Fifth Meeting
Date: February 21, 2020
Time: 14:00 – 18:00
Location: Harry S Truman Building, Washington, D.C.

In Attendance
Mary Ann Glendon, Chairwoman
Peter Berkowitz, Executive Secretary
Kenneth Anderson, Commissioner
Russell Berman, Commissioner
Paolo Carozza, Commissioner
Hamza Yusuf Hanson, Commissioner
David Tse-Chien Pan, Commissioner
Jacqueline Rivers, Commissioner
Katrina Lantos Swett, Commissioner
Christopher Tollefsen, Commissioner
Duncan Walker, Designated Federal Officer
Cartwright Weiland, Rapporteur

Approval of Minutes
Rapporteur F. Cartwright Weiland drafted these minutes.  I have certified their accuracy.

Mary Ann Glendon, Chairwoman

Public Meeting: The Role of Human Rights in U.S. Foreign Policy

The fifth public meeting of the Commission on Unalienable Rights (“Commission”) started at 13:59.   Chairwoman Glendon began by emphasizing to the audience that when the Commission was established, it was charged to carry out a specific task: take a fresh look at human rights when the very idea of them is being challenged from multiple directions, some people are losing faith in their existence and centrality, and half the world is living under authoritarian regimes.  Glendon stated that, because the Commission had been formed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), it is obligated to be independent and non-partisan and work without fear of or favor to other groups.  The Commission was asked to ground its advice in America’s founding principles, as well as the international principles to which to the U.S. has committed itself, especially those found in the UDHR.  After Glendon’s brief opening remarks, commissioners introduced themselves to the audience one at a time, providing information on their professional background and interest in serving on the Commission.  Commissioner Berman, the co-chair of the meeting, then invited the first speaker to the stage, Professor Martha Minow.  A widely-respected scholar and public intellectual, Minow teaches, and formerly served as the dean, at Harvard Law School.

Minow thanked commissioners for the invitation to speak.  She said that grappling with the meaning of human rights is a task no single generation can complete; the Commission therefore represents an “investment of renewing thought and action” that must occur in order for ideals to have purchase in the future.  Despite disagreements that exist over the origins and nature of human rights, Minow cited a “remarkable convergence” across societies, nations, historical periods, and religious and philosophic traditions.  She called this an “overlapping consensus,” which has entailed a universal rejection of murder, slavery, torture, as well as a universal embrace of equal treatment under law.

She pointed out, however, that to see a right as universal is not to assert that it is universally implemented.  For example, the Holocaust during World War II gave rise to the vow of “Never Again,” yet the world has witnessed subsequent genocides.  Widespread condemnation of such practices underscores the fundamental nature of human rights, and the duty of individuals and states to respect the rights of others.

Minow continued by discussing the concept of dignity, on which the idea of human rights rests.  She cited the opening provision of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), statements made by the former president of the Israel Supreme Court Aharon Barak, and the fact that “most” national constitutions and human rights treaties emphasize dignity.  As economist Amartya Sen has shown, respect for dignity can spur the internal development of nations, since human rights protections promote economic security, and enforcement of civil and political rights reduces the risk of major social and economic disasters such as famine.  Minow posited that “[a]ttending to human dignity . . . diminishes the significance some might attribute to distinctions between political and civil rights on the one hand, and social and economic rights on the other.”  Further, she stressed the role dignity – a person’s intrinsic worth – plays in both defending rights against tyranny, and grounding opportunities to participate in cultural, scientific, and civic worlds.  Dignity featured prominently in the remainder of her remarks, as Minow stressed that the concept is rooted in religious views of divine creation but also recognized by many with reference to human biology and culture.

Freedom of belief and conscience are rights, Minow asserted, rather than elements of grace or charity.  They cannot be revoked by a government nor surrendered by an individual.  These ideas undergird the founding (and ongoing) commitments of the United States that were expressed in the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence, and which Thomas Jefferson acknowledged to be based in both common sense and the writing of such figures as Aristotle, Cicero, and Locke.  Thus, Minow stated, unalienable rights were articulated at the Founding, but were based in earlier sources and in turn were echoed in statements made by other nations and associations of nations.

These “earlier sources” to which Jefferson’s Declaration appealed included Hugo Grotius, a Dutch scholar who played a role in developing a theory of natural rights that applied to people in all traditions, nations, and religions. Grotius recognized that humans by their nature are both social and self-preserving, and this notion took on new resonance after the Reformation when political thinkers including Hobbes, Locke, and Roger Williams formulated conceptions of free speech and religious freedom now understood to be essential to human rights.  As these thinkers began to show, human rights play a role in generating civility and the toleration of difference, and thus in managing social conflict.  Minow stressed that the relative peace found in the United States despite enormous religious heterogeneity shows the value of tolerance as a cultural, legal, and moral practice.

