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.

Neier’s other major political choice, early on, concerned the relationship between law, economics and government. “I acquired a reputation in other quarters as a conservative, or even as a reactionary, because I strenuously opposed efforts to get the ACLU and Human Rights Watch to deal with economic issues as rights.” This is an ancient debate. The stories of property and liberty cannot really be told separately. The trick is to make them complementary. Neier fears that a focus on economic rights would tend to diminish political and civil rights–indeed, “authoritarian power is probably a prerequisite for giving meaning to economic and social rights.” It is an extraordinary and incautious statement. All democratic countries have laws guaranteeing security of property, for example, and often in the language of rights. All democratic countries have laws limiting the exercise of dominion by one individual or group over another, and they are also often in the language of rights, as in the right to a safe workplace. Few if any of these democracies can today be described as slipping fast down the slope into state Communism or any other form of totalitarianism. In fact, Neier himself believes that democratic government and political rights give purpose and direction to economic development, which amounts to an acknowledgment that rights have some role in the economic sphere.

The subject is clearly a joyless one for Neier, which is perhaps why he rather artlessly bats it away and returns to his home ground of civil and political rights. It’s a shame, because the subject is a critically important one and will not go away until the means are found to eliminate gross poverty. However, one should also accept that Neier’s dance card has been pretty full. In one chapter he’s defending draft resisters, in another agitating for the mentally ill. He’s defending the Klan’s right to free speech, then building the truth-and-reconciliation process in South Africa. Neier takes us with him through all these fights while maintaining a remarkable serenity.

I liked this “by his works shall you know him” approach. Basically, all Americans and many non-Americans should shake Aryeh Neier’s hand and say, Thank you. He has made us freer. He didn’t have to do that.

This does raise the question of motivation. Fielding wrote of his hero Mr. Jonathan Wild that, “as he was embellished with many of the greatest and noblest Endowments, so these could not well be said to be absolutely pure and without Alloy.” Neier’s story is alloyed here and there with a certain immodesty; he overshadows his comrades. This may, however, be an occupational trait of human rights innovators. William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, says very little about Human Rights Watch or Neier in his excellent book from 2001, In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All–and Neier has little to say about Amnesty International. Jeri Laber, in her charming and often moving memoir, The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age With the Human Rights Movement, is visibly unhappy with the topic of Aryeh Neier and spends little time on it, a favor Neier more than returns in Taking Liberties. (His assessment of her “anecdotal efforts” is a compact classic of faint praise.) The key point here is that they worked together for years, bringing along from infancy the Watches that became Human Rights Watch. One imagines some tense moments at parties among the New York human rights community. And what do they all make of someone like Paul Gordon Lauren, whose fascinating and lengthy history The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen (1998) positions all NGOs as rather peripheral to the more important (to him) story of United Nations rights institutions? Lauren mentions Human Rights Watch exactly once, sandwiched in a list between Human Rights Internet and the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples.

Well, as flaws enrich the good person’s character, so failures give texture to the pattern of achievement. Neier’s prose reaches its highs when he is talking about battles he lost. The first such moment comes in his chapter on visiting Cuba in 1988. The previous year, Gen. Vernon Walters, the US ambassador to the UN, had charged that Cuba held 15,000 or more political prisoners under the worst of conditions. Neier was to take part in a visit that the Cubans hoped would disprove Walters’s contentions. Neier, of course, was in no way interested in helping Castro’s government, but he did want to see the prisons. He went, and showed that Walters’s number was far too high.

That’s the narrative for this chapter, a slim one compared with those of other chapters, which usually recount the story of a battlefield innovation like making reproductive rights part of the ACLU program. But the point of the Cuba chapter is not to illuminate another Neier victory. The point is this:

There was no natural light. The toilet was a hole in the ground. A spigot over this provided cold water to flush, to bathe in, and to drink. The meals consisted of a sparse breakfast and one other meal a day. Prisoners told me they had been confined naked in such cells…. But some prisoners were held for years in only slightly less harsh circumstances in a ninety-nine-cell punishment building at Combinado del Este. This building was known by the prisoners as “Rectangulo de Muerte” (rectangle of death), or as the “pizzeria,” for the oven-like conditions in hot weather. One prisoner I talked to there had been locked up in such conditions for six years.

Reading this uncharacteristically desperate passage I recalled the refugee boy who “stopped speaking.” Neier writes, “Though the Cuban prisons were once the subject of much attention in discussions of human rights internationally, they have faded from view in the past decade.” I think he must have hated it that he couldn’t get the prisoners out, nor could he prevent them from being forgotten. (Such sad anxiety at the operations of forgetting also comes across in his chapter on Central America in the Reagan years, which begins by noting that El Salvador “has since relapsed into obscurity.”)

A more ideological failure is represented for Neier by China. Who lost China? Neier names those who believed that trade and foreign investment would bring democracy and civil rights. Here again, as was the case with his opposing of economic rights, Neier does not want anything to interfere with the priority given to civil and political rights. Indeed, the only economics that sustains his interest is economic sanctions; he is very interesting on their successful use against Communist Poland, and so committed to such policies that he brings himself to praise Ronald Reagan, who directed the effort against Warsaw.

You come away from the China chapter with the strong impression that Neier would like to fight another round. His failures are interesting to read about perhaps because they interest him more than his successes. In his way he loves the fight. (He is obviously frustrated that his current job prevents him from taking larger bites out of John Ashcroft.) It’s this spirit, and the frank, open empathy he shows for suffering, that makes Neier come through these pages as fascinating rather than simply admirable, and passionate as well as good.