Helping from Outside

In the wake of the changes of 1989, many outside organizations rushed to East-Central Europe to see how they could be involved. I was hired, for instance, by the American Friends Service Committee to travel through the region and conduct interviews with leading activists and NGO representatives to see how AFSC could help. During my travels, I met with many other outsiders eager to pitch in. In the waiting rooms of Solidarity, Civic Forum, and the like, I met people representing the AFL-CIO, the Adam Smith Institute, various Green parties, even an acolyte of Henry George promoting a single tax on land.

But there was one organization that didn’t have to rush to East-Central Europe because it was already there, and had been there for some time. The Open Society Institute (OSI), also known as the Soros Foundation, had been working on the ground in the region wherever it was possible. Financier George Soros had survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary and emigrated to England after the war at the age of 17. As a philanthropist, he was very involved in nurturing movements in East-Central Europe that were working on human rights issues. Often the Soros Foundation money went to very practical things, such as copiers for small organizations to distribute their materials more widely.

Another key element of assistance was investing in key individuals and giving them a chance to study in Western Europe or the United States. Aryeh Neier served as the president of OSI from 1993 to 2012. In an interview in New York in April, he talked about the role played by his colleague Annette Laborey, the facilitator of these exchanges.

“Between 1974 and 1989, she brought about 3,000 independent intellectuals from Eastern European countries to be visiting scholars at Western universities, mostly universities in Europe,” Neier said. “She had gotten in touch with me relatively early in this effort to help her place some of these people at American universities. A lot of the people who later played a role as intellectuals in the transformation in Eastern Europe had their first exposure to the West through the arrangements she made.”

It is sometimes assumed that foundations with considerable sums of money at their disposal – Open Society, the Gates Foundation — are able to transform realities on the ground in their target areas. Neier is more realistic. “I think that we overestimated our capacity to play a transformative role in that region,” he said. “We thought we could remake the education system in different countries, and we really couldn’t. We could do a few valuable things, like try to make sure that the Roma weren’t excluded from the education system, but we couldn’t play a transformative role. There was a degree of hubris about some of the activities.”

Outsiders, in the end, can have only limited impact, a lesson that all foundations, governments, and armies eventually learn. “Basically an outside donor doesn’t make a revolution,” Neier concluded. “The most you can do is assist a certain number of people who have their own projects, and some of those people make valuable contributions.”

We talked about work in the Roma community, the challenge of dealing with secret police files, and how Ukraine managed to avoid the fate of Sri Lanka.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was then directing Human Rights Watch, and we were active in a number of the countries in that region. There had been a lot of dramatic developments during the course of 1989, and the fall of the Berlin Wall was, in a way, the culmination of everything that had been going on up to that point. Things were happening not only in Eastern Europe. Tiananmen Square had taken place in China a few months earlier. There was a last-gasp conflict going on in El Salvador where each side was trying to win a war that had been taken place for a decade. So, a lot was happening in different places at that moment. When the Wall fell on November 9, 1989, I was probably in New York, but I don’t have a specific recollection of what I was doing.


Over the last 20 years or so, have you had any second thoughts about some of the assumptions with which you came to Human Rights Watch?


I always knew, or believed, that there wouldn’t be any easy path from Communism to democracy and respect for human rights. If there was going to be a transition, there would be some steps forward, some steps backward. It was an exhilarating period, but I don’t think I was excessively romantic about the prospects at that moment. There were different factors that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the one hand, it was an advance, or a concern, for more liberty or more freedom. There was also a desire for the material well-being, or the apparent material well-being, of the West. On the other hand, it had an anti-colonial or nationalist element to it: resentment of the Soviet overlord in the region. It didn’t seem to me easy to disentangle those components. The move towards greater freedom was exhilarating, but I understood then that it was more complicated than that.


Have you been surprised, for instance, by the relatively high level of nostalgia for the pre-1989 era, even in countries like Romania?


Yes, that has surprised me. But there was a certain higher level of security under the old systems, as people knew it at that time. Still, it was a pretty awful system, and I didn’t expect that level of nostalgia.

