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Human Rights First

Human Rights First
Formation 1978
Headquarters New York, NY
Elisa Massimino
Former President
Michael Posner

Human Rights First (formerly known as the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan human rights organization based in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Since its founding in 1978, the organization has focused on protecting the rights of 9/11 period; to the rise in anti-Semitic, racist and anti-Muslim hate crimes and other forms of discrimination in Europe; and to war crimes and crimes against humanity in places like Darfur.

The work of Human Rights First is based on the principle that core human rights protections apply universally, and thus extend to everyone by virtue of their humanity. While the organization draws on international law and diplomacy to advance its advocacy, it also recognizes and starts from the premise that long-term change is most likely to occur from within a society.

Its slogan is "American ideals, universal values".


  • Mission statement 1
  • History 2
    • Origins 2.1
    • Representative Early Work (1978-1988) 2.2
    • Recent History (1989-2008) 2.3
  • Programs 3
    • Crimes Against Humanity 3.1
    • Human Rights Defenders 3.2
    • Law & Security 3.3
    • Refugee Protection 3.4
    • Fighting Discrimination 3.5
  • Administration 4
    • Leadership/Board 4.1
    • Staff 4.2
    • Funding 4.3
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Mission statement

On human rights, the United States must be a beacon. Activists fighting for freedom around the globe continue to look to our country for inspiration and count on us for support. Upholding human rights is not only a moral obligation; it’s a vital national interest: America is strongest when our policies and actions match our values.

Human Rights First is an independent advocacy and action organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals. We believe American leadership is essential in the global struggle for human rights, so we press the U.S. government and private companies to respect human rights and the rule of law. When they fail, we step in to demand reform, accountability and justice. Around the world, we work where we can best harness American influence to secure core freedoms.

We know it is not enough to expose and protest injustice, so we create the political environment and policy solutions necessary to ensure consistent respect for human rights. Whether we are protecting refugees, combating torture, or defending persecuted minorities, we focus not on making a point, but on making a difference. For more than 35 years, we’ve built bipartisan coalitions and teamed up with frontline activists and lawyers to tackle global challenges that demand American leadership.



In the mid-1970s, the International League for Human Rights and a junior bar association called the Council of New York Law Associates (now named the Lawyers Alliance for New York) joined together to launch the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights (which subsequently became the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and, in 2003, Human Rights First). The League’s chairman Jerome Shestack and the Council’s chairman James Silkenat became the co-chairs of Human Rights First’s board.

In 1978, the International League and the Council recruited Idi Amin. His revelations about these violations provoked an international public outcry that led to the imposition of U.S. trade sanctions on the Ugandan government.

Alongside Shestack and Silkenat, board members Marvin E. Frankel and Louis Henkin helped guide the organization through its early days. A noted federal judge, author, law professor and civil rights advocate, Frankel was led to service on the board because of his long-standing interest in the plight of Soviet Jews and other international human rights issues. Maintaining his board membership until he passed, Henkin was a distinguished Columbia University law professor known as “the father of human rights” because of his extensive writings on the subject, most notably The Age of Rights (1989).

Representative Early Work (1978-1988)

Refugees. The first challenge the organization sought to address was the unjust treatment of refugees arriving on U.S. shores. Thousands of people from all over the world, in flight from political and religious persecution, came to the U.S. seeking political asylum but instead were jailed on arrival. Entitled to safe haven under international law, these refugees lacked advocates for those rights. In response, Human Rights First began recruiting and training volunteer lawyers to represent them.

In 1978 Human Rights First sent a mission to south Florida to investigate Haitian refugees that began arriving in Florida in the 1970s. Ultimately releasing a report condemning violations of the Haitians’ due process rights, Human Rights First also led a successful nationwide search to recruit and train volunteer lawyers to handle the cases. During this time, Human Rights First also helped craft the Refugee Act of 1980, which served as the legal basis for all asylum claims over the next 26 years.

The pro bono representation program for asylum seekers eventually grew to 1,000 cases on behalf of individuals from 85 countries. Meanwhile, Human Rights First stepped up its efforts in the courts and in Congress to guarantee the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Human Rights First court cases and advocacy campaigns during this time led to improved treatment of asylum seekers and to the adoption of new legal standards for defining a refugee.