Minow then turned from American experiences with property rights (that apply regardless of one’s social rank or birth order) and voting rights (which apply regardless of one’s ownership of property) as significant contributions to global understandings of human rights.  But these contributions, she counseled, should lead to humility, as America recognizes that its understandings originated in other sources and have in turn influenced other nations’ unique conceptions.

The U.S. has experience addressing conflicts that can arise when tensions appear between rights.  Minow cited principles like federalism and subsidiarity, and the process of “proportionality review” used in some countries, as ways to alleviate these tensions.  Devising practical applications of human rights — resolving potential conflicts among rights, and ensuring that human rights have real force in people’s lives – is the work of international institutions and agreements, and the rule of law within nation-states.  No one nation can ensure human rights, not even for its own people.  Minow opined that current challenges – from human trafficking to cyberwar, and from autonomous weapons systems to designer gene editing – require renewed collaborations across nations.

Minow then provided a brief summary of points she had made and concluded her remarks.

As the question and answer session got underway, Carozza said that the human rights principles Minow has written about in some of her scholarship are powerful because they evoke “more than we can grasp fully at any one moment.”  But precisely for that reason, Carozza said, he struggles with how to translate them operationally into human rights policy. He asked Minow how to connect large evocative principles to the work of human rights experts, who must make decisions in cases involving contingent facts and specific historical circumstances.  Minow responded with three recommendations:

  • First, she noted that institutions are the mechanisms by which human persons implement their desires – thus it is imperative to “replenish” our institutions and make sure they are not drifting from their missions.
  • Second, Minow recommended taking cues from the U.S. military, which often uses case studies to look at how and why failures occurred in specific situations, analyzing incentive structures and relevant processes in order to learn from mistakes and obtain lessons to apply in future decision-making.
  • Third, Minow recommended looking at examples where there is conflict between principles and seeking to address those conflicts with reason rather than expediency. On this note, she thought that techniques beyond law might be helpful.  Citing the role of stories as persuasive tools, she said to “think about what inspires people,” and “what creates a lodestar in the imagination.”  Minow discussed her role advising the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on its new computer science program and using science-fiction books and movies as a way to foster productive discussion and debate in group settings.

Berkowitz asked Minow if she saw the UDHR as a departure from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, or rather as a refinement and elaboration of its teachings.  Minow answered that the UDHR is both.  The two documents are in dialogue with each other and are a product of their times, but they also converge.  In the Declaration of Independence, an individual nation (the U.S.) committed to implementing a rights regime, whereas in the UDHR, a group of nations committed to do essentially the same thing.  But Minow added that there is a complicating factor: One of most serious issues of our time is that nation -states no longer represent the primary organizing framework for many people’s social reality.  Minow identified such diverse social forms as digital networks, multinational corporations, and terrorist organizations as posing challenges to the nation-state.  The idea of human rights is “out of touch” with this new state of affairs, when human rights are threatened not only by states but also non-state actors.

Pan brought up the idea of dignity, acknowledging it to be a nebulous concept, but also pointing out that Minow had spoken of people’s intuitive recognition of it.  For Pan, however, there have been many historical examples when that intuitive recognition seemingly did not occur – for example, when regions of the U.S. permitted slave labor, or in Nazi Germany, where Jews and other minorities were massacred during the Second World War.  He wondered if Minow could share her perspective on this disconnect.  Minow called humans’ capacity to deny the humanity of others is “extraordinary,” and said that, when this happens, flagrant violations of human rights become possible.  She spoke of being deeply affected when she went to a new museum in Montgomery, Alabama and saw one place where African Americans had once been bought and sold as slaves – a place within eyeshot of the state capitol.  Minow also mentioned a physician, with whom she once spoke about the Rwandan genocide and asked how it could be possible for a person take a machete against his own family members.  The doctor said that, in a Rwanda divided against itself, certain people were not seen as human beings, but rather were referred to as “cockroaches.”

Staying on the topic of dignity, but shifting gears, Minow then brought up the Latin etymology of the word “dignity,” saying there had been two definitions – one referring to a person’s rank or status, and another meaning the worth inhering in all human beings.  Citing her work on behalf of persons with physical disabilities, Minow used the slogan “Nothing about us without us” as a model mantra for human rights work based on a clear recognition of dignity.

