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US Billionaire Gives $100 Million to Human Rights Group

Human Rights Watch focuses on expanding mission, reach

Aryeh Neier, president of Open Society Foundations
Aryeh Neier, president of Open Society Foundations

U.S. financier George Soros has made a $100-million matching grant to Human Rights Watch through his New York-based Open Society Foundations.

The global recession has taken a heavy toll on humanitarian contributions.

That is one reason non-governmental organizations and non-profit groups gathered in New York this week when the Open Society Foundations awarded a $100-million, 10-year matching grant to Human Rights Watch.

Why Human Rights Watch?

"Our purpose is to promote the development of open societies or more open societies - that is, societies where more open points of view can be expressed, the rule of law is observed, minorities are treated fairly," says Aryeh Neier, president of Open Society Foundations. "Those are the general aims of the foundation."

Neier says that there are many worthy NGO's doing important human-rights work around the world. But his foundation was especially eager to help Human Rights Watch expand its operations.

"Human Rights Watch started as a U.S.-based organization in 1978, and its early activities focused to a significant extent on using the power, purse, and influence of the United States in order to promote human rights in other countries," he says. "Over time, it has evolved in to a global organization, doing research on human rights globally. We wanted to assist Human Rights Watch in going further along those lines."

Branching out

Human Rights Watch is highly regarded for its research reports that chronicle human-rights abuses in more than 90 countries. These reports are made available to the media in an effort to shame human-rights violators into stopping their abuse.

In the past, the group has also furnished this information to policy makers, mostly in the United States and Europe. It has lobbied those governments to use their influence to get offending nations to respect human rights. But geopolitical power has shifted in recent years, says Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, and so the focus of his organization must change as well.

"There are various emerging powers in the global south who are often are the most significant players in their region. For example, in a place like Zimbabwe, even though the U.S. government or the European Union have very strong human-rights positions, the most important actor is South Africa," says Roth. "If you take a place like Sri Lanka, again the Western governments are very strong about its abysmal human-rights record. But it is various Asian governments who have more influence. So we would like to open up offices in places like Brazil, South Africa, India, and places that are democracies at home, but which we hope will begin to develop foreign policies that reflect those values in their region."

Economic strategy

One of the most effective ways for friendly governments to exert their influence, adds Roth, is with direct or indirect economic threats, and so Human Rights Watch is working in this area as well.

He says one of the most effective ways for friendly governments to exert their influence is with direct or indirect economic threats, and so Human Rights Watch is working in this area as well.

For example, Roth says the group might suggest to a friendly government that the next time it considers an arms sale to an abusive government, that the deal be conditional on an end to summary executions. Or Human Rights Watch might advise a national leader to withhold an economic aid package to a rogue nation's military or police force until it stops all torture practices.

Billionaire financier George Soros, who created the Open Society Foundations, is both confident and hopeful that Human Rights Watch can meet these goals. He says human rights underpin America's greatest aspirations.

Soros said human rights are at the heart of open societies, adding that the gift is from his heart and that Human Rights Watch is one of the most effective organizations he supports.