06/06/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

Human Rights Without People

In a New York Times op-ed entitled "Human Rights, Not So Pure Anymore," Samuel Moyn argues that "for those who long for a state and a world that not only protect liberties but also promote well-being," the human rights movement has not "made enough of a difference." He concludes that over the years the movement has lost much of its romantic appeal, and that the "once pure ideals" of the movement are "now much harder to separate" from the impurities associated with international power and policy-making.

It appears Moyn believes that the success of the human rights movement during the Cold War era was easily accomplished. Having campaigned with the wives of Soviet dissidents, I understand the naïveté of Moyn. Yes, Soviet dissidents were superb in courage and prose, but the idealism that Moyn suggests is indeed short of good scholarship and accurate history.

In reality, there was never a Golden Age of international human rights activity, especially the years that Moyn addresses. In the same era, Central America lost over 300,000 lives -- the bulk of these deaths came from American-supplied guns. This figure, of course, does not take into account the actions of Pinochet in Chile or the crooked generals of Argentina. Concurrently, South Africa was under the heavy boot of Apartheid, and South Korea tortured one of it future presidents, Kim Dae-jung. Human rights reporting by all the major organizations spelled out a somber comment on those years. As the director of Amnesty International for much of this period, I am acutely aware of how power works and what it can do. For those who work in the field of human rights, their ambition is not idealistic. On the contrary there is a real sense of passionate pragmatism.

One assessment that I would make is that a massive mistake was made when the big monies of Soros/Atlantic Philanthropies, etc. came into play in the early nineties. While generous and kind, the mistake was that most of these monies went into research and diplomacy. The offices of New York, Geneva, London, Paris and Brussels all received more offices and even larger salaries.

I believe that these monies, instead of staying in the West, should have been invested in many smaller human rights offices all over the world. Bang for the buck would not be an old adage in this decision. Strengthening human rights groups in the West has the benefit of more important human rights stories, but the new money neither builds nor strengthens the populist movement for human rights. People power with credible monitoring of human rights is the goal. The difference between research and activism is real, just as in diplomacy and activism. Though research and diplomacy make for superb fundraising, they do not match the impact that activism has in stopping human rights abuses. The surge for human rights must be universal and warm, and the funding for such must match. Activism plus research works. Flip the equation, and human rights suffer.

To some extent, the human rights movement has lost its way. Since 9/11 security issues have outrun and outmanned human rights. For instance, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to President Obama as a gift rather than an earned work of humanity. The President outmuscles Bush by far with his drones, killing many innocents in at least five countries. Would the Nobel now go to Obama? I doubt it.

The movement slid away from activism and the needs of the individuals for whom it originally began. The Chinese Chens of the world are important, but not more so than all those in Yemen, Bahrain or Syria. Activism is alive and well in the Middle East; however there is a high level of distrust in Western media. Fear and ignorance of Islamic society loom behind many American arguments concerning the Middle East. Containing that fear is as important today as listening closely to tomorrow's winds of change, wherever they occur. The goal of human rights must be, by definition, universal. Thus fundraising and organizational spending must be the same. People power needs to be emphasized in budgets and brought into the offices of human rights groups.

The youthful world that is burgeoning in Africa (half under 21), Asia and Latin America needs local help and local advocates. The more, the better. Each nation having a solid and viable human rights group must be the direction of all fundraising and financial discussion. Nations on the verge of change need and require true and solid national human rights groups to lead the fight against the obvious abuses of government. Local human rights groups would strengthen the international monitoring groups. Anything short of that direction would create more pain for citizens and slow up valuable human rights research.

The title of Moyn's op end should be, "Human rights not so populated any more."