Argentina. In 1979, a high-level human rights mission asked Human Rights First to document violations committed as part of the oppressive military dictatorship’s “Dirty War,” or reign of terror, which was directed at government critics. Dirty War tactics included both secretly and openly abducting citizens, and torturing and killing thousands – by 1979, 30 Argentine lawyers had been killed, another 91 had disappeared and were presumed dead, and 99 others were in detention.

Human Rights First’s mission and report prompted the U.S. government to impose conditions on companies doing business in Argentina, and ultimately led the Organization of American States to undertake an historic mission to Argentina that resulted in a highly critical report of the military government. Widely covered by the press, the OAS report marked the beginning of the repressive government’s end.

El Salvador. During the 1980s, El Salvador was embroiled in a 12-year-long civil war that pitted leftist guerillas against a military junta and left at least 70,000 people dead. Among those raped and murdered by members of the Salvadoran National Guard were four American church women who had spent years working among El Salvador’s poor. Soon after their deaths in 1980, the women’s relatives asked Human Rights First to represent them in their quest for justice.

Human Rights First conducted a series of missions to El Salvador over the next several years, released reports on the case and the defects within the Salvadoran justice system, regularly testified before Congress, and met with senior State Department officials. The involvement of Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter eventually led to the introduction of a bill in Congress to withhold twenty percent of U.S. military aid to the country, pending satisfactory resolution of the case. Six months after the bill became law, a trial took place in El Salvador, and five members of the National Guard were found guilty of the murders – marking the first time ever that Salvadoran military personnel were prosecuted for human rights crimes.

Failed justice systems. Another component of Human Rights First’s early work was fact-finding missions in search of the underlying causes of the human rights violations being investigated. These missions uncovered an array of defects in the justice systems of the countries visited, including arbitrary or abusive laws, unlawful practices, co-opted judges, defective trial procedures, secret detentions, and abusive security forces. To bring attention to these problems, Human Rights First began to publish reports on failed justice systems in places like Indonesia, Haiti, Guatemala, Liberia, Mexico, South Africa, Zimbabwe, China, Turkey, Russia, and Northern Ireland, which put pressure on U.S. policy makers and international bodies like the UN to hold these governments accountable for their actions, and on the governments themselves to change the laws, policies, and practices that fueled the violations.

Frontline human rights defenders. The reports produced by Human Rights First during the 1980s were frequently written in close collaboration with frontline human rights defenders who worked in the countries under scrutiny and were also lawyers. As the defenders became more vocal and critical of their governments’ human rights records, their governments often responded with threats, imprisonment, and sometimes physical violence. To draw attention to their plight and mobilize international pressure to help them, Human Rights First launched the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Network in 1988.

U.S. human rights policy. Starting in 1981, the organization began publishing annual critiques of the U.S. Department of State's reports on human rights practices around the world, to counter the U.S. government’s sometimes slanted coverage of these issues. In 1988, Human Rights First released the first in a series of reports on U.S. human rights policies, which were timed to coincide with each presidential election and challenged the U.S. government whenever it moved to carve out exceptions for itself to international human rights treaty obligations.

Recent History (1989-2008)

During the 1990s, Human Rights First continued to publicize the obstacles faced by human rights activists and report on unjust legal systems around the world. It sought to improve international efforts to promote democracy and human rights by documenting the failures and successes of World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development judicial reform programs in Latin America and Asia. Human Rights First published reports on how UN peacekeeping efforts in the aftermath of civil conflicts in Haiti, Central America and elsewhere were helping or hindering the advancement of human rights. It convened Islamists and legal scholars from the Middle East and North Africa to debate where human rights and religious principles overlapped and diverged. And in 1992, Human Rights First worked with Peter Gabriel on an initiative called Witness (human rights group) designed to arm frontline human rights defenders with video cameras to document abuses. (WITNESS has since become an independent, freestanding organization.)

In the area of refugee rights, the organization struggled to help define legal standards in the especially complex area of international refugee law. Refugee rights in America, meanwhile, suffered a grave setback in 1996, with passage of a new law designed to make it more difficult to gain asylum in the United States. Human Rights First was forced on the defensive for the next several years, trying to hold the line as legal protections for refugees eroded during a time of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Mass human rights violations. In response to the Rwandan Genocide (1994) and the Yugoslav Wars (1991–1995) that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Human Rights First began focusing considerable attention on how to hold the perpetrators of mass atrocities legally responsible.

