ABA Midyear Meeting

Efforts to fight terrorism are undermining the human rights movement, says prominent advocate

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Human rights advocate Aryeh Neier is not feeling very optimistic these days. The reason, he said in a speech at the annual luncheon sponsored by the ABA Center for Human Rights during the ABA Midyear Meeting, is that the human rights movement is losing hard-gained ground as the United States and other countries, especially in the West, impose more pervasive security measures aimed at reducing the threat of terrorism.

In the face of those actions, the human rights movement has been unable to show that promoting its priorities is compatible with the fight against terrorism, he said. Advocacy groups “will have to make the case that violations of human rights make matters worse, not better” in the fight against terrorism, Neier said.

Neier is president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations, which was founded by George Soros. He served as Open Society Foundations’ president from 1993 to 2012. Before that, he served 12 years as executive director of Human Rights Watch, which he helped found in 1978. He also is a past national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. His most recent book is The International Human Rights Movement: A History, published in 2012.

The United States prides itself on being a defender of human rights around the world, Neier said, but in recent years, especially since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government has implemented extensive measures to promote security while compromising those rights.

As a result, Neier said, the United States has lost credibility around the world as a human rights advocate. “Violations of rights in the name of security at home makes it difficult to speak out against violations of rights in other countries,” he said. Moreover, he said, the United States and other Western nations have shown little inclination to oppose human rights violations by their allies in the Middle East and other regions beset by terrorism. And repressive policies only serve to encourage more disenchanted young people to join terrorist movements, he said.

It doesn’t have to be that way, insisted Neier. The Cold War era was arguably a more dangerous time marked by the potential for conflict between the superpowers and the threat of worldwide nuclear war. Yet it was also a time of great achievements for the human rights movement, which were bolstered by strong support from the U.S. government.

“Promoting human rights is not impossible, even during a time of great danger,” Neier said. “Protecting rights at home and abroad is a better strategy than things like Guantanamo for fighting terrorism.”

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