By the way, since you mentioned Romania, the whole way in which the revolution took place there and the summary execution of the Ceausescus on Christmas day 1989 was a clear indication that this wasn’t all going to be a picnic.


When you look back at your tenure here, at Open Society, what would you say were the strongest achievements as well as the things that could’ve been done better?


In terms of achievements, we were in a position to empower a certain number of people to undertake certain activities. We weren’t a driving factor in what took place. I assume you’ve come across the name of Annette Laborey. I consider Annette an unsung hero of what took place in 1989. Annette is of German origin, but she lived in Paris, was married to a Frenchman, and most people thought she was French. She directed an organization that got no attention, the Foundation for European Intellectual Exchange. That was its decision, to operate without getting attention. Between 1974 and 1989, she brought about 3,000 independent intellectuals from Eastern European countries to be visiting scholars at Western universities, mostly universities in Europe. She had gotten in touch with me relatively early in this effort to help her place some of these people at American universities. A lot of the people who later played a role as intellectuals in the transformation in Eastern Europe had their first exposure to the West through the arrangements she made. The Ford Foundation had been the initial supporter of her work. But at a certain point the Ford Foundation support was coming to an end, and she encountered George Soros, and George became her major supporter. The most valuable role that we played in the pre-1989 period was the support of her efforts. After 1989, she became the director of the Paris office of the Open Society Foundations. We didn’t have a need for a Paris office per se, but that was where she lived, so we created a Paris office so she would direct it. She played an important role in the Open Society Foundations, and we made her a vice president of the Open Society Foundations. She recently retired, but she has joined the board of the Open Society Foundations.

I think, secondarily, the support that was provided for human rights efforts, focusing on that region, was important. But basically an outside donor doesn’t make a revolution. The most you can do is assist a certain number of people who have their own projects, and some of those people make valuable contributions.


In terms of the other side of the equation, have you been disappointed in anything in terms of articulated goals?


I think that we overestimated our capacity to play a transformative role in that region. We thought we could remake the education system in different countries, and we really couldn’t. We could do a few valuable things, like try to make sure that the Roma weren’t excluded from the education system, but we couldn’t play a transformative role. There was a degree of hubris about some of the activities.


Let me follow up with a question on Roma, because that was of course an issue in which I was very interested in 1990. When I go back, I’m struck by two things: One, there are Roma in positions in society that would have been unimaginable when I was there in 1990. On the other hand, collectively, there hasn’t been as much progress as I’d hoped.


If anything, there’s more xenophobia today than there was in 1990. The advent of democracy is not necessarily a good thing for minorities. Minority rights often do particularly badly during a period of democratic opening, when the popular will is being expressed and the popular will determines the way public policies are made. The way that anti-Semitism developed in Germany during the Weimar Republic is an indication of how high levels of racism can be expressed in a democratic period. In the more controlled societies of the Communist period, the regimes could suppress some of the anti-Roma prejudice. It became part of American ideology, particularly during the Reagan era, that somehow democracy and human rights are coextensive. They are not. It is often as difficult to struggle for human rights in democratic circumstances as it is in much more authoritarian circumstances.


Madison made a similar argument in the Federalist Papers about the “tyranny of the majority.”


He was concerned about the tyranny of the majority, but I don’t think he thought of it in terms particularly of racism and xenophobia. But it is particularly in that area that you can’t necessarily translate democracy into respect for human rights.


Let’s dig down a little bit in Hungary, since it has been, to put it mildly, a disappointment in terms of backtracking. Do you see that as something that could’ve been prevented? And when I say “could’ve been prevented,” I don’t mean necessarily though social engineering, but through a different set of policies either promoted internally or through support from the outside?


There were clearly weaknesses and deficiencies among the Liberal Democrats in Hungary, which contributed to their unpopularity within the country and made it possible for the current Fidesz crowd to move in the direction in which it has moved and to consolidate its control. And, of course, far to the right of Fidesz is Jobbik. You’d have to say that the liberals in Hungary to a certain extent brought this on themselves by their own shortcomings.


