tribunal in Rwanda because of the importance of establishing "crimes against humanity" as a universal concept that even the most recalcitrant or hostile government must take into consideration. He thinks the useful work of the tribunals will be expanded to the rest of the world by the new International Criminal Court, which is currently being formed.

Koh began his talk by praising the book as a "good read" that is "dryly funny." He said that reading it had helped him recall the mid-1970s, when the U.S. human rights agenda was bolstered by the election of President Jimmy Carter (D) and the post-Vietnam War trend toward questioning the government and actively fighting for individual freedoms. Taking Liberties, he said, is about truth telling, and U.S. society has moved further from that goal over the past two decades. Unlike in the 1970s, Koh argued, most Americans today condone violations of certain rights (detainment without trial, racial profiling, etc.) —partly because of the September 11 terrorist attacks but also because Americans, like most other people, are less inclined to be outraged when violations don't directly affect them. To counter this trend, advocates must "build bulwarks against the public" by passing laws and pushing for government policies that safeguard rights.

Koh said that he wished the book had contained more thorough analysis of—and possible solutions to deal with—economic, social, and cultural rights, such as those affecting women and people with AIDS. Neier said that while he agrees there are significant economic and social inequities that societies should struggle to overcome, he doesn't believe that it's useful to use the language of human rights to do so. For something to be a universal right, he said, it must be enforceable based on the same criteria everywhere. Economic and social "rights," on the other hand, depend upon the allocation of available resources, which vary from country to country.

In extensive remarks toward the end of the forum, Neier compared a recent human rights issue to a highly publicized free speech controversy from the 1970s that he writes about in-depth in Taking Liberties. As the head of the ACLU then, he defended the right of a small group of American neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in the face of the city's efforts to ban their symbolic hate speech against Jews. The situation in Skokie was quite different from what occurred in Rwanda in spring 1994, when announcers on Radio Milles Collines exhorted Hutus to slaughter Tutsis, thus helping precipitate the Rwandan genocide that year.

Although he defends the right of free speech, even hate speech, Neier said that he favors prosecution of the Rwandan announcers. In Skokie, all points of view could be expressed, thus making the expression of hateful views less dangerous. In Rwanda, before and during the genocide, no competing or refuting views were allowed from any source. Radio Milles Collines had the exclusive capacity to spread its gospel of hate—and some announcers even went so far as to directly incite murder.

Neier concluded by briefly touching on post-September 11 developments, which he said he was unable to do extensively in the book because it was written before the attacks. He agreed with Koh that the expansion of government surveillance and arbitrary detention were major setbacks for human rights advocates in the United States and that the immediate future is rather dire since few advocates or government officials have been able to successfully challenge Attorney General John Ashcroft's restrictive policies.

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Date: January 8, 2003
Time: 7:008:30 p.m.

OSI-New York

Stephen Holmes, Harold Hongju Koh, and Aryeh Neier