The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement by Jeri Laber

In my most impressionable years, I was a law student in India, and my awareness of human rights law, like a jigsaw puzzle all making sense after the final assembly, developed out of courses in public international law, international refugee law and domestic criminal procedure. Like my earnest classmates, I was impressed with the cornucopia of international human rights agreements that emerged in the post Second World War period. Consider that the six major human rights conventions — the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Convention on the Rights of the Child, Convention Against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — were drafted within a forty year period after the War.

My only quibble was what I perceived to be a disconnect between the theory and practice of human rights law. Try as I might, I was unable to detect the voice of the human rights activist in the dry baritone of my professor. Rummaging through the legal arcana, I frequently wanted to know what really happened when human rights activists challenged the indifferent bureaucrat or police officer, with formal legal instruments as their sole weapons. I sought the activist war stories, and the records of those brave men and women who went out there to pinch the underbellies of recalcitrant governments. Even more ardently, I yearned for the voices of victims and personal accounts of their suffering.

More than anything else, Jeri Laber’s The Courage of Strangers illuminates the human side of human rights law. In chronicling her life as a human rights activist, and the tribulations of a diverse group of courageous political dissidents, Laber reveals how human rights theory and practice can be wedded in such a way that both fields are enriched. Through her personal struggles, Jeri Laber shows us the insider’s point of view in combating state sponsored torture. Her detailed accounts of meetings with political dissidents tortured by communist governments bring an immediacy to the needs of torture victims that cannot be deciphered from mere human rights covenants.

Jeri Laber was a co-founder of Helsinki Watch which later morphed into Human Rights Watch. The Courage of Strangers is about her life as a human rights activist; how for the longest time, she lobbied aggressively on behalf of dissident leaders in the erstwhile USSR and Eastern Europe. She spoke against illegal detention, torture and official intimidation at a time when such advocacy was unknown. Today, human rights advocacy is as acceptable as a can of Coke, and human rights activists receive comprehensive training before setting out on their missions. In her time, Laber would certainly have been considered a maverick, as she wandered alone through dark staircases to meet unfamiliar faces in the then mysterious countries of Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the like, constantly watching over her shoulder for police and agents.

While working behind the Iron Curtain, she developed close friendships with several strangers (hence the title,) some of whom, like Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Larisa Bogoraz, Kary Schwarzenberg and Rita Klimova, were to become well known in the future. Her book is also about these dissidents and their stories. While Laber invites us to sympathize with the plight of the victims of human rights abuses, she also conveys their courage, resourcefulness and vision in the face of all odds. Larisa Bogoraz (Jeri Laber compares her to Lara in Doctor Zhivago) was a soviet dissident who demonstrated in Red Square in 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her husband, Anatoly Marchenko, another dissident, wrote a prison memoir, My Testimony, about his time in prison. It was the courage of these “victims” that inspired Laber’s work, and her book punctures the myth of the passive victim.

Laber’s experiences gave her some chilling insights into human behavior. At one point she states: “Torturers or potential torturers may exist in every society. I came to see that it is not enough to try to shame abusers or to lecture them about right and wrong. Society needs principles, but it also needs laws — to protect us from others and even from ourselves. It also needs strong and appropriate institutions to enforce those laws and to punish the transgressions.” This comment is one of several in the book, building a bridge between the problems Laber finds in her practice and how the human rights regime might deal with them.

Interspersed with Jeri Laber’s human rights activism is a parallel story of her personal life, vivid in her no-holds barred objective point of view. Laber refuses to cut herself any slack. For example, she accepts partial responsibility for her first husband, Austin Laber, leaving her and admits that her ardor for human rights work adversely affected her relationship with her second husband, Charles Kuskin.

Given such a rich texture of professional and personal life stories, it is a little disappointing that Laber skims over some intricate human rights issues. Laber says laws and institutions are required to contain opportunities for torture but does not dig her teeth into what these structures should look like. She talks about how U.S. foreign policy on human rights is based on whether a particular regime is its ally or enemy (Turkey is an example, where despite well documented instances of torture, the United States rarely intervenes.) But she does not spell out how this mismatch in U.S. foreign policy should be rectified, beyond blaming the State Department for its short sightedness.

In the end, these omissions are merely warts on an extraordinarily moving account of professional triumph and personal challenges. Jeri Laber’s memoir is a lyrical exploration of how the human rights struggle in communist states was waged through the courage and compassion of strangers who were so far apart in time and space that it’s a miracle they became friends at all. For those who see human rights issues as flickers on a television screen, this book is a personalized journey into the human rights movement. Those more familiar with the subject would find themselves sometimes happily nodding and sometimes sympathetically sullen, but always engrossed in this genuinely resonating voice of a committed activist.