MARCH 1, 2021
FOR A BOOK that dives fairly quickly into the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there’s less brutal violence and revenge murders than one would expect in these pages. They are there, but the real purpose of journalist Mike Chinoy’s new book is to cover the life of Kevin Boyle, the activist, academic, and international human rights lawyer. Boyle is not an obvious candidate for a biography set during such a dramatic period: he had a preference for working below the fray and for downplaying his achievements, and he certainly rejected violence. His story may never have been written at all if a young Chinoy, as an American undergraduate visiting Belfast in 1972, had not met Boyle after a lecture at Queen’s University, and had not maintained a lifelong friendship with him thereafter.
Chinoy covered the Troubles as a reporter, but the bulk of his career took place in Asia, where he was CNN’s chief correspondent. (Full disclosure: Chinoy hired me as a CNN intern, and I credit my jumpstart in journalism to him and others in the network’s Hong Kong newsroom who supported my aspirations.) Perhaps, after years witnessing the kind of devastation and suffering Boyle worked so hard to stop, Chinoy sought to return to this restless corner of Europe to better understand what shaped Boyle and his activities. Are You With Me?: Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement recounts its subject’s early days as a co-founder of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) and then takes us with him to a life of landmark cases at the European Court of Human Rights, to South Africa under apartheid, and to devastated Kurdish towns in eastern Turkey. Kevin Boyle traveled widely to promote free expression and universal human rights, ideas very much under assault these days. He also believed in international institutions, another system with a fast-growing group of skeptics. Chinoy’s biography makes the case for the continued value and relevancy of both, as validated through the life of Boyle. The themes touched upon remain relevant: police brutality, nonviolent resistance, freedom of expression, and more.
Tear gas has, unfortunately, become universal. Long used by the British to control its colonies, the canisters were fired for the first time against their own citizens in 1969, during what is now called the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, Northern Ireland. Chinoy describes how the region had already endured endless months of protests, and Boyle, as a leader of NICRA, scrambled to negotiate with authorities to withdraw the police. Meanwhile, Catholic youths responded on the streets with bricks and Molotov cocktails. The story feels familiar because, around the world, tear gas has become law enforcement’s means of reestablishing control, as seen this past summer at nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and also in Hong Kong, where police rained an estimated 10,000 tear gas rounds down on citizens over the course of six months. The similarities between Northern Ireland and Hong Kong are especially striking to Chinoy. He has written separately about the parallels: how “government intransigence and police over-reaction” in both places, though separated by five decades and more than 6,000 miles, “transformed a peaceful one-issue protest into a movement demanding sweeping change.”
We find other themes in the book that resonate with our own times. For example, one of the top grievances Catholics in Northern Ireland had involved the manipulation of electoral district boundaries — gerrymandering — that ensured unionist control. The Protestants also had their own far-right ranter, the preacher Ian Paisley, whose polemics would have fit right in to Trump’s America. Moreover, in the early 1970s, Boyle and others began documenting and assessing Northern Ireland’s legal system, their study finding that
Catholics charged with possession of firearms with criminal intent received sentences averaging 6.3 years, while Protestants charged with the same offence got 4.2 years. This was one of many reasons why their data also showed that 88 per cent of Catholics believed an individual in Northern Ireland could not get a fair trial, while only 27 per cent of Protestants held the same belief.
Bias in policing and sentencing, it turns out, is a universal affliction of fractured societies.
The discouraging conclusion these patterns raise is the recognition that, if human rights are universal, then so is the desire to suppress them. Boyle took many cases to the European Court of Human Rights, starting out with issues relating to police brutality during the Troubles, but he soon broadened his appeals to address other abuses. He helped obtain a ruling on Northern Ireland’s ban on homosexuality in a landmark case — a decision so globally influential that the US Supreme Court would reference it in its own majority opinion striking down a Texas anti-sodomy law in 2003. By the early 1980s, as he began moving beyond domestic matters, Boyle worked for Amnesty International in South Africa on a series of reports on apartheid, a different kind of horror. As the first executive director of Article 19 — the advocacy organization named after the clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrining the right to freedom of expression — Boyle built a coalition of public intellectuals and writers, many of them Nobel Prize laureates, against the Iranian fatwa on Salman Rushdie following his publication of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. That affair happened more than 30 years ago, but the clash between Islamic extremism and Western liberalism’s commitment to freedom of expression continues today. Not only have the intervening decades not tempered the conflict, but outrage can now be fanned across the world in seconds via social media, with even more terrible consequences, as the Charlie Hebdo shootings (among other recent incidents) showed.
As a result, Are You With Me? feels at times like a counterpoint to the sobering realities we face today — the lesson being that, for all the Kevin Boyles in the world, there is also an endless array of autocrats, from Bolsonaro to Duterte to Vladimir Putin. Chinoy acknowledges this state of affairs, sharing a line in his afterword from a Foreign Policy essay by David Rieff, who writes that “the human rights movement is facing the greatest test it has confronted since its emergence in the 1970s as a major participant in the international order.” This century’s contender for top villain might be Xi Jinping and his techno-authoritarian China, with its police state featuring hundreds of detention camps. The country has joined the Human Rights Council at the United Nations this year, in a mockery of the international institutions Boyle held so dear. Yet the dignity of Boyle’s life and the countless students he mentored who went on to dedicate their lives to human rights work chip steadily away against tyranny, and we can only hope that their incremental wins do matter. Progress always starts small, as Boyle would attest: when he showed up to the first meeting of NICRA in 1967, he could not have guessed at the successes the small civil liberties organization would see in the coming years.
A painful irony in the story is that Boyle’s best intentions as a young man might have contributed to what ultimately became a spiral of violence beyond his control. Recognizing the difficulty of assigning cause and effect when it comes to the Troubles, Chinoy nevertheless examines the question of whether idealistic activism might actually have exacerbated the divisions that gave prominence to extremists. Chinoy quotes Kit Carson, a legal scholar and friend of Boyle’s:
He carried a certain amount of guilt about what kind of a tiger he [had] unleashed. He most sincerely wanted all the things he believed and all the actions he took, but he had not wanted the horrible side of it to happen the way it did. I am not sure that he ever reconciled within himself the fact that that had happened.
In all movements, this sort of conflict plays out, often painfully. We see it in the United States with the Black Lives Matter protests and the fierce discussions over whether activists might push things too far. Many who have spent their lives combating racial injustice point out that change never happens unless the status quo is rocked, literally. The people of Hong Kong have had time to reflect on whether their protests accelerated China’s iron-fisted response, whether in the long run the millions who protested might have preserved more liberties today if they had not challenged the state the way they did. We will never know. In Boyle’s case, he decided to move past his ambivalence and dedicate his life to using the law as a force for change. Chinoy’s biography is a conscientious, engaging tribute to a true believer in universal human rights. While lawyers rarely seem glamorous, Boyle proves they can still be heroes.
Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter based between Berlin and Los Angeles. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.