The organization helped set up temporary international tribunals to try the perpetrators of these crimes. Simultaneously, Human Rights First joined in with government officials, UN members and staff, directors and staff of the leading non-governmental organizations, and others who called for a permanent international tribunal to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Along with other leading international human rights groups, Human Rights First waged a campaign to create this tribunal, called the International Criminal Court (ICC). The international treaty that created the ICC in 1998 has since been ratified by more than 100 nations, and the ICC has issued a number of arrest warrants.

A parallel effort to win U.S. government support for the ICC has not been so successful. Although President Barack Obama voiced support for the ICC, and more recently, as president, he supported the arrest warrant for al-Bashir.

Business and human rights. One of the more controversial chapters in Human Rights First’s history began when the group took up the issue of how to address human rights violations committed not by governments but by non-state actors, such as corporations. During the 1990s, Human Rights First took the then unpopular step of working directly with global apparel manufacturers to create a system of standards to ensure that workers enjoyed basic rights, including a safe workplace and fair working hours and compensation. As one of the founders of the Fair Labor Association, whose members include corporations as well as human rights and other public interest organizations, Human Rights First has been criticized by other human rights activists, union leaders and the press for being co-opted by those responsible for human rights abuses. Once roundly condemned, the strategy of “engagement” has gained more currency over time as an alternative way to challenge abusive practices. [would be good to back up the assertion in the prior sentence with an example]

Following a similar approach, Human Rights First has played a leading role in another more recent multi-stakeholder initiative, which has brought together major Internet providers and human rights groups to develop principles on free expression and privacy. These principles and an implementing framework were announced in October 2008, with the launch of the Global Network Initiative.

National security and civil liberties – post-9/11 challenges. Many of the measures taken after the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and end the CIA’s use of secret prisons.


Crimes Against Humanity

The organization’s work to build an international system capable of prosecuting the worst human rights crimes has moved into a related area. Faced with the continuation of such crimes and the international community’s insufficient response, Human Rights First is working to stop such crimes while they are occurring. The organization’s H.O.P.E. for Darfur campaign was an early voice raising public alarm about the mass atrocities in the Darfur region of Western Sudan and helped bring about the appointment of a high-level diplomat to inaugurate a peace process in Darfur.

In the past year, Human Rights First turned its efforts to a campaign to Stop Arms to Sudan, which seeks to halt the flow of arms fueling the crisis, from China and elsewhere, a critical step in resolving this humanitarian disaster.

Human Rights Defenders

What began as the Lawyer-to-Lawyer Network has evolved into the Human Rights Defenders Program. This program supports and advocates for international human rights defenders whose lives, and often the lives of their families, are at risk. Human Rights First is working with local human rights activists in Colombia, Cuba, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran and Thailand, the organization’s focus countries, to help reinforce their advocacy efforts. In these and other countries, it advocates on their behalf with U.S. and international policymakers, builds public awareness, and puts their governments on alert that others are watching.

Over the past year, Human Rights First reviewed the Colombian criminal justice system and documented the use of politically motivated criminal charges to harass, stigmatize, and endanger human rights defenders in that country (the first organization to thoroughly conduct such a study).

Law & Security

Ensuring that U.S. national security policies and practices reflect core human rights standards remains an important focus of today’s work. Human Rights First is working with a coalition it organized of almost 50 retired U.S. generals and admirals, including a number of four-star generals and admirals and former heads of the joint chiefs of staff. This unique partnership is based on a shared set of concerns about U.S. detention and interrogation policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. This coalition played an active role with Human Rights First in promoting Congressional adoption of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which prohibits all forms for cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees by any U.S. official. In addition to ensuring the amendment is applied in practice, Human Rights First has continued to challenge illegal interrogation and detention practices in the courts and form other new alliances with representatives of the military, intelligence, religious, and entertainment communities to reframe the debate about human rights-respecting approaches to national security.

Working with its network of retired military leaders as well as a growing public constituency, Human Rights First initiated its Elect to End Torture ’08 campaign, which worked to reframe the national debate about torture and ultimately helped bring about the executive orders signed on January 21, 2009, that banned torture, ordered the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, and ended the CIA’s use of secret prisons.

