The life and career of Human Rights First executive director : Michael H. Posner
by Jesse Londin
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No question, there are easier ways to make it into the Law Stars Hall of Fame than to leave big time law practice for an upstart foundation called Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and spend the next 25 years as executive director of that public interest group battling for the rights of individuals in the face of tyranny and miscarriages of justice around the world. But Michael H. Posner's path to law stardom works like a charm.
For the record, this week's Law Star goes not just to the illustrious executive director of this renown legal group. We proudly honor the whole organization, newly renamed as Human Rights First. Mr. Posner and his uniquely successful and widely admired human rights juggernaut has famously fought for international justice and the rights of workers, torture victims, political prisoners, refugees and other folks in need of compassionate and knowledgeable lawyers. And partners managing pro bono services at the biggest and best law firms in America have worked with Mr. Posner to recruit and train a national standing army of volunteer lawyers who step in to offer free services in the endless fight to deliver justice to folks from corners of the globe where justice is most sorely lacking.
On the workers' rights front, Mr. Posner helped found the Fair Labor Association as a member of the White House Apparel Industry Partnership Task Force. At the Congressional level, he successfully worked for the federal Torture Victim Protection Act, which became law in 1992. And he helped shape a provision of the Refugee Act of 1980, which became the first U.S. law to provide for political asylum.
Mr. Posner picked up a handy B.A. in history from the University of Michigan in 1972, and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley Law School, Boalt Hall, in 1975.
He knows big firms because he started out at one — as a lawyer with Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago.
He also taught at Yale Law School in the early 1980's and since 1984 has shared his seasoned perspective as a visiting lecturer at Columbia University Law School.
As Mr. Posner accepted his Law Star on behalf of himself and his colleagues in arms for more than two decades of providing sterling pro bono and human rights legal services, he discussed with LawCrossing global good deeds and the joys of being a lawyer who makes a career of doing them. He can go on and on.
Q: Mr. Posner, many lawyers say they want to save the world. You and your colleagues at Human Rights First have been out there saving it — for decades. We award Law Stars to you and everyone in your organization for great leadership in advocating for and securing human rights around the planet.
Going back to when you first left Sonnenschein, what motivated you to go into public interest law? And what keeps you going as you confront cruelty, tyranny and human rights violations every day?
A: During my second year at Boalt Hall, I began to feel a bit uneasy about life after law school. Immersed in my courses on tax, conflicts, and corporations, I felt that I was headed for something different, but I couldn't name it. Around the same time, I met an enormously giving and enthusiastic professor, Frank Newman, who told me about a growing global civil rights movement. He had been involved in international efforts aimed at challenging abuses by the military government in Greece in the late 1960's, and violations by the Chilean military government in the early 1970's. He spoke with such enthusiasm about this international human rights movement, I decided to try to get involved.
With Frank's guidance, I spent a semester in Geneva preparing a report on Idi Amin's Uganda for the International Commission of Jurists. At the time, no one could get into Uganda, so the bulk of my report was based on interviews with refugees. These were people who had fled for their lives to Europe, and they risked them again to help document what was going on. It was a life-changing experience.
Though my work forces me to confront, and occasionally meet, some of the truly evil people that inhabit our planet, I also have the rare privilege to know and work with some of the genuine heroes in our world, people with courage, dedication, compassion and humility. The Ugandans I met had all of these characteristics.
Q: We've caught all the hoopla and fanfare over the name change last month, from Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, to Human Rights First. Congratulations on the makeover! As lawyers, of course, we had no objection to the old name since, well, it did give us honorable mention. Self-reinvention is always in fashion, but to what extent does the organization's new name and image connote a new mission that may suggest lawyers will be playing a lesser role? If you would, tell us a bit about the membership of HRF today, and what it means to be actively involved?