Tollefsen asked a philosophical question: In a time when scientific conceptions of existence have become paramount, was Minow worried that society was also devaluing what it means to be human?  Minow answered that indeed she was.  She explained that one of her primary interests right now is technology.  She is studying algorithms which are being used not only to suggest online retailers to web users based on their browsing histories, but also to make more consequential decisions like parole determinations in criminal justice systems.  She said that as humanity comes to rely more and more on algorithms, the agency of decision-making becomes obscured.  When asked for transparency, some computer scientists she has spoken to respond that they do not entirely understand the functionality of algorithms they use and create because they operate more or less autonomously.  Minow fears that this means society’s capacity to hold people to account is being diminished.  The great risk is the devaluation of human personhood, such that people become subordinate to processes.  When technology groups themselves admit that they do not entirely understand the ramifications of what they are inventing and implementing, it is incumbent on the human rights community to be a part of the conversation, Minow stressed.

Commissioner Rivers was struck by Minow’s comments about nation-states no longer being the most prominent social organizing framework, as they are increasingly displaced by alternative groupings and allegiances.  And on a separate note, Rivers said that one challenge is that the principles in the Declaration of Independence and UDHR are abstract, but policy is very concrete.  The Commission, as Rivers saw it, is somewhere in the middle.  She asked Minow how she would help formulate principles (as opposed to policies) for American foreign relations.  Minow described Rivers’s question as challenging.  She recommended finding concrete examples of rights violations, committed both by nations and by non-state actors, and using reason to articulate and distill general principles from those examples.

Commissioner Swett spoke next.  In setting up her question, she said that she was struck by how many times Minow had mentioned notions like civility, discipline, and respect as key to protecting human rights.  Swett surmised that what Minow had in mind equated to more than mere “manners” and wondered if she was correct.  Minow, in her response, reflected on her own life.  Serving as Dean of Harvard Law School was a humbling experience.  Minow found that oftentimes “being tough” is not as effective as actually listening to a complaint or grievance, even if it takes up long periods of time.  Minow said that every time she found a person offensive in some respect, she would try to remind herself that the person is “someone’s child,” that some woman “went through the hell of pregnancy” to bring that person to life. She described a sometimes visceral reaction that people have when they are forced to be in the same space as someone with whom they vehemently disagree.  Minow said it can be hard because people feel like close proximity could somehow be ethically compromising – that their opponents or enemies will “rub off” on them.

Anderson noted that over the course of the last couple Commission meetings, he and his colleagues were presented with two views.  One is that human dignity may have been necessary to generate the fundamental law of human rights, but now people do not really need to think about dignity and other abstract concepts on a practical level because they can just look at international human rights law as written.  The other view reflects a view that the law is not enough, and that there is an ongoing need to consult first principles.  Minow seemed to side with Anderson that the law is not enough.  She cited Robert Cover’s book Justice Accused, which examined judges who, in the lead up to the U.S. Civil War, wrote they opposed the Fugitive Slave Law but nonetheless felt duty bound to enforce it because of their professional role.  Minow said that the reason they could do that in good conscience is because of cognitive dissonance, which enabled them “stay at eye level with the rules.”  Minow brought up the notion of “judicial can’t” – in other words, judges saying they cannot rule in a certain way because of their constitutionally limited role. She described humans as animals with the great ability to rationalize terrible conduct.  Minow said that oftentimes the hardest problems will not be thought out prior to the drafting of laws, so there will always be a need to refer back to organizing principles and standards.  She said that one cannot cut off law from its “nourishing sources.”

Berman remarked to Minow that one of her sentences, in particular, had struck him as ominous – when she described the current epoch as one characterized by “unprecedented challenges” to human rights.  Berman agreed that the present historic moment is uniquely troubling, when it feels as though the world has “stalled.”  Citing the persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, Berman asked Minow what has gone wrong, and how the U.S. can help fix the situation.  Minow answered that we are suffering from “compassion fatigue.”  Because of the ubiquity of images and information, we have become numb, and our capacity to be outraged is weakened because atrocities abound, and we see them “all the time.”   An even more profound problem, Minow said, is humanity’s shortened attention span.  What formerly was referred to as “15 minutes of fame” is now more like “30 seconds.”  But she said, this attentional deficit applies to not just people, but also nations.  She qualified her statements, though, making clear that when it comes to protecting human rights, she was not counseling patience, but rather urgency.  The U.S. should not withdraw from the world, Minow pressed, and “you don’t need a UN resolution to mobilize nations.”

Hanson brought up Minow’s advice earlier that the Commission remain modest in identifying the source of human rights.  That recommendation cuts against Thomas Jefferson, Hanson suggested, who was not being very modest when he said that men are “endowed by their Creator” with unalienable rights.  Minow acknowledged his point and went on to say that, in societies that are secularized, there is a risk of not having a shared moral vocabulary that resonates across different segments of a large population.  Particular vocabularies can divide.  Minow said that the arts can sometimes provide a secular way of speaking about human dignity.