On a parallel track, Human Rights First created its Primetime Torture project to challenge television’s depiction, in shows like 24 (TV series), of cruel interrogations as being effective. It is working with Hollywood producers, writers and directors, experienced interrogators, and military educators to limit the negative impact that popular culture has on the public debate and on soldiers’ actions in the field.

Refugee Protection

The organization maintains its longstanding commitment to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. It does so through its pro bono representation program, litigation in the courts that challenges rollbacks of refugees’ rights, and advocacy with Congress and the sitting president’s administration to enact rights respecting refugee policies. Human Rights First’s asylum program currently represents more than 1,000 clients from more than 80 countries, obtaining a favorable outcome in 90 percent of these cases. In 2007, volunteer lawyers working with the program provided more than 85,600 hours of work annually, time worth more than $34.3 million of in-kind support. The size and success rate of this program are at the top of similar programs in this field.

In 2007 Human Rights First launched the Lifeline for Iraqi Refugees project in response to the refugee crisis coming out of the Iraq war. The project seeks to secure a comprehensive response to the crisis through a major resettlement initiative and increased aid to the region. Human Rights First has spearheaded successful efforts in Congress to increase the number of refugee admissions of Iraqis into the United States. As of October 2008, more than 15,000 Iraqi refugees have benefited from these efforts.

Fighting Discrimination

With anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Muslim and other violent hate crimes on the rise in Europe, Human Rights First has been working to strengthen the efforts of governments to track and prosecute such abuses. HRF led the effort to establish Special Representatives to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to confront with discrimination. Each year, Human Rights First examines anti-bias and nondiscrimination laws in all 56 OSCE countries, documents hate crime violence in its annual Hate Crime Survey, and assesses government responses in a related Report Card. The program’s advocacy agenda centers on calling on governments to adopt enhanced hate crimes laws, backed by strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.



Human Rights First is governed by a board of directors composed of 67 members, including a 34-person Board of Advocates and a six-person Emeritus Board.[1] The board provides support and guidance for strategic direction and development and is also responsible for the fiscal management of the organization, including setting and approving Human Rights First’s annual budget, contributing personally to the organization, and providing access to key individual and foundation donors. The Board also helps shape the organization’s internal policies.

The board is led by Chairman William Zabel and Vice-Chairs Tom Bernstein, Michael Rozen, and Gail Furman. The board also includes Bloomberg L.P. CEO Daniel Doctoroff, human rights activist Kerry Kennedy, and a number of other prominent figures in the fields of finance and law.

Elisa Massimino is the President and CEO of Human Rights First. Massimino joined Human Rights First as a staff attorney in 1991 to help establish the organization’s Washington office. From 1997 to 2008, she served as the Washington Director. Massimino has a distinguished record of human rights advocacy. As an authority on human rights law and policy, she testifies before Congress and appears regularly in major media outlets and speaks to audiences around the country.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the United States in 2009 and served in the position until 2013. He is currently the Co-director for the Center of Business and Human Rights at New York University Stern Business School.


Human Rights First has full-time staff in its offices in New York, Washington, and Houston. The staff includes resident issue experts, legal staff for refugee representation in all three office locations, and general staff. The organization also hires both full and part-time interns throughout the year.

Human Rights First strives for a diverse workforce that includes racial, ethnic and gender diversity, as well as a staff that possesses a varied international background. Efforts are made to recruit a diverse pool of applicants from underrepresented groups. In addition, there is an organizational commitment to recruit staff with foreign language skills and experience in communicating across language and cultural barriers.


Human Rights First, a 501(c)3 registered charity, undergoes an independent audit annually and files information returns with various governmental regulatory agencies. All of the organization’s resources come from private contributions from individuals, foundations, law firms and corporations. In order to maintain independence, Human Rights First does not accept any government funding.

Foundation support is a critical part of Human Rights First’s funding. More than 35 foundations in the U.S. and Europe currently support the organization’s work. Among its most significant foundation supporters are Atlantic Philanthropies, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Institute, The John Merck Fund and the Oak Foundation.


  1. ^ "Board of Directors". Human Rights First. Retrieved 26 August 2015. 

External links

  • Official website
  • Human Rights First's Elect to End Torture 08 campaign
  • Human Rights First's Lifeline for Iraqi Refugees initiative
  • Interview with Michael Posner from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • Interview with Tad Stahnke from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
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