- Joined the socialist Student League for Industrial Democracy while enrolled in Cornell University
- Relaunched the League for Industrial Democracy as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
- Left SDS in 1960, because he thought Tom Hayden was taking it in an excessively radical direction
- Worked at the ACLU from 1963-1978
- Hired Ruth Bader Ginsburg to run a women’s-rights project for the ACLU
- Served as executive director of the Human Rights Watch from 1981-93
- Served as executive director of George Soros‘s Open Society Foundations from 1993-2012
- Joined the board of the Center for American Progress in 2005
- Has taught at numerous universities
Aryeh Neier was born to Jewish parents in Berlin on April 22, 1937, during the era of Nazi rule. When he was two years old, his family fled Germany and resettled in England before moving again, in 1947, to New York City, where Neier became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Attending Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan and watching the Army-McCarthy hearings on television in 1954, Neier became highly interested in politics and civil-rights issues. He joined Stuyvesant’s campus history club, which invited guest speakers to the school and debated the political issues of the day.
After graduating from high school, Neier enrolled at Cornell University. There, he attended a speaking appearance on campus by the famed socialist Norman Thomas, an event that Neier would later describe as an “immensely influential” moment in his life. After listening to Thomas talk “about what was happening in Hungary” – a reference to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against Soviet oppression – Neier joined the socialist Student League for Industrial Democracy (SLID), which he described years later as “a sort of social democratic group that had been very connected to Norman Thomas.” A year later, Neier was elected president of SLID.
Upon graduating from Cornell with a B.S. degree in 1958, Neier took a job as executive director of SLID’s parent organization, the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had grown out of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in 1921. Within a few months Neier became LID’s executive director, and in 1959 he relaunched SLID as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). But Neier broke away from SDS in 1960, largely because Tom Hayden, whom he had hired to lead the organization, was taking it in a radical direction of which he did not approve.
From 1960-63, Neier was employed as the associate editor of Current magazine. He subsequently served the American Civil Liberties Union as a field development officer from 1963-64, as executive director of its New York office from 1965-70, and as its national director from 1970-78. One of Neier’s close associates at the ACLU was Frank Donner, who in 1956 had refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his alleged membership in the Communist Party USA. During his tenure as the ACLU’s national director, Neier hired future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to run a women’s-rights project for the organization. He also fought for the abolition of capital punishment and for guaranteeing women the unfettered right to abortion-on-demand.
In 1975, Hofstra University awarded Neier the first of his three Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees; he subsequently received equivalent degrees from Hamilton College (1979) and SUNY Binghamton (1988).
From 1978-81, Neier was the director of the Century Fund Project on Litigation and Social Policy. A strong anti-Communist, in 1978 he co-founded Helsinki Watch (HW), an organization whose purpose was to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Accords. Ten years later, HW expanded its mission and was renamed Human Rights Watch (HRW), where Neier served as executive director from 1981-93. In addition, Neier taught law as an adjunct professor of law at New York University from 1978-91.
Neier served as executive director of George Soros‘s Open Society Foundations (OSF) from 1993-2012. In 2005, he joined the board of the Center for American Progress. When he eventually stepped down from his OSF post in 2012, OSF collaborated with HRW and the ACLU to establish a fellowship in Neier’s name. Today Neier is OSF’s president emeritus.
Since 2012, Neier has been a visiting distinguished professor of human rights at the Paris School of International Affairs. And, in addition to his aforementioned tenure as an adjunct professor at NYU, he also has taught at such institutions as Georgetown University Law School, the University of Siena (Italy), Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Columbia University, UC Berkeley, and Duke University.
Neier is the author of several books, whose titles may be viewed here. He also has contributed chapters to more than 25 other books, and has published numerous articles in major newspapers and law journals. In a 2012 International Socialist Review article about Neier and his work, the Cuban-born socialist scholar Samuel Farber wrote that Neier “may well be the single most important figure of the human rights movement in the United States.”