To close the session with Minow, Glendon told her that some students who are idealistic about human rights were in the audience.  Glendon guessed that the students may be wondering, “What can we do?”  Minow said that the current era is a golden age of civil society and NGOs.  One thing the students can do, therefore, falls in the realm of human rights education.  Pointing to her own work in Kosovo, Minow said simple things like teaching others how to run a meeting can be quite useful in the long run.  In one anecdote, Minow remembered that two groups that hated each other had found a way to obtain a threshing machine and devise detailed schedule for shared use.


The next portion of the public meeting began at 15:44, when the Chairwoman called the room to order.  Co-chair Berman introduced the next speaker, Thor Halvorssen, Chief Executive Officer of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).  HRF was created 15 years before by a group including James Q. Wilson, Vaclav Havel, Elie Wiesel and others, who came to together to address the erosion of democracy in the Western Hemisphere, and particularly in Latin America.  Halvorssen described HRF’s founders as gravely concerned about the “slow motion suffocation of civil society, the destruction of freedom of expression and of the press, the systematic violation of the separation of powers, and the gradual elimination of free and fair elections by governments ruled by democratically-elected officials with authoritarian personalities who expressed admiration for Fidel Castro.”

Halvorssen said that although one would think that human rights organizations then in existence would have addressed these crises, they did not.  His home country Venezuela slowly descended into darkness as international human rights groups with large budgets did relatively little until at least ten years of Chavismo had passed.  By then, tragically it was too late to stop dictator Hugo Chavez.  Emphasizing the consequences to inaction, Halvorssen  quoted the protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead.  I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”  Halvorssen’s point was that human rights groups could have prevented the catastrophe in Venezuela but chose not to play a commandeering role.

Halvorssen then segued into the history and current focus of HRF.  In its earliest days, HRF assisted political prisoners in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia – for example by calling on the Organization of American States to enforce the Inter-American Democratic Charter.  Halvorssen criticized the focus of other human rights organizations, during this same period, which was not on countries’ descent into dictatorship but rather on the monitoring and criticizing of nations like the United States, Brazil, Colombia, and Chile, which in HRF’s view (and based on indices like Freedom House’s) were relatively free, open, and democratic.  Although HRF believes that democracies should be held to high standard, Halvorssen said it is poor judgment to, in practice, hold dictatorships to a lower standard by neglecting them in favor of democracies.  He deemed this approach inefficient; human rights groups should not be domestic political actors when and where there are many civil society groups and journalists to play this role.

In the years since its founding, HRF has expanded its scope to be more global.  It main focus is on what HRF considers to be the largest problem in the world – one affecting more people than terrorism, refugees, extreme poverty, or natural disasters.  The problem is authoritarian regimes.  By “authoritarian regime,” Halvorssen clarified that he was referring not only to full-fledged dictatorships like Cuba and Syria but also about competitive authoritarian regimes (non-democratic “hybrid regimes” that hold periodic elections, but ones that are not free or fair).  Halvorssen asserted that authoritarianism is at the root of many problems including war, poverty, and climate change.

The opportunity cost of 4 billion people whose potential is asphyxiated by a lack of freedom is “impossibly large.”  Halvorssen said the “easy way out” of this problem is to look to the U.S. government (USG) for help.  But the USG tends to prioritize short term political objectives over a long term vision of democratic stability and the protection of human rights.  That is why, Halvorssen said, the President of the United States protests Iran but not Saudi Arabia, why the Egyptian dictatorship is treated differently than Sudan’s, and why both Democratic and Republican administrations treat Vladimir Putin as a friend.

America is not unique in this regard, Halvorssen said:  Europe’s “venality” is just as bad as U.S. hypocrisy, and the United Nations (UN) cannot be relied upon either.  Halvorssen called the UN a “playground for dictatorships” that use the term “human rights” to mask their crimes.  The UN system sends us a powerful message when it includes on the UN Human Rights Council authoritarian governments like Venezuela, Pakistan, Angola, and Eritrea, and when, on the UN Commission for the Status of Women, there are countries that allow child brides and female genital mutilation.  Finally, Halvorssen felt the philanthropic sector cannot be relied upon to counter the global trend toward authoritarianism.  Rarely is dictatorship a topic of global conferences, and sometimes dictators are even featured as honored guests.

Halvorssen concluded that the burden to counter authoritarianism therefore falls on human rights groups – but unfortunately some of those groups are ill-equipped to do so.  The “main two” organizations focus their resources on criticizing the world’s democracies and devote a considerably smaller fraction to exposing the practices of the world’s worst governments.  For that reason, Halvorssen argued, individual activists are the best way to resist dictatorships.

HRF tries to support these activists by (1) bringing authoritarianism to top of world’s agenda, and (2) providing assistance to those living under authoritarianism, especially dissidents, defectors, and activists.  As it does this, HRF tries to work past false and counterproductive narratives dividing “good” dictatorships versus “bad” ones.  This framing harms coalitions that would otherwise be united, as do what Halvorssen called the “multiple and sometimes even conflicting definitions of human rights.”  HRF considers the rights outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to be the most important, core set of human freedoms.