Speaking of this kind of tier of liberals, there seems to have been a tremendous upsurge of skepticism about elites in general, but especially intellectual elites. Some of that is expressed as skepticism towards NGOs and the dissidents of the previous generation. Is this just a pendulum swing or a more endemic problem?


I don’t think it’s just a pendulum swing. I don’t think that it can’t be overcome, but I do think it’s a more endemic problem. These countries have not delivered economically for a substantial portion of the population. In many respects, their policies have disappointed a lot of people. This has inspired resentment, it has inspired nationalistic tendencies, and those are more endemic problems. They’re not necessarily permanent, but they’re quite serious. We can’t just assume that things will swing back in another direction. There has to be some very careful, very sophisticated political organizing if things are going to shift and go in a better direction.


When you say “political organizing,” you mean within the countries themselves in terms of new political parties or…?


Within the countries themselves: systematic efforts to reach young people and try to inspire them with a different vision of the organization of society.


What can an outside actor, perhaps a well-funded outside actor, do in terms of ensuring that the pendulum doesn’t continue to swing?


I don’t think you can do anything to ensure that it doesn’t continue to swing. The greatest opportunity always lies in knowing as much as possible about what is going on, being sensitive to developments within the country, trying to identify those persons or forces within the country that are going to have a beneficial influence, and then to provide them with resources. And “resources” is more than just money. “Resources” includes contacts and opportunities for self-improvement or advancement for the people who are going to take things in a better direction. You can’t confer a better organization of society on any other country, but you can try to assist those who seem to be willing to try to take things in a better direction.


One of the EU’s conclusions coming out of this dicey period is that the sequence of accession could be re-jiggered. For instance, with Serbia they’re putting much more of an emphasis on rule of law rather than simply economic requirements.


Yes, and we tried to play a role of that sort with respect to accession. At a certain point we developed a program known as EUMAP, the European Union Monitoring and Accession Project. Before accession took place, we compiled detailed reports on the protection of minorities, corruption, on women’s rights, on judicial integrity and independence, and we tried to make those factors in the accession process. This was a moment when we would be able to bring pressure to bear on the different governments in the region to make certain improvements, and it had some impact. It made the EU a little bit more demanding in the accession process, and it persuaded a number of governments in the region to make some improvements in policies. That was a valuable effort. We probably should have devoted much more effort to that than we actually did.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those reports. They’re very thick, highly detailed, and very well-researched. It was a good process, because we commissioned researchers. We then convened roundtables in the different countries of civil society leaders and government officials to discuss drafts of reports, and to try to initiate a process of making reforms. We revised the drafts on the basis of criticism at these roundtables, and we eventually published those reports. Then we met with EU officials and, as I say, got the European Union to be more serious about it. The difficulty was that once the countries were admitted, there was no longer any process. There was nothing to maintain that effort. We still have in existence a project that is a legacy of that.

One of the responses we got was that we were holding the accession countries to higher standards than the existing members of the EU, so we also published reports dealing with protection of minorities in the five largest existing members of the EU — the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany — and got very good results from those. For instance, we focused on Muslims in the UK, and the British home office used the reports as the text in seminars they held with different government departments on how they dealt with Muslims on education, police practices, housing, and so forth. We have a program today called “At Home in Europe” that is the contemporary legacy of that effort. In one way or another, that effort has been underway for about 15 years.


When I was in Bulgaria and Romania, they told me that they felt that in some sense accession was a bit of a lost opportunity, that it had gone too quickly, that the countries had been brought in before the EU had fully used its external leverage. Has the EU also lost its ability to pressure its members to meet certain standards on human rights and law? Does it represent at this point in time simply austerity?


The EU isn’t quite as enticing as it was in an earlier period. We were able to capitalize on the prospect of accession for a period, for instance in Turkey, because accession was much more of a live issue then than it is at present. There were extraordinary gains made in Turkey in terms of freedom of expression, the treatment of the Kurds, ending the practice of torture, controlling corruption, and so forth. In Turkey, a sort of enlightened section of the business community was very supportive of those reforms, in part because they had their own financial incentives for wanting Turkey to join the EU. Of course, there was a backlash within the EU against Turkey becoming a member, the value of joining no longer seemed so great in Turkey, and that pressure has been off. So there’s been a certain amount of backsliding in Turkey. But for a while, this played an extraordinarily positive role, and it hasn’t all been rolled back. Turkey is still a lot better today in many respects than it was a dozen years ago.


