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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Revolutionary Legacy

70 years have passed since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations, speaks about the legacy of the historic document and about his experiences promoting human rights worldwide.

Krisztian Simon: How do you see the legacy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now that 70 years have passed since its ratification?

Aryeh Neier: Early on after its adoption, there was not a great deal of attention paid to the provisions of the Universal Declaration. But over time, particularly as of the 1970s, people across the world started to care about it. This is in part due to a conference that took place in 1975 in Helsinki to agree on the inviolability of the borders that had emerged from World War II.[1] The Universal Declaration was referenced in the final act of this conference, the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The Soviet Union had abstained when the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948, but in 1975 it signed the Helsinki Accords – and other governments of the Eastern bloc, such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, followed suit. The organisation of human rights efforts in that region really grew out of this act, as the Helsinki Accords led to the formation of human rights organisations in those countries: the Moscow Helsinki Group in the Soviet Union, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, and the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) in Poland.

Why did the Soviet Union sign a treaty that enabled the formation of organisations critical of the regime?

To an extent, they didn’t find this aspect of the treaty of relevant. It was very important to them to get an agreement on the boundaries that came out of World War II, and Leonid Brezhnev, who was the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party at the time, was very proud of this. He ordered the publication of the full text of the Helsinki Accords in the Pravda, the official newspaper of the party. And in turn, critical individuals who read the paper, such as Andrei Sakharov or Lyudmila Alexeyeva, understood that the Soviet Union had unwittingly agreed to be bound by the Universal Declaration. This led to the formation of the mentioned human rights organisations and started the movement that contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and to the end of the communist regimes in the Soviet region. It took some time, and a lot of people went to prison for their longing for freedom, but ultimately we can say that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has really provoked revolutions in these countries. And this is its most important legacy.

What role did the Declaration play in other parts of the world?

In the early days of the Cold War, the conflict between East and West tended to be seen as a conflict between different economic systems. Communist systems claimed that they were an improvement of the economic systems of the West, while the West claimed that their economic system built on free enterprise was more developed than Communism. However, over time, a number of philosophers and writers – such as George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt – took a different approach. According to them, the conflict was between totalitarianism and liberty; and gradually the thinking of such writers and philosophers became more widely accepted, and helped to persuade people that they ought to join together in efforts to promote human rights. When the human rights movement began to develop – mainly in the 1970s –, it paid a great deal of attention to the Universal Declaration. In 1977 Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which increased public attention to human rights.

the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has really provoked revolutions in these countries

Is the Declaration still an important reference point?

Many individuals and organisations around the world look to the Universal Declaration as the definition of human rights and for inspiration for their activities. In a way, other human rights treaties often cover the same issues: the 1984 Convention Against Torture, for example, elaborates the prohibition that appears in the Universal Declaration. This is true of many individual treaties for human rights, even if not all of them: the Convention on the Rights of the Disabled, for instance, introduces new issues.

Do these human rights treaties also have an impact in today’s authoritarian regimes?

The Convention on the Rights of the Disabled has an important role in China. While it is very much an authoritarian country, there are organisations of the disabled operating in China which call attention to the Convention on the Rights of the Disabled and have had some influence on government policy. It was the case, for example, that blind people in China could only work as masseuses or piano tuners. After some of the blind young women who served as masseuses were sexually exploited, civil society did a great job in pushing the government towards increasing the protection of this group.

You have mentioned the role of the Universal Declaration in the transitions of Central and Eastern Europe. But didn’t Western donors play a similarly important role in the formation of a democratic civil society?

There’s a limit to the extent to which that is true. There was some influence that came from US donors, but the actual organisations that were founded in Eastern Europe were not financed by those donors. By the time donors became really active, the human rights movement had already succeeded in having a transformative effect in the Soviet bloc countries.

I became president of the Open Society Foundations, George Soros’s foundations, in 1993 and it was about then that we started to become quite a large supporter of those kinds of efforts. But before that it had not been the case.

What issues did you support?

Human rights work was only one part of the activity. We spent much more on education programmes, public health programmes, and local governance programmes – including scholarships and assistance to universities. So the human rights effort was only a relatively small part of the overall effort, and even today the largest part of the funding of the Open Society Foundations goes to things like education and public health programmes.

What was your experience with the governments back then?

There were some governments that were cooperative with us, and there were others that were less enthusiastic about cooperation and later on became antagonistic to our efforts. But in the early period, after the revolutions of 1989, most of the governments were generally co-operative and supportive.

Which countries were problematic?

Very early on, we had difficulty in Belarus. I went back and forth to Belarus, negotiating with the government, and eventually we felt we had to leave. However, that didn’t mean that we stopped funding in Belarus: we worked with a local committee that made judgments about the grants we made. But, of course, we had to be careful about making the grants, not to cause difficulty for the organisations that we are supporting. The same thing happened with Uzbekistan, where we basically were unable to continue our operations. We almost never funded in Turkmenistan or in North Korea; and in Myanmar we had to operate covertly for many years.