To close, Halvorssen said that he takes inspiration for his human rights work from the credo and image made famous by journalist Jacob Riis, who wrote: “Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it.  Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

At the close of Halvorssen’s remarks, the question and answer and answer portion got under way.  Berkowitz said that prior to the American Revolution, there was not a nation on the planet that was devoted to individual rights.  Now, according to Halvorssen, only 54% of the world’s population lives under authoritarian regimes.  Does that number therefore represent an achievement as much as it does a failure?  Berkowitz also made a second point: Halvorssen had spoken of the stark neglect of situations like Venezuela by the established human rights community.  Berkowitz wondered if Halvorssen could speak about the reasons for that neglect.  Halvorssen said that one problem is that many human rights groups are themselves “leftist” so they are somewhat sympathetic to leftist governments – even if they are authoritarian.  Human rights groups are also donor driven – and thus must focus on donor priorities, even when those priorities focus on countries that are not among the world’s worst rights violators.  Halvorssen once again expressed his indignation regarding what happened in home country of Venezuela – saying the social collapse there did not have to happen.  [Rapporteur’s note: Please refer to the Addendum for more information regarding this portion of Mr. Halvorssen’s remarks.]

As for Berkowitz’s point regarding historical trends, Halvorssen said that he is focused on “the now.”  And “now” the global trend is going in the wrong direction – the world is becoming less free.  He identified one problem to be that the most sophisticated dictatorships are capitalist.  Although some have liked to believe that free markets would rid the world of authoritarianism, that has not been the case.

Pan asked Halvorssen how he would recommend that U.S. foreign policy be made, wondering if he was advocating that the U.S. should stop trading with countries that flagrantly violate human rights.  Halvorssen explained that his focus is on “raising the alarm” more than on making policy recommendations.  He added, though, that no dictatorships would exist if democracies refused to deal with them.  Halvorssen specifically mentioned Cuba in this regard.

China’s billionaires, he added, are all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and they often hide their wealth in real estate in places like Miami, New York City, and London.  Western governments often appreciate the economic benefits of these foreign investments, but in Halvorssen’s view, the assets should be seized in the same way law enforcement officials seize property owned by individuals connected to drug cartels.

Halvorssen described corruption to be the “Achilles heel of dictatorships.”  As anecdotal evidence for this proposition, he brought up Tunisia, where a massive social reform movement began after a fruit seller – frustrated and distraught after repeatedly having been shaken down for money by local police – self-immolated.  Afterwards, Wikileaks released State Department cables, which documented the first family of Tunisia talking about its wealth, including its private zoo and expensive cars.  Tunisians printed these cables and sold them on the street, with the result being public demands for greater accountability.  Thanks in part to the exposed corruption, Halvorssen reported, Tunisia is currently on a path to becoming a true democracy.

Halvorssen was not recommending the U.S. must be orthodox and wreck all its relationships when countries fail human rights purity tests.  Rather, his view was that available tools are not being used enough by the USG – namely visa cancellations and sanctions on specific individuals.  If “corrupt rich officials can’t shop at Hermes in Paris or go to Disneyworld,” he said, and instead have to “spend the holidays in North Korea,” that serves as strong corrective effect.

Carozza pushed back on one part of Halvorssen’s testimony.  Carozza said that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez very early on in his tenure.  (Carozza himself has served on this commission.) Thus, contrary to Halvorssen’s description that “no one” was raising the alarm regarding Latin American authoritarianism, the truth is that some organizations were in fact doing this.  These institutions continue to try to counter this troubling trend, but sometimes they do not have much of an effect.  Carozza wondered why they are not more effective.  Carozza followed this with a second question.  Halvorssen had painted distinctions among countries as binary: a nation is either free, or it is not.  But Carozza wondered if Halvorssen was using simplified labels to describe political arrangements that in reality are more nuanced.

Halvorssen responded that the Inter-American Charter is one of most important human rights documents today.  He saluted Carozza for his prior service on the commission.  But in practice, he lamented, the Charter has not always been implemented effectively because of the OAS’s Secretariat.  As far as Carozza’s other question, Halvorssen said that HRF does not make its classifications willy-nilly or on the basis of emotion – it has its own methodological index, which HRF created after analyzing other NGOs’ indices and finding them lacking in certain respects.  HRF’s three classifications are Democratic, Competitive Authoritarian, or Full Authoritarian.  It reviews country classifications quarterly.

