Not a Movement of Dissidents. Amnesty International Beyond the Iron Curtain

Miedema, Christie
Schriftenreihe Menschenrechte im 20. Jahrhundert 4
Göttingen 2019: Wallstein Verlag
279 S.
€ 22,90
Reviewed for H-Soz-Kult by
Kacper Szulecki, Department of Political Science, University of Oslo

Milestone anniversaries of 1989 typically see a wave of publications on the fall of the Berlin Wall, end of the Cold War, but also dissent and human rights activism. The 30th anniversary is no different in terms of the sheer number of new publications. However, it does stand out from earlier commemorative occasions, in the visibly critical tone and edge of the books that came out, and Christie Miedema’s monograph is a great example. It is critical in that it challenges the state of the art, inviting the reader to reconsider her perspective on Cold War historiography, particularly that of dissidence, human rights, and transnational politics.

Miedema positions her work against the background of all three literatures. She begins by discussing the recent advances in the history of human rights, pointing to the nuancing of Western-centric and triumphalist post-1989 narratives, which was achieved with the help of authors such as Celia Donert, Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Steven Jensen or Samuel Moyn.[1] We now know much more about the evolution of human rights, their negotiation across the East-West and North-South divides, and we are better prepared for grasping their relational dynamics in actual interactions of political actors. This is intimately connected with the two other literatures which Miedema references: dissent and transnational history. Moving beyond dissident auto-descriptions thanks to, among others, Robert Brier, Jonathan Bolton, or Sarah Snyder[2], we already know more about the way opposition to authoritarian communist regimes functioned, and how ideas, people and artifacts could travel across the Iron Curtain – in both directions.

In Cold War human rights activism and transnational network building, “Amnesty International” (AI) is an absolutely key element. Since its establishment in London in 1961, through years of activity and advocacy in the name of prisoners of conscience in dozens of countries, with a Nobel Peace Prize received in 1977, AI is a household name and a universally recognized brand. But what did its human rights advocacy entail in practice? How was it organized, what was the logic of building networks, maintaining contacts, gathering information, organizing campaigns, expanding membership and maintaining political balance throughout the Cold War? Those are precisely the questions that Miedema’s monograph tackles.

Her focus is on two Eastern European arenas of AI activity: the Soviet Union and Poland. While the USSR had already received some scholarly attention in this respect, Miedema’s work on Poland is breaking new ground. The network analyzed by her is complex and includes AI’s two not necessarily likeminded centers of power (the International Secretariat in London and the International Executive Council), as well as the national sections, members, activists or dissidents in Eastern Europe and their respective governments. It is also full of struggles and power plays, which are difficult to anticipate for a reader knowing AI from the outside.

As the title indicates, AI was “not a movement of dissidents” – it did not strive to be one, and tried to avoid any such connotations. However, to gain East European membership, it had to work with dissident networks and organizations, at times accepting prominent oppositionists as members – and later suffering the political consequences.

The main thread of the book is, therefore, the constant tension between AI’s ideals of impartiality, neutrality, and universality – cutting across the Cold War divides – and the need to act in the face of visible human rights violations in the Eastern Bloc. While there was some symmetry in power abuses and unlawful persecution in both West and East, and political imprisonment appeared in both, AI had to face the undeniable difference between operating in liberal democratic settings (however imperfect) and Communist dictatorships. AI built its legitimacy on that ideal of impartiality, and it is understandable why its leadership did all in their power to sustain it, while at the same time, it is clear that to remain relevant and to speak out, the ideal needed to be constantly renegotiated or bracketed off. And even if all boxes on the checklist of impartiality were ticked off, East European regimes were still most often perceiving AI through the lens of their own ideology, with all information filtered by the state security services, who tended to project their own methods and logic onto all political actors, at home and abroad.

The book is divided into four chapters, plus Introduction and Conclusion. Chapters 1–3 provide a roughly chronological story of the way AI’s Eastern European involvement unfolded, beginning with the early 1970s, through the détente and the Helsinki Accords, up to the 1980s. I write “roughly chronological”, as within the chapters – which are long, 50 pages on average – there is quite a bit of jumping back and forth. While these chapters are predominantly about AIs practice, network building, and general who-did-what, Chapter 4 focuses on AI’s “sophisticated situation” and zooms out to provide an interpretation and synthesis of what the organization’s involvement with dissidents entailed.

Don’t expect sweeping generalizations or broad syntheses. Miedema works from the bottom up, meticulously gathering evidence based on an impressive archival query, as well as memoirs, secondary sources and interviews. The result is an empirically rich and detailed analysis, which provides a fresh perspective on what we think we know – and the author politely proves us wrong along the way.

There are several instances where Miedema’s findings are truly surprising, counterintuitive or shed light on periods and events, which remained visibly under-researched. The years 1970–76 are usually treated as a blank spot in Polish dissent historiography, while for Miedema and her Polish protagonists – not necessarily top rank dissidents – that period is full of important events, decisions and plot twists. It is very interesting to learn that AI’s membership in Poland emerged already in 1975, earlier than the Workers Defense Committee (KOR), and that the left-right political divide mattered in those circles, with right-wing oppositionists visibly dominating the network. In the Soviet Union, Miedema’s analysis fills important gaps in the story of rights-based dissent, providing the transnational story that has previously been missing.

One of the most fascinating parts of the story is AI’s relationship with its younger sibling, Human Rights Watch. This contentious connection is discussed only in one section, while it might deserve a bit more space, since the strategies and outlooks of the two organizations were so different, as was their Eastern European engagement. However, that would make for a very different monograph. The only critical points one can raise in reviewing this excellent book is related to the form, not the content. In such an empirically rich study, the reader would benefit from more sign posting, and perhaps dividing the narrative into more than four mega-chapters. Additionally, the publisher does not help, visibly trying to pack maximum content into minimum space, which results in a visual overload. Those minor points, however, do not obscure the undeniable value of this monograph, which will be a great reference for students of contemporary history, and all those interested in human rights activism, East and West.

[1] Cf. Celia Donert, The Rights of the Roma. The Struggle for Citizenship in Postwar Czechoslovakia, Cambridge 2017; Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann (ed.), Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge 2010; Steven L.B. Jensen, The Making of International Human Rights. The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values, New York 2016; Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia. Human Rights in History, Cambridge MA 2010.
[2] Cf. Robert Brier (ed.), Entangled Protest. Transnational Approaches to the History of Dissent in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Osnabrück 2013; Jonathan Bolton, Worlds of Dissent. Charter 77, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Czech Culture under Communism, Cambridge MA 2012; Sarah B. Snyder, Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War. A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network, Cambridge 2011.

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