The stories our staff tells of Human Rights Watch’s first days are built of images that Cold War-era movies have made familiar: clandestine meetings in bugged apartments, notes passed from hand to hand as a radio loudly plays; a stroll through a park, the companions falling silent as other people approach; the tense return to the international airport, the luggage dumped out and picked through; then, sometimes, arrest, expulsion, the possibility that one will never be allowed to return.
It’s unfortunate that movies and spy novels have made these memories both sensational and commonplace, because they are also true. Far more important, the perils faced by dissidents we visited in Moscow, Warsaw or Prague were also real: impoverishment; imprisonment; death or broken health in labor camps or psychiatric hospitals; exile. At the same moment, citizens in Santiago, Jakarta, and Johannesburg were also risking terrible consequences: secret arrests in the middle of the night, interrogations, abrupt and brutal executions. For those living in repressive states, the defense of human rights has always required and still requires unimaginable personal risk.
It has been Human Rights Watch’s privilege to do what we can to support and protect those who challenge governments that seek to silence them, and to add our own eyes and voices to theirs. Throughout our twenty years, we have aimed repeatedly to respond to emerging or overlooked wrongs, and to create new ways of defending human freedoms. Today, from the many isolated groups of activists that existed when we began our work, has emerged a noisy, vigorous non-governmental sector that makes itself heard around the globe. We base our hope in the future on the vitality of these human rights defenders – and the partnerships we have forged with them.