A: We are an organization that is known for our legal expertise, our thorough research and analysis, and our persuasive advocacy. Even though we've changed our name, our commitment to these methods has not changed. Our advocacy on behalf of refugees remains one of the most important aspects of our work. Our Asylum Program is the largest pro bono representation program for immigrants in the country, coordinating the representation of more than 1,000 cases. The program is successful because of the commitment of our volunteer lawyers, who provide high quality legal representation to these asylum seekers and win more than 90 percent of these cases.
The name change is part of a broad effort to expand and intensify our outreach work - to undertake more public forms of engagement that mobilize a broader and more active group of supporters. To do this, we have taken a new name — Human Rights First — that is more accessible to more people, a name that educates, inspires, and motivates.
Q: The post-9/11 era has proved challenging for U.S. lawyers and human rights guardians seeking to maintain and preserve the delicate and critical balance between security and freedom. To what extent does the war on terror mean we must realistically tolerate some restrictions on personal liberties without crying foul? Briefly, how is HRF's "U.S. Law and Security Program" confronting the issues of unnecessary erosion of rights at home?
A: The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon warranted a range of new measures to ensure our national security. As I tell my human rights friends, just because John Ashcroft says it, doesn't mean it's not so. Many of the immediate changes the Administration made, such as the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the federalization of the Transportation Security Administration, were both necessary and appropriate. Another positive development is President Bush's FY 2005 budget, which includes new funds to bolster emergency services and added protections in cases of potential biological or chemical attacks.
But the Administration has taken a range of other actions over the past two and half years that have resulted in a loss of liberties and a serious undermining of the rule of law. The Administration's tendency has been to concentrate government powers with the executive branch. The result has been a dramatic loss of personal privacy, the reversal of the principle of open government, and discriminatory policies toward immigrants and refugees.
But the so-called "enemy combatant" cases demonstrate most dramatically the change in the relationship between our government and its people. For close to two years now, the Administration has held two U.S. citizens - Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi — in military detention, and until very recently, both were denied their constitutional rights to counsel. In neither case has there been a judicial review of their cases. What is the legal basis for these detentions? When President Bush was asked to define the term "enemy combatant," he replied, "You know, they're the bad guys." That is hardly a legal definition, but until now it is the only definition that the Administration has offered.
I believe that over time we will successfully correct our course in this country, and discard elements of the "new normal" that are inconsistent with our core values, our history, and our national interest. But this course correction will not happen without our active involvement. Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Hamdi and Padilla cases, as well as a case brought on behalf of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Our U.S. Law & Security Program is coordinating the filing of several amicus briefs in these three cases. We are consistently spreading the word about these concerns through a series of reports, op-eds and other outreach through the media.
Q: Some say it is a shame that more young lawyers today are not inspired to work in the public interest arena. Naturally, law school tuition is high and big salaries beckon. Does it take a certain kind of lawyer to devote herself or himself to human rights? What would you say to the next generation of lawyers contemplating doing public interest work rather than going after, say, a lucrative corporate gig? How is your path more rewarding?
A: The most important advice I can give to new lawyers is to do what best suits them as individuals, in terms of temperament, interests, talents and politics. The years I spent in private practice helped me develop valuable skills, and overall it was a very positive experience. I have never regretted the decision to work in human rights full-time, but clearly it's not for everyone. There are plenty of ways for lawyers to work in private firms and still make significant contributions to human rights and public service. The lawyers that support Human Rights First donate direct legal services, conduct fact-finding missions abroad, and lend us their time, expertise and financial support. Lawyers also can be powerful advocates for human rights by being active in the ABA and other professional associations. The balance is not always easy, but they manage it, in part because they find it personally fulfilling.
Q: You have worked on human rights issues in regions all over the world and represented HRF in more than 50 countries. What countries in the world have the worst records for human rights? How would you characterize the reception you get when pressing for American-style democracy and reform in countries that do not necessarily like America or our way of life in the Western world?
A: We don't keep a country list of "worst violators." We focus on helping to implement processes of justice and accountability in countries that have suffered massive human rights violations, and sadly that list is a long one. Our work is based on established international human rights standards. These standards have been spelled out in UN-sponsored treaties, which have been signed and ratified by almost all governments. Our work is intended to assist and empower local human rights defenders to promote human rights reform in ways that reflect the culture and values of their home societies.