Swett called Halvorssen’s presentation bracing.  She appreciated his “unvarnished take,” especially since, in settings like the Commission meeting, it is easy to lose sight of what is happening on the ground in many countries.  She asked Halvorssen his thoughts on the sanctions imposed by the Global Magnitsky Act.  Halvorssen called the Act nothing short of wonderful and, for proof, asked the audience to look at how other governments are responding to it.  When individuals are flagged and put onto the U.S. sanctions list, they are often soon noticed in other countries where they have bank accounts, and there are further financial repercussions.  Halvorssen expressed his view that human rights abuses happen for one main reason: a desire for ill-gotten loot.  Thus, an exclusive focus on rights violations risks addressing symptoms but not their underlying cause – which is corruption.  Global Magnitsky sanctions can help remedy this.

Commissioner Anderson thanked Halvorssen for “waking [commissioners] up” and speaking directly.  Anderson was struck by an interesting connection he thought Halvorssen may have identified – that outsiders to authoritarian regimes focus on human rights violations as such but people on the inside focus on corruption.  Halvorssen clarified that what he was actually saying was that to “activate” a population, you need to find something that they relate to – for example, the fact that no one likes to be “ripped off.”  Populations governed by authoritarians wonder why they should be in a bread line while government insiders have their own yachts docked in a foreign country.  Halvorssen has found that the fastest way to activate a population is by exposing corruption – and he named Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as an exemplar in this regard.  But Halvorssen cautioned that this tactic is also very dangerous.  Authoritarians might not mind allegations of rights violations, but when criticism becomes more personal – with narratives about personal actions officials have taken in their private lives – government crackdowns become more likely.

Berman congratulated Halvorssen on his work co-producing a documentary film called The Dissident, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.  The movie explores the controversial murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but Berman wondered why there have not been similar movies made about China.  Halvorssen lamented commercial considerations that induce studios to reject any content that is critical of China.

Halvorssen’s more general point is that if “we don’t seek to change authoritarian governments, they will change us.”  He mentioned certain U.S. organizations like the National Basketball Association (NBA) kowtowing to China and said that, if this continues, the Chinese gradually will come to have supremacy over American culture.

To conclude, Glendon questioned why HRF looks to the ICCPR more than the UDHR for guidance.  Halvorssen described the UDHR as an aspirational document that contradicts itself, because the rights in it are in conflict.  The first half looks as though it is influenced by Enlightenment thought, while the second half is considerably more modern in contemplating a large administrative state.  Halvorssen clarified that he is not against things like universal healthcare or a right to education in theory.  His view, rather, is that there are certain tiers of rights, and that freedom of expression and property “have to be first.”  In other words, rights to healthcare or education cannot be realized without first securing basic civil and political liberties.  Glendon cordially expressed her disagreement with Halvorssen regarding this point but, because time was running short, suggested continuing the discussion another day.  She then thanked him for his willingness to speak to the Commission, and Halvorssen’s portion of the public meeting concluded.


Following the Commission’s sessions with Minow and Halvorssen, the audience had the opportunity for public comment.  A representative from the American Jewish World Service asked Tollefsen about the scope of his working group’s section of the final report.  Tollefsen responded that his section will seek to bring clarity to conceptual and terminological issues surrounding human rights.  Afterwards, a representative from the Ruth Institute spoke, saying that she had traveled to Washington from Lake Charles, Louisiana and hoped that the Commission would defend the traditional family in its work.  Students from a master’s degree program at Catholic University of America (CUA) asked about U.S.-Saudi relations and effective ways to ensure Saudi accountability regarding human rights violations.  They also asked how they might rekindle passion for democracy on university campuses.  On the Saudi question, Berkowitz clarified that the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) might be a better positioned to answer the question, since the Commission was charged with offering advice on the level of principle, not policy.  And as far as campus life, Swett and Berman lamented the fact that free speech is imperiled on certain American college campuses.

A representative from Amnesty International commented that the Commission has yet to call on testimonies from representatives from the international institutions (e.g. UN).  He also asked if the Commission had reached any preliminary conclusions.  Glendon responded it had not.  Finally a representative from Human Rights First asked how international legal instruments other than the UDHR fit into the Commission’s work.  Glendon and Berman replied that the UDHR is mentioned in the Commission’s charter, which is why the Commission often refers to it, but that the Commission also recognizes all other legal commitments the U.S. has made regarding human rights.



Following the February 21 meeting, the Commission received a letter from Mr. Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations, who alleged that Mr. Thor Halvorssen had made false statements about the nature of their previous interactions, and about Mr. Neier’s work on behalf of human rights.  The Commission and the Department of State take no official position on the veracity of either party’s claims, but, upon Mr. Neier’s request, have printed in full a statement he provided to the Commission’s Designated Federal Officer, Mr. Duncan Walker.


