Counsel for Human Rights gives lecture on campus

Photo courtesy of Michael Riff

Children learn about justice at an early age. It seems simple enough: those who commit wrongdoings and crimes will receive punishments suitably for their actions.

It is why there are laws and courts. It is why there are police and prisons. It is why there are time-outs for children.

Except the concept of justice is not as trivial or simple as a kindergarten lesson has children believe. Throughout history and to this day, mass genocides occur and slave trafficking takes place, and dictators who violate citizens’ human rights remain in power.

Reed Brody is a fierce advocate for justice. As Counsel for Human Rights Watch, he works tirelessly to protect victims of human rights violations and ensure that those who have violated human rights are brought to justice.

In accordance with the World of Law Speaker Series at Ramapo College, The Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Law and Society and Social Work programs invited Brody to speak at the College this past Monday on human rights and how laws pertain to human right.

The format of the event followed an informal and conversational question and answer format.

Professor Mihaela Serban, convener of Law and Society, moderated the event, asking Brody questions pertaining to his experiences and journey in human rights, as well as the legacy he will be leaving behind.

The discussion began by focusing on Brody’s road to activism and human rights. Brody explained that at the time he was going to Columbia Law School, there was no concrete career path in human rights, but he had always aimed to become a civil rights lawyer.

In 1984, however, that all changed.

During 1984, Brody explained that he traveled to Nicaragua to witness the revolution that was occurring firsthand. While he was there, he said he was struck by the American backed Contras, who were responsible for the massacre of Nicaraguan civilians.

“I felt this enormous responsibility that my country was doing this,” said Brody.

Brody then discussed how he went on to document and uncover the injustice that America was a part of, and his documentation ended up earning him notoriety. He explained that Congress ended up using his work as the reason for cutting off aid to the Contras.

Brody emphasized throughout the discussion that his untraditional path to a career in human rights means that he did not specifically study human rights in school, and is therefore not well-versed in theory.

“I come at this at the perspective of an activist,” said Brody.

Brody also discussed some of his most influential work that he has done. While Brody’s accomplishments are copious, he pointed to his involvement with bringing down Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as having the greatest influence. Brody explained that before the Pinochet case, he could not win any of his human rights cases.

“I was used to always being right and losing,” Brody said.

This all changed with the Pinochet case, though. Before 1984, Brody explained that the Chilean people had tried to pursue cases against Pinochet in their own country to no avail, and therefore decided to bring their case to the Spanish courts.

Due to Pinochet’s crimes against humanity, Brody stated that the Spanish judged ruled he was in violation of international law, and could therefore be prosecuted anywhere under universal jurisdiction. Therefore, while Pinochet was in London, Brody said that the Spanish judge sent an INTERPOL arrest warrant, where he was arrested.

“It was one of the most important moments in human rights history,” said Brody, who later came to London to help with the case and ultimately won.

Brody explained that this case motivated him to bring other dictators to justice. He realized that due to dictators having to forfeit their immunity under international law, Brody now had a “tool” to get dictators who appeared “out of the reach of justice.”

Brody’s perusal of dictators has earned him the reputation of the “Dictator Hunter,” which he Brody admitted was both a good and bad nickname.

“My son loves it, he gets to say ‘My dad’s a dictator hunter,’” Brody said. Contrarily, Brody was nervous that the comedic tone of the nickname may undermine the severity and seriousness of his work.

Brody also discussed how other people can peruse activism in the present day. He expressed that there is “greater awareness” in the world today, and a notable rise in activism.

“If it weren’t for the fact that Donald Trump is president, there is a lot of good happening in the United States,” he said.

Brody did say that it is currently a “bad moment,” with a “racist, bully” as president, Putin getting reelected and China having a president for life. He emphasized, though, that optimism is essential in his line of work.

A key theme that Brody stressed throughout the discussion was the need for organization.

“Anyone can be me,” Brody said, “Anyone can be a good activist.” Brody explained that so long as people are organized, any person can produce real and effective change in the world.

Brody’s discussion attracted the attention of Ramapo students and staff alike, producing a full house in the ASB classroom where the discussion took place. Audience members were eager to ask questions, and many stayed back afterward to talk to Brody personally.

Freshman Carlotta Hernandez expressed that she enjoyed the talk, stating that it “gave [her] awareness.” Fellow freshman Deborah Bravo agreed, explaining that the discussion was inspiring to listen to.

She said, "Hearing firsthand experiences from an activist was very eye-opening.”