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"Taking Liberties": The Rights Stuff

May 11, 2003

'Taking Liberties': The Rights Stuff


Most autobiographers probably hope they'll end up being loved. It's not clear how many readers of ''Taking Liberties'' will love Aryeh Neier -- but there's little question that they'll admire him. Neier (whom J. Edgar Hoover thought ''too rigid'' and George Soros has described as ''very pure'') is one of the world's leading civil liberties and human rights figures. He has been the head of the New York and American Civil Liberties Unions and Human Rights Watch, and (since 1993) president of the Soros Foundations and the Open Society Institute. It's difficult to imagine better vantage points from which to have witnessed New York, American and world history since the 1960's. What emerges here is a subtle intelligence joined with an iron dedication to improving civil society.

He is not shy about either taking credit for his organizations' achievements or naming names when colleagues let him down or public officials behaved badly. But he is also capable of generous praise and fair-minded judgments of his opponents. Take Henry Kissinger. He and Neier were on opposing sides on a variety of issues, yet Neier calls his analysis of the International Criminal Court and jurisdiction over war crimes cogent. In the next breath, however, he suggests parenthetically that Kissinger's own conduct would not come within the reach of the court because the treaty that created the body is not retroactive.

Some of the organizational history Neier traces -- does it really matter today why Charles Morgan Jr. left the A.C.L.U. or why a Human Rights Watch staff member was dismissed? -- is of less interest than his subtle and detailed reporting on the extraordinary range of initiatives and crises with which he has been involved, from civilian review of police misconduct in New York to genocide in the Balkans and Chechnya. Still, ''inside baseball'' can provide a useful window on what it means to run an important nonprofit organization. Examples include Neier's accounts of how the A.C.L.U. dealt with the Nazi march in Skokie, Ill., and with disclosures of its own staff's cooperation with the F.B.I.

Given the increasingly powerful role groups like Neier's play domestically and (thanks in large measure to him) internationally, his insights into the public interest sector matter. He chronicles the challenge faced by the leader of any large nonprofit: how to reconcile the time-consuming and (for many) disagreeable tasks of fund-raising, board relations and administration with substantive work. Neier has seen it all, moving from a local (albeit large) A.C.L.U. affiliate that relied on member contributions to Human Rights Watch, which looked to foundation funding, to his present job with Soros. Neier's relief at not having to worry about funding is evident.

Of course, such a trajectory presents its own challenges. Soros has been described as the only private person with a foreign policy; Soros's biographer, Michael T. Kaufman, calls Neier his secretary of state. Neier says there has been little friction between him and Soros, but surely any at all has an impact.

If funding is the major stressor for nonprofit leaders, the need for a first-rate staff must be a close second. Here Neier seems to have been extremely fortunate. Few of his hires over the years appear to have been improvident, while a remarkable number were inspired: many people who worked for him have gone on to distinguish themselves in government as well as in the public interest world.

Neier includes a few funny anecdotes (as well as some perceptive and often powerful character sketches), and reveals a reflective side in discussing the death of Fred Cuny, a Soros representative, on a mission to Chechnya that Neier initiated. But over all, he comes across as one tough hombre, so much so that he sounds almost defensive when he tells the reader at the very end that he and his wife enjoy the New York City Ballet and vacations on Nantucket. Don't worry about not loving Neier; he probably hasn't let it get to him.

Eugene R. Fidell practices law in Washington. He is president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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