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PS Say More


Aryeh Neier
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch.

Project Syndicate: The revival of authoritarianism in China under President Xi Jinping, to which you recently called attention, has been widely reported internationally, but also widely ignored, owing largely to China’s massive economic clout. Now, however, the consequences of China’s internal repression are going global in the form of a deadly outbreak of a new coronavirus, COVID-19, that Xi’s regime sought to downplay, evidently putting its own reputation ahead of immediate action to contain the bug. Will this episode force the international community, or at least key players such as the European Union, to reconsider their business-first approach to Xi’s China?

Aryeh Neier: We don’t yet know whether COVID-19 will lead to a global pandemic, but the possibility is frightening. As I note in my new PS commentary, if the Chinese authorities’ initial reaction to the virus had not been to cover it up, it may have been contained. This underscores, yet again, how dangerous it is when governments suppress information and, more broadly, when they lack the public accountability that is an essential characteristic of an open society.

But governments will not reconsider how they deal with China without extensive public discussion. And, unfortunately, that level of debate is unlikely to emerge unless our worst fears of a COVID-19 pandemic are realized.

PS: Any progress would require international human-rights leadership, especially from the United States. As you’ve pointed out, that is in short supply nowadays. It seems farfetched to expect a reversal from President Donald Trump, who is ramping up immigration policies that themselves violate recognized human rights, such as the right to asylum. What steps would his successor need to take most urgently – whether beginning in 2021 or 2025 – to restore US leadership on human rights?

AN: For starters, Trump’s successor must eschew his practice of praising “strongman” leaders, such as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, China’s Xi Jinping, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. It encourages their abusive practices.

Moreover, the US can be a credible advocate of human rights internationally only if respects human rights at home. That means ensuring that immigration policy (and practice) does not discriminate on religious or racial grounds; treating migrants humanely; protecting, rather than suppressing, the votes of racial minorities; reducing the number of incarcerated people; and not celebrating US war criminals as heroes.

PS: You’ve condemned the International Criminal Court’s failure to fulfill its role as a force for transnational justice, pointing out that though it has initiated proceedings against multiple heads of state, none has been convicted. “Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was indicted a decade ago for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, but was never apprehended,” you lamented. Now, Sudan’s rulers have agreed to hand Bashir over to the ICC. Regardless of the outcome of his trial, does this mark a turning point?

AN: Recent developments in Sudan – including the possibility that the current government will turn Bashir over to the ICC – are very encouraging. It is a welcome reminder that it may take a long time to bring to justice those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, but that does not mean they have gotten away with it.

In fact, three other former African heads of governments – Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Chad’s Hissène Habré, and Rwanda’s Jean Kambanda – are spending the rest of their lives in prison for such crimes. Likewise, hundreds of officials of Latin America’s military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s are now in prison for human-rights abuses, as are scores of perpetrators of atrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Like Bashir, many of them escaped justice for a long time – but not forever.

As for the ICC, getting custody of Bashir would greatly enhance its credibility and thus its effectiveness.

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Neier recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Neier's picks:

  • The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy

    The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy

    This is, in my view, an important account of liberalism’s failure to take hold in Russia, and of the recent rise of xenophobic nationalism in countries like Hungary and Poland. Among other things, the authors discuss how imitation of the West acquired a hostile character.

  • Arendt and America

    Arendt and America

    Published in 2015, this book shows how twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt’s encounters with American political culture shaped her most important intellectual contributions.

From the PS Archive

From 2019
Neier condemns the indictment of 16 civil-society leaders in Turkey for their role in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Read the commentary.

From 2016
Neier says that extrajudicial killings in the Philippines' "war on drugs" are a crime against humanity. Read the commentary.

Around the web

In this interview, Neier – a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union – reflects on his hiring of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to direct the Women’s Rights Project and her tenure at the ACLU. Read the transcript.

In a speech at Hunter College. Neier describes the achievements and challenges of the international human-rights movement. Watch the video.;

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