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  • The International Human Rights Movement: A History by Aryeh Neier
  • Wendy H. Wong (bio)
Aryeh Neier , The International Human Rights Movement: A History (Princeton University Press 2012), 379 pages, ISBN No. 978-0-6911-3515-1.

A number of important books in the field of human rights have attempted to trace the long history of the phenomenon (and importance) of rights in the political and social history of human civilizations.1 Aryeh Neier's The International Human Rights Movement: A History fundamentally shifts the focus of such discussions, electing instead to focus mostly on post-World War II developments and the global shift towards a human rights oriented world. The book takes its place in the burgeoning bibliography of books that offers a history of human rights, which speaks in itself to the rising importance of the topic across a variety of academic fields. It makes two contributions. First, it adds to the understanding that human rights as we know them today have unfurled most dramatically and most relevantly since the end of World War II.2 Second, Neier's emphasis on non-state actors and, in particular, the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that helped reify the human rights project from aspirational international law to practical policies places it among the few sweeping histories of the work, highlighting the role of an international movement in disseminating the human rights regime.3 In these two senses, Neier's version of how we should understand where human rights come from and where they are going should be a primer for anyone starting the study of human rights. Given the growing interest of recent publications in the role that non-state actors play in the construction of human rights, Neier's book is a classic statement of a growing theme in both public and scholarly imaginations.4

Neier's basic thesis is that the international human rights movement has been the most important catalyst in securing human rights throughout the world in the past thirty-five years. He proceeds in the book to provide ample [End Page 804] evidence for why NGOs have affected human rights outcomes. Neier's credible analysis stems from a place of personal investment in the subject matter; after all, he served as Human Rights Watch's founding Executive Director and shaped the politics of human rights in the United States during some of the key moments of inconsistency in the Reagan administration. Neier's book brings to life the contributions of not only the organization dear to his heart, but also traces the history of Amnesty International and other lesser known human rights NGOs working in the US, including: Human Rights First, Physicians for Human Rights, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Global Rights, and others. Neier also discusses non-US-based NGOs. These stories serve to demonstrate the diversity of views and strategies within the worldwide human rights movement, and in turn, Neier gives smaller groups a platform. This is an important achievement of the book, as to date most scholarly examinations have focused on larger, politically salient groups, thereby giving a rather skewed view of international human rights work.

As much as this book notes the importance of NGOs, it is also quite clear that Neier did not simply wish to tell a story of NGOs in international human rights politics; instead, he sought to draw a more complete picture by bringing in a broader discussion of human rights beyond non-state actors. In a later chapter, for instance, Neier tackles what he sees as a major goal of the international human rights movement in more recent years: how to hold states accountable for their most grave of abuses. It is in this discussion of the International Criminal Court and other such institutions of accountability that Neier's account of the role of NGOs gets a bit muddled. What exactly is the role of NGOs once tribunals like the ICC get established? Is the work of global activism pertaining to the realization of accountability for human rights abuses, at least the most atrocious of abuses, somewhat resolved now that states have decided to create their own international institutions?

The desire to "go beyond" non-state actors...


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