Mr. Duncan H. Walker
Policy Planning Staff (S/P)
U.S. Department of State

Dear Mr. Walker:

Thank you for forwarding to me a copy of the video in which Thor Halvorssen made the following statement:

“A lot of groups that have colonized the human rights space are politically simpatico with the Left – one of first people I asked for funds/meeting was Aryeh Neier – in his response to my letter, he was outraged when I told him what the Human Rights Foundation would focus on.  [He asked] How could you focus on the Left?  To which the answer was: where are any right wing dictators?  I can’t unbury dictators in Chile and Argentina and flog them, especially when there’s a crisis going on in Venezuela … So I think some of it was unquestionably political sympathy and some of it was donor driven.”

First, Mr. Halvorssen says that my statements were made in response to his letter.  Yet the remarks he attributes to me sound as though they were made either in a meeting or in a telephone conversation.  As best I recall, I never met Mr. Halvorssen and I never spoke to him by phone.  I certainly never said anything to him, or anyone else, that resembles what he attributes to me.  If he sent me a letter seeking support, I would have responded with a letter.  I cannot now find a copy of any such letter.  It would assist me in checking my records if he were to provide a date, or an approximate date for this supposed exchange.  I believe the only contact I ever had with him was that on one or two occasions he sent me letters inviting me to speak at conferences he was organizing.  I declined, without speaking to him.

Second, throughout my long career in the human rights field, I have criticized the human rights abuses of left-wing regimes.  I cite the following articles that I published dealing with one such left-wing government, Cuba:

  • “Castro’s Victims,” The New York Review of Books, July 17, 1986
  • “Castro muffles cries of dissidents,” USA Today, August 14, 1986
  • “In Cuban Prisons,” The New York Review of Books, June 30, 1988
  • “In Cuban Prisons: An Exchange,“ The New York Review of Books, “ September 29, 1988
  • “In Cuban Prisons: Another Exchange,” The New York Review of Books, October 13, 1988
  • “Cuba: The Human Rights Show,” The New York Review of Books, June 15, 1989
  • “Cuba Follows China,” Washington Post, August 22, 1989
  • “The World’s Other Tyrants Still at Work,” The New York Times, April 5, 2003. This article focuses on Cuba, Belarus and Zimbabwe.

I also wrote a chapter on Cuba in my memoir, Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights, Public Affairs Press, 2003.

During my tenure as Executive Director of Human Rights Watch from 1981 to 1993 and, again, during my tenure as President of the Open Society Foundations from 1993 to 2012, I engaged in extensive efforts to deal with human rights abuses in Cuba.  In certain respects, these went beyond what I did with respect to other countries.

I have published many articles on other governments that have been considered to be left-wing.  I did not specifically write about Venezuela because it is a country I do not know well enough to write about it.  The only time I ever visited Venezuela was in 1960, when I was 23.  At that time, the democratic government of President Romulo Betancourt was in office and played host to the first international human rights conference I ever attended.  As it happens, I spoke out at that conference, which took place 16 months after Fidel Castro came to power, to condemn his early abuses of human rights.

I did make a passing comment on the regime of Hugo Chavez in my 2012 book, The International Human Rights Movement: A History (Princeton University Press).  I wrote of:

“The fact that Ahmadinejad and Chavez have committed severe violations of rights has not stood in their way to travel to many foreign capitals where they are received as honored guests.”

In April, Princeton University Press will publish a revised edition of that book.  I wrote a new preface.  In its opening page, I make a passing reference to Nicolas Maduro.  I write that:

“some smaller states that were previously democracies that generally respected rights are governed at this stage by despots who regularly abuse rights.  They include the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary under Prime Minister, Victor Orban, Poland under Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Venezuela under President Nicolas Maduro.”

Aside from the remarks that Mr. Halvorssen falsely attributes to me, he seems to refer to me when he describes those who have “colonized the human rights space” as “politically simpatico with the Left.”   If he is referring to me, the statement is absurd.  I have never been politically simpatico with leftists, rightists, or centrists who abuse human rights.

Mr. Halvorssen made a false and defamatory statement about me.  I ask that this letter should be read out loud to the members of the Commission and copies should be distributed to the members.  Please inform me when that has been done.

Aryeh Neier


Update: Prior to posting Mr. Neier’s letter on the public website as part of the February meeting minutes, the Commission notified Mr. Halvorssen as a courtesy. On May 1, 2020, the Commission received the following letter from Mr. Halvorssen. As with Mr. Neier’s letter, neither the State Department nor the Commission takes any position regarding the correspondence.

Mr. Duncan H. Walker
Policy Planning Staff (S/P)
U.S. Department of State

Dear Mr. Walker:

I received an email several days ago from Cartwright Weiland informing me that Aryeh Neier sent the United States Department of State’s Commission on Unalienable Rights a letter about a statement I made before the Commission this past February. Unfortunately, Mr. Neier did not copy me in his letter to you and, so, seven weeks have passed. Given the severity of what Mr. Neier communicates in his letter, and his accusation that I have made a false and defamatory statement about him in my testimony, I want to take this opportunity to send you an immediate reply. I hope to supplement this letter with more documentation in the future.