Q: There must be millions of people around the world who are unable to obtain legal representation and are desperate to flee political, ethnic, religious, and gender-based persecution, torture and genocide. It must be heart-wrenching to turn down any cases. How in the world do you pick? And once asylum is secured, what services are provided for these people and their families?
A: Before we can take on a case, we have to make sure that a client meets the legal criteria for asylum. Our Asylum staff conduct interviews with potential clients and assess whether the information they give us is credible and consistent with human rights reports. Court TV's Chasing Freedom gives a good view of this process.
Once someone has been granted asylum, our pro bono attorneys continue to help by assisting their asylee clients with applications for green cards, employment authorization, derivative asylum for family members, and refugee travel documents. Our Asylum staff also provides referrals to refugee resettlement organizations, which provide assistance with social services such as English courses and job placement.
But we know we can't help everyone. There is a real need for more funding and support for organizations that take on these cases.
Q: Along those lines, there was much publicity surrounding Chasing Freedom, the new Court TV film starring Juliette Lewis as a corporate lawyer and volunteer in your organization working on a difficult refugee case. Can you tell us about your involvement in that movie and its impact in terms of bringing to light a side of the political asylum process and what goes on behind closed doors at American immigration detention centers that is not so pretty?
A: Chasing Freedom was inspired by a real case handled through our pro bono representation program. The case involved a woman from Afghanistan who fled the Taliban in 2001. When she arrived in the U.S., she was detained for months, even though she had a very strong asylum case. Though eventually she was granted asylum and released, her case illustrates the problems in the asylum system today.
Court TV consulted with our staff attorneys while the screenplay was being written, and both sides worked hard to ensure the film would be accurate. As a result, the film dramatized the situation of asylum seekers with accuracy and sensitivity. The broadcast on Court TV, and screenings around the country attracted a great deal of media attention, which helped to raise public awareness about the need to improve the treatment of asylum seekers in the U.S. We released a report (entitled "In Liberty's Shadow: US Detention of Asylum Seekers in the Era of Homeland Security") to coincide with the release of the film, which makes specific recommendations to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about limiting detention. DHS officials have watched the movie, and have publicly stated that they are now looking into our recommendations for improving the system.
Q: What is your position on the plan by the Iraqi Governing Council to put Saddam Hussein on trial in Iraq for war crimes? How should the international community be involved to ensure credibility and do you support the death penalty for the former dictator?
A: We support the IGC's decision to establish a special tribunal in Iraq. At the same time, we are concerned that Iraq's judicial system is very weak, and will need outside support to be effective. We have proposed to relevant Iraq officials that the new Iraqi tribunal should invite international judges, prosecutors, and investigators to participate formally in these prosecutions. There is a model for this type of mixed national tribunal. For example, a court in Sierra Leone, which was created jointly by the United Nations and the government of Sierra Leone, is now trying those who directed brutal human-rights violations during that country's civil war. The Iraqi tribunal should be a similar cooperative effort.
Q: When you are not saving the planet, which we know is one of your ideas of fun, what else do you do for leisure and relaxation?
A: We have three great kids, ages eight, seven and four. They give me endless excuses to have fun skiing, skating, swimming, and playing soccer and baseball. They also demand regular trips to the zoo, which, as a former zookeeper, I am always up for doing. After a weekend with the three of them, Monday mornings back at work are a piece of cake.
Q: Finally, whom do you admire and hold out as your personal Law Stars?
A: Let me mention several personal Law Stars. One is Marvin Frankel. Marvin was the Chair of our Board for 16 years, and he was a great mentor to me. He had a distinguished career as a professor, lawyer, judge and author, and he excelled at each of these endeavors.
A second Law Star is Elaine Jones, who has served for many years as the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Elaine is a brilliant lawyer and public advocate who has helped to shape the civil rights agenda in our country over the last quarter century.
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