Tiananmen Twenty Years On:

The day it happened in 1989, I was at a human rights retreat organized by Henry Steiner and Philip Alston, a remarkable private meeting of human rights organizations, from north and south, on the island of Crete. Remarkable in that it was one of the first times that anyone had tried to sit down a bunch of human rights NGOs and discuss a set of important and simultaneously practical and abstract themes. Not everyone attended - Human Rights Watch rather snootily said that it had better things to do than attend academic conferences. The horror! But it was the loser; the exchanges, particularly between north and south, were frank and pointed and one of the first such occasions within the human rights NGO movement.

I was there as the young conference administrator person, dealing with things like rooms and planes and meals and all that, seconded, I am pleased to say, as a pro bono gift of Sullivan & Cromwell. Tiananmen took place while all of us were there; it was discussed at length, but the conference declined to make a joint statement, if I recall correctly. I think that was the right decision - no one at the meeting was authorized to speak on behalf of their organizations, to start with.

Somewhat more disturbing was that not everyone at the conference appeared to think that the Chinese protestors had a defensible cause, even if they were not eager to see Tank Man flattened. The fault lines of the human rights movement and its internal contradictions run deep, from its ideological development in the 1980s down to today. But I recall watching the protests on the small TV that was in the monastery on a remote stretch of beach on the island, hoping that it would turn out like the Soviet Union, but not very sure. But I did not want to let today go by without marking it.