Rhonda Copelon—An Architect of Feminist Human Rights Law
When Rhonda Copelon died this month of ovarian cancer, she was 65 and the influence of her ground-breaking legal career could be appreciated around the world. Here, adapted from a tribute at an awards ceremony last year, friend and colleague Charlotte Bunch describes her extraordinary personal and professional contributions.
Feminist and human rights lawyer Rhonda Copelon often worked behind the scenes, but her finger prints, or perhaps I should say brain waves, are all over many of the most important breakthroughs in progressive feminist advances both in the United States and globally.
Friends and colleagues long ago recognized her keen intellectual acumen, her legal and political strategic brilliance, and her unswerving advocacy in the pursuit of justice. It’s true that her perseverance could drive us crazy when, late at night in a women’s caucus for the UN World Conferences, she would raise a critical point that clearly needed our attention after a document had already gone to the printer. But her generosity of spirit would bring us around more often than not—besides, she was usually conceptually right.
As a young lawyer, working for 12 years at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Rhonda played a critical role in the legal evolution of reproductive rights. She understood how gender connected with race and class in determining women’s access to these rights in the United States. Recognizing the everyday realities of poor women and women of color, she successfully argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of African American teacher aides in Mississippi fired for being unwed mothers. And she challenged the federal “Hyde Amendment” cut-off of Medicaid funds for most abortions as lead counsel in Harris v. McRae. To heal the wounds from losing that case, she built with her own hands (and assistance from her many friends) a home in Long Island—one that became a sanctuary for many feminist activists to renew themselves. Yet her vision of reproductive justice in the McRae brief changed, if not the law, then the politics and strategies that profoundly link social and economic rights to personal ones.
Rhonda was also co-counsel in other critical CCR cases challenging racist practices, governmental misconduct and the Vietnam War. In Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, the CCR team invoked the little-used 1789 “Alien Tort Claims Act” to encompass freedom from torture as an international human rights norm and constitutionally part of the “laws of the United States.” Filartiga laid the foundation for her continuing work in developing gender perspectives in numerous cases involving war crimes, corporate abuses, and immigrant domestic workers, as well as global women’s human rights.
In 1983, Rhonda became part of the founding faculty of CUNY Law School. She also directed its International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic, which she co-founded with Celina Romany in l992. At this point I began to work closely with her, as we discussed how she could bring her legal expertise to the developing global women’s human rights movement. We also shared a passion for linking global women’s struggles to feminist and human rights issues in the United States—to seeing ourselves and U.S. movements as part of global solidarity and a common vision for change.
Together we traveled to Latin America to engage in feminist encuentros—where Rhonda rapidly picked up a conversational Spanish delivered with a French accent. We strategized with activists from around the world on how to bring a feminist interpretation of human rights to the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. There the international community first fully recognized women’s rights as human rights, leading some to accuse women of “hijacking the event.” Our work continued at the Cairo population and development conference, presenting women’s reproductive rights as human rights, and finally to full public awareness of this perspective at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995.
Feminist scholar Ros Petchesky called Rhonda her “model of a life fully realized.” Even more than her brilliance, Ros cited her friend’s “practice of a truly feminist humanity in the everyday—her devotion to younger generations, her fierce and loving presence for her many friends; and her passionate embrace of both politics and fun.” Through the CUNY law clinic, Rhonda brought her students along to participate in ground-breaking developments in human rights.
Her intellectual leadership was also reflected in her writing—particularly a ground breaking l994 article on domestic violence as torture, a view that was implemented by the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture over a decade later. It remains one of the favorite eye opening articles of my students at Rutgers University. Her article on war crimes in Bosnia contributed to the recognition of rape and sexualized violence as torture generally and as genocide in the Rwanda Tribunal. UN Special Rapporteurs sought out Rhonda for advice. She trained judges in every continent and for the International Criminal Court (ICC). A lasting mark of her leadership was co-founding the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, leading to the landmark codification of gender in the ICC statute. She was unrelenting in the negotiations for this—just ask some of the men in the Coalition for the ICC.
Rhonda was also always willing to tackle the difficult issues—early on in the McRae case or more recently by representing in a U.S. court Algerian journalists, feminists, and their families who had been persecuted and murdered by armed Islamist groups. That case (Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anouar Haddam) was so dangerous that the clients—including people who had witnessed the killing of their own children—had to remain anonymous. Arab American law professor Karima Bennoune called Rhonda “a nearly legendary figure among Algerians working to oppose religious extremism in their country.” In an era of the “War on Terror,” said Bennoune, Rhonda understood the importance of “concrete solidarity” with progressives in the Muslim world.
Perhaps above all, Rhonda built enduring personal friendships in her work—making her as one Latin admirer said a “Tesoro,” a treasure of the women’s human rights movement. As Lepa Mladjenovic, Women in Black Belgrade, wrote when Rhonda received a prestigious human rights award last year, “Rhonda Copelon is admired, read, discussed and cared for all over the world.” Feminists from the Balkans, she wrote, needed “to have our Rhonda near,” for her professional advice and “as well her tender face that gives love and meaning to her feminist theory and inspires us to cherish her.”
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