I’d like to ask you about the Yugoslav tribunal. I know you played an important in getting that setup. I’m curious about your assessment of it, as it comes to the end of its mandate.


The Yugoslav tribunal has been an extraordinary success. Ultimately, despite a very difficult start, it obtained custody of every single person who was indicted, except those who died along the route. By itself, that was remarkable. It held good quality and fair trials of those persons. Some are still underway and some appellate proceedings are still underway, but it held fair trials. A substantial number of persons of the different parties were convicted. But some were acquitted, and some probably should’ve been acquitted. One of the best things that happened, maybe the best thing, is that in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, local tribunals were established which have dealt with lower ranking officials — and those tribunals have also held good quality trials, and a large number of persons have been convicted in those cases. Between the ICTY itself and those local tribunals, a few hundred people responsible for war crimes in the wars in the former Yugoslavia have been tried, and a large number of them have been punished for their role in war crimes. That’s an astonishing achievement.

There have been setbacks along the way. There was one case last fall in which a couple of the Croatian defendants were acquitted on appeal. I never really understood the grounds for that acquittal.


Two last questions. The first one is on security archives. There is still a lively debate, I was surprised to discover upon returning to the region, about full access to many of the archives—not East Germany, but in some of the other countries. On one side of the debate, you have someone like Adam Michnik who says, “This is a very sensitive issue. A lot of material in the archives is inaccurate. It could lead to accusations which are unfounded, and so we have to be very careful.” On the other side, people say, “Hey, this information is absolutely necessary, especially in Bulgaria and Romania, where there are still agents or collaborators in very high positions.” I’m curious where you come down on this.


My basic bias is in favor of openness. I think it’s appropriate where the archives seem to show discreditable behavior by living people, before making the files generally available, to make them available to those persons and to ask them if they want to submit any statement that would be provided to anybody who gets access to the archive.

I once had to deal with something like that, and I proceeded in that fashion. Before I directed Human Rights Watch, I directed the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1977 we got documents from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act dealing with the ACLU from the founding of the organization in 1920, and even going back to the predecessor organizations during World War I. Quite by accident, the first piece of paper my hand landed upon when I opened one of the boxes—and the boxes would’ve almost filled this room to the height of eight feet — turned out to be a letter from one of the former employees of the ACLU to an official at the FBI providing information on other people in the ACLU that this person thought of as being communist or pro-communist. We then read all of the documents in all of these boxes and made copies of all of the items that seemed to show compromising behavior. I took the position that everything had to be made public. There were four people who were the subject of documents that showed untoward behavior. Three of them were alive; one of them was dead. So before we made them public, we gave those persons the documents dealing with them—often their own letters—and asked them for statements that would be furnished to the press when the press got access to the documents.

The way we made the documents public was I contacted a reporter for The New York Times, later the editor of Newsday, and I said: “There’s interesting material in these boxes, and you can take a few weeks and go through all the boxes. We don’t want to select what the interesting materials are, you’ll have to find them yourself, but it’ll be worth your while.” Of course he found all the documents that we had identified. It was a front-page story in The New York Times for four days running, and generated a lot of attention thereafter. But we gave him the statements from the three persons who were alive, about whom there was compromising material. And it does seem to me that one needs to go through some kind of exercise of that sort: give people who are alive and the subject of documents that show discreditable behavior some opportunity to speak for themselves. They could’ve also called the reporter. We let them know which reporter was doing it. In fact each of them chose to rely on the written statement the person provided.

It wasn’t a model in every respect — in some respects it was deficient — but are you familiar with the Gauck Commission in Germany? There were 3,000 people working for the Gauck Commission, processing the documents [related to the Stasi], and they managed to avoid an awful lot of bad stuff by trying to process these documents responsibly. At the same time, they took the general position that they should be publicly accessible.