I do not have the video that you sent Mr. Neier of my testimony. (I would be grateful if you could provide me the video so I can review it.) I believe the statement I made about Mr. Neier was during the question and answer period. If Mr. Neier’s transcription of my statement—with his brackets and ellipsis—is correct, I said:

“A lot of groups that have colonized the human rights space are politically simpatico with the Left – one of first people I asked for funds/meeting was Aryeh Neier – in his response to my letter, he was outraged when I told him what the Human Rights Foundation would focus on. [He asked] How could you focus on the Left? To which the answer was: where are any right wing dictators? I can’t unbury dictators in Chile and Argentina and flog them, especially when there’s a crisis going on in Venezuela … So I think some of it was unquestionably political sympathy and some of it was donor driven.”.”

I stand by this statement.

I first sent Mr. Neier a letter in March of 2007 when he was the head of George Soros’s Open Society Foundations. I enclose my letter for the record. I then telephoned Mr. Neier’s office in April of 2007 seeking a meeting. Through his assistant Mr. Neier requested, instead, a funding proposal. A full proposal and budget was subsequently mailed to him with a request for an appointment.

Mr. Neier’s response was a rejection letter. This rejection letter was not pro forma. I remember the letter well because it was striking in its tone and criticism of HRF’s proposed focus on the rising authoritarian governments in Latin America: Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. In deciding where to focus our attention, HRF resolved that we should, at first, spotlight those areas we believed were not getting sufficient attention and where there was critical need. Similarly, we wished to avoid the problem of replicating the efforts of other human rights organizations. Mr. Neier’s rejection incorrectly described our focus as “leftist” governments and questioned our motives.

Our focus wasn’t left-wing governments. When I wrote to Mr. Neier, left-wing governments existed across Latin America including in Brazil (Lula), Chile (Bachelet), Peru (Garcia), and Honduras (Zelaya). The driving factor in the founding of HRF was the dereliction of duty by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (Mr. Neier’s former organization) with regard to Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. HRF’s intention was to address the vacuum of support for civil societies in these nations where authoritarians masquerading as democrats were slowly being elected and then proceeding to dismantle those democracies. HRF urgently warned about Hugo Chávez since 2005, then Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and Rafael Correa. It made no difference to HRF that they were perceived as being on the left-wing side of the political spectrum.

Mr. Neier saw an ideological bias in our choice of countries instead of a bias against authoritarians. I recall his response to me as a display of his own ideological bias and his political sympathies, one that pervaded in the human rights field and allowed each of these countries to, very slowly, become a crisis zone with barely any attention being paid.

I should restate for the Commission: HRF’s predictions about the countries we initially chose as the focus of activities were uncanny in terms of their accuracy. And several years later, when it was far too late to mobilize internationally, Human Rights Watch began to pour significant resources into monitoring and denouncing human rights violations in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent Bolivia and Ecuador. In the case of Venezuela it was the equivalent of an ambulance dispatched to a cemetery to provide emergency medical assistance to a rotting corpse. The death of Venezuela’s democracy and its institutions was utterly preventable. The point I made in the testimony provided to the Commission stands: traditional human rights defenders and established institutions allowed their personal biases and ideological sympathies color who they would support, who they would criticize, and what activism was worthwhile. The world needs human rights defenders who have real moral authority. The best way to ensure that the watchdogs of morality themselves retain moral integrity is to hold their feet to the fire, to read their reports, to review what campaigns they carried out, what they said, and also what they didn’t say.

Mr. Neier states in his email: “If he sent me a letter seeking support, I would have responded with a letter. I cannot now find a copy of any such letter.” Mr. Neier appears to have other correspondence from me such as invitations to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum (he was never invited, as he falsely claims in his letter, to be a speaker), but does not have the letter in which he declined the proposal from the Human Rights Foundation. Perhaps now that Mr. Neier has the time period (April to June 2007) he will have a chance to find the original he sent to me by U.S. mail.

Mr. Neier’s rejection was a hard copy mailed to HRF at the Empire State Building. As far as I am aware, HRF still has the original of Mr. Neier’s letter in our files or in our storage facility. Once I have access to the HRF office I will try to find it and will follow-up with a further communication to the Commission.

I assume that Mr. Neier’s letter about my testimony has already been made available to the members of the Commission. Therefore, I ask you to please distribute my response letter to the Commission in the same fashion as Aryeh Neier’s letter. Please inform me when that has been done.

Very truly yours,

Thor Halvorssen

Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon
Aryeh Neier

Commissioner Soloveichik was unable to attend the public meeting.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future