In his memoir, Taking Liberties, Aryeh Neier emerges, almost despite himself, as a fascinating man. The story of his achievements is itself interesting and takes up the bulk of his pages. And I do mean the bulk. It is to the introduction that Neier relegates his childhood (born Berlin 1937) as a refugee in England (for a time he was confined to a hostel, “where, I am told, I stopped speaking”). We have a page on the Midlands towns where he grew up and what it was like to be a Jew there (odd at matins, otherwise not bad), then across the seas to Stuyvesant High in New York City, where he “opposed McCarthyism to the limited extent possible for a high-school student.” Neier devoured the works of the midcentury antifascist and (mostly) anti-Communist writers, Orwell-Camus-Koestler-Silone, and hurried on to Cornell. There he agitated for free speech and cottoned to Norman Thomas. Naturally he was drawn to the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). In what would become a pattern, he rocketed from newcomer to director (age 21).
This new job accounts for his never attending law school. Neier is appealingly modest on this score: Considering the profound effects he would have on American and international law, he has bragging rights for having succeeded without a law degree, but he chooses not to exercise them. This lack of professionalist hauteur (or of insecurity) is remarkable in the field of human rights, which is full of people who are not really lawyers (though many have the degree) trying to convince themselves and others that they’re not really politicians. Neier very cleverly and exactly splits all these differences. He argues the law and he fights like a politician, as seen in his able demolition of Ernest Lefever as Reagan’s nominee to be assistant secretary of state for human rights.
Neier’s opposition to Lefever and much else in the Reagan Administration was not ideological in any standard sense of the term. What he thinks of as human rights are really the basic civil and political rights of American law. Much of his advocacy, in the American context, consisted in expanding the reach of these rights into, for example, reproductive freedom, fair treatment in jails, free speech even when it is hateful and respect from the state even when you are mentally ill. Neier’s advocacy was not about elaborating the theory or expanding the number of rights. This remained true when he moved onto the international stage in the 1970s. What he took abroad was American rights, and to a considerable extent he, like many others, sees American power as the leading defender of those rights–if not always in reality, then in principle.
His perspective seems to have been consistent since his student years on the center-left. As director of the LID, Neier thought to invigorate its student branch, which he renamed Students for a Democratic Society in 1959. He writes that he hired, then fired, Tom Hayden: “It was too late. He had established his leadership of SDS.” At this point, Neier expresses his basic ideology: “I was anti-Soviet and anti-Communist and was appalled by arguments that Soviet repression and the invasion of Hungary were defensive actions…. Also, the language about ‘participatory democracy’ sounded to me like a justification for demagogy.” Neier says he regretted losing SDS (then soon leaving LID) because the “political views I wanted to promote…were essentially those I have maintained ever since.”
This is all still in the introduction. Neier goes on to summarize his rise to stewardship of the American Civil Liberties Union, then his early involvement in Helsinki Watch and Americas Watch followed by his combining of them and other Watches into Human Rights Watch. From there he went on to George Soros’s Open Society Institute, where he remains today. Throughout, Neier’s political emphases are reliably liberal. (Anti-Communism was key to the post-Vietnam growth of human rights culture, a point too easy to forget today.) His political work has been law-based in both the obvious way and in the sense that laws, unlike politics, can be built into a sociopolitical edifice that has some chance of lasting. Of course, legal rights can be reinterpreted–the legal defenses of segregation, for example, were often rights-based–and treaties can be “unsigned.” Solemn legal commitments can die of neglect. The reasons are almost always external to the law; law is no substitute for politics. This is something Neier never forgets.