I assume these governments would have been happy about the money that came from the Open Society Foundations, as long as it was only spent on public health, social services, and so on – anything but human rights.

Yes, but there is a disaccord here: we are interested in human rights defenders, and they didn’t want us to fund organisations that monitor corruption or promote democracy and human rights. If we are going to operate in a country, we don’t want the government to tell us what we can and cannot do.

In 2015 the Open Society Foundations were put on the list of undesirable organisations in Russia. What does this mean in practice for the foundation?

We are essentially barred from doing anything in Russia. So I’m glad there are still some other donors who are able to operate in the country and provide support to various organisations.

Aren’t there any remedies for your organisation? Couldn’t, for example, the European Court of Human Rights do something to help?

Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and it is subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, but it doesn’t really carry out a lot of the decisions issued by the European Court of Human Rights. Usually, when the court issues a ruling on behalf of a particular individual whose rights have been abused by Russia, Russia pays the penalty that is assessed by the Court, but then they never prosecute the officials responsible for the abuses or change the practices that led to the abuses. There is only a kind of token compliance with the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights.

Nobody has been sent to prison in Hungary for being a peaceful dissenter – but the situation is much more severe in Russia and Turkey.

Why can they get away with that?

The Council of Europe could expel Russia, but that’s really the only remedy they have. The problem is, if they expelled Russia, the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights would no longer have any effect at all. It’s a tough decision for them – they have to weigh the two options: do they expel Russia and show their dissatisfaction with the way Russia responds to their decisions, or do they leave Russia as a member and get at least a kind of token compliance?

Why do other countries, such as Hungary, still comply in most cases?

Hungary is not only a member of the Council of Europe, but also a member of the European Union. As such, it gets enormous benefits from the European Union, and has much more at stake than Russia or Turkey. So, as long as it’s a member of the European Union I would expect greater compliance from Hungary. Nobody has been sent to prison in Hungary for being a peaceful dissenter – but the situation is much more severe in Russia and Turkey.

In this context, how come countries like Turkey and Russia still allow some form of limited dissent in their countries?

They don’t want to completely alienate themselves from Europe, and want to claim to be, to some extent, European. Thus, they are trying to walk a line which allows them to defy the sanctions to a large extent, but do just enough to prevent expulsion.

Foreign donors often receive criticism that their presence has made the local human rights organisations too dependent on foreign money, and lazy to look for alternative sources.

There is an element of truth in that – but no more than just an element. In many countries, wealthy individuals are quite dependent on the government, as the state can have a great deal of influence over their businesses or their other activities. It is very difficult for those individuals to provide support for human rights efforts in their own country; they would face reprisals if they did so.

Let me give you an example from Turkey: we established a foundation in Turkey about 15 years ago, which according to our assessment has done very good work. Soon, a Turkish businessman who was a local source of funding joined the board of this foundation. This man, Osman Kavala, has always been a person concerned with minority rights, he has been a main supporter of Kurdish cultural programmes, as well as programmes involving Armenians or Syrian refugees in Turkey. A little more than a year ago he was arrested, and he has been in prison ever since – even though there have been no charges filed against him.

President Erdogan has spoken out against him and has called him the Turkish Soros – which made it quite obvious that Kavala has got into difficulty due to his willingness to support those kinds of activities in Turkey. We, on the other hand, are outside the country, thus we are not subject to that kind of reprisal. They’re not trying to imprison me or George Soros or any other foreigner who was associated with us outside the country. But he is a Turk, operating in Turkey, which makes him vulnerable. Other people who could be sources of local support in different countries fear that something similar might happen to them as well. So that makes it very difficult to raise funds from local sources – and in many countries there is no way around foreign support.

What about micro donations as a solution?

They are very important, but it would take a lot of micro donations to provide enough money for these organisations to operate effectively – unless you are in a big and wealthy country like the United States or the United Kingdom. The American Civil Liberties Union has more than a million donors – even if they all gave a very small amount of money, it would still add up to a substantial sum. But in a small country like Belarus, there aren’t that many people who can contribute.

A good example of mobilising local funding can be seen in Hungary, where there is legislation that allows taxpayers to donate 1 per cent of their personal income tax payments to a non-profit.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to get some local funding, in part as a sign of domestic legitimacy. A good example of mobilising local funding can be seen in Hungary, where there is legislation that allows taxpayers to donate 1 per cent of their personal income tax payments to a non-profit. This is an important source of income for many civil society organisations.


[1] The Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe took place in July and August 1975. 35 states signed the Helsinki Accords, which aimed at improving relations between the capitalist East and the communist West.

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The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: A Revolutionary Legacy

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