Last question. You have a delegation—someone from Burma, someone from Egypt, someone from Tajikistan—come to your office. They say, “Look, we know you’ve done a lot of work in Eastern Europe and it’s been 25 years or so since the changes have taken place. What can you tell us—knowing that we come from very different countries—that could be of use to us as we embark on our own changes?


It isn’t going to be easy. There are going to be many challenges along the way, but transitions are complex matters, and different people have different reasons for being participants in transitions. One has to look closely at the different factors in each of the various countries, and one has to try to think through as well as one can how to take steps to avoid the kinds of disasters that potentially take place.

In terms of the person from Burma, there have been pogroms against the Rohingya, and this has more recently extended to other Muslims in Burma. This is a moment where people feel that, as democracy is arriving, they can exercise their majoritarian instincts, and this may often take place at the expense of minorities of that sort. One needs, in a country like Burma specifically, to take steps to avoid something of that sort.

I recall talking to a man named Roman Szporluk. I haven’t been in touch with him for a number of years. He was a professor of Ukrainian studies at Harvard. I’m not sure how many places in the United States have a professorship in Ukrainian studies. Anyway, he was a very wise man. When the transition was in prospect in Ukraine — that is, after 1989 but before 1991 — Szporluk was an American of Ukrainian descent who participated in discussions in Ukraine about how to avoid ethnic conflict. In all of the former Soviet Bloc countries, probably the one that could have been most disastrous from the standpoint of ethnic conflict would have been Ukraine. Perhaps one quarter of the population was ethnic Russian, and perhaps three quarters of the population was ethnic Ukrainian. There were going to be many trouble areas such as: what will be the language of instruction in the schools? Are you going to speak in the parliament in Ukrainian, or can you also speak in parliament in Russian? Are all documents going to be published only in Ukrainian, or are they also going to be published in Russian? There were endless challenges to be faced in Ukraine. I know from him that there was very extensive planning by a number of Ukrainian intellectuals as to how they were going to avoid ethnic conflict in Ukraine. They didn’t have the benefit of hindsight in terms of looking at what happened in the former Yugoslavia—that hadn’t happened yet. But they were terrified that very bad things could happen in Ukraine. My impression is that virtually all of the disastrous possibilities were avoided in Ukraine because of the intense level of planning that took place in that country. This is a case where bad things did not take place, and where I don’t think it was accidental that bad things did not take place. The people who did the planning there and got various politicians to go along with their proposed policies are really heroes.

Are you familiar with the way the conflict in Sri Lanka happened? Essentially, and this is an oversimplification of what happened, but when it was Ceylon the British ruled over it. They tended to favor the Tamil minority, in part because the Tamil seemed to do better in learning English. So the Tamils played a disproportionately important role in the civil service under the British. When Sri Lanka became independent, the Sinhalese majority resented what seemed to be the general favoritism toward the Tamils. This ultimately took the form of requirements that instruction in the schools should all be in Sinhalese, that documents should all be in Sinhalese, and so forth. The Tamils protested. There were peaceful protests over many years, and the peaceful protests didn’t get anywhere. Eventually, in 1983, this broke out in conflict, and the conflict got worse and worse over time. Suicide bombing was invented in Sri Lanka, and there were terrible crimes committed by the Tamil rebel forces, the Tamil Tigers. There were also terrible crimes committed by the military, representing the Sinhalese majority, and it just got worse over time, culminating in the horrendous level of violence at the very end of that period.

But it started with a situation much like the one that existed in Ukraine. Ukraine is not a wonderful place. A lot of bad things happened there. There’s a lot of corruption. But nevertheless, they avoided disaster in Ukraine. Whereas a country like Sri Lanka is 180 degrees different from Ukraine.

Careful thought, careful planning, knowledge of the local situation—all those things are crucial components of trying to get things right. There’s no formula that applies across the board. One has to understand the local context. But there are things that can be done to try to avoid disaster.


New York, April 24, 2013




  1. Helping from Outside: Interview with Aryeh Neier | - [...] read the rest of the interview, click here. [...]
  2. Helping From Outside: Interview with Aryeh Neier | Political Ration - [...] read the rest of the interview, click here. Read [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *