Monday, May 31, 2010

From Peter Weiss

The Nation
A Human Rights Heroine: Rhonda Copelon
by Peter Weiss

A HUMAN RIGHTS HEROINE: Rhonda Copelon died on May 6 after a four year battle with ovarian cancer. She probably would have died earlier if she had not researched her condition in the same way that she researched her briefs: Thoroughly, creatively and passionately, leaving no stone unturned and no theory unexamined.

In her forty year career, first as a litigator at the Center for Constitutional Rights, then as a professor and founding head of the Women’s International Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School, she established herself as a world class pioneer in the use of law as a tool for exposing grievous wrongs and, sometimes, redressing them. Her work encompassed the whole mottled landscape of human rights, with an emphasis on gender issues. A panorama of her activities would include arguing against the Hyde Amendment in the US Supreme Court, lobbying for the inclusion of rape as a war crime in the Rome Treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, testifying at the “comfort women” tribunal in Tokyo and at the Interamerican Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.

She was the warmest of friends to her large entourage and the steeliest adversary to establishmentarians who did not recognize basic human rights, or, worse in her opinion, recognized them in principle while claiming that the time for their implementation was “not yet”.

She accomplished the impossible: She made justice look easy.

Monday, May 24, 2010

From Lisa Gormley, London

Lisa wrote Rhonda's obituary in The Guardian

Dear friends of Rhonda,

It is such a tremendous loss to us all that Rhonda has died. She was a lighthouse to so many people - it was too soon to lose her. Reading about her life and her work in order to prepare this obituary for the Guardian has brought home to me again and again how much good she did, through her work, her honest, clear appreciation for people, her intellectual bravery, and her kindness.

I send my deepest condolences most of all to those of you in New York who were taking care of Rhonda, with thanks for all that care you gave.

with every good wish to you,

Lisa Gormley

From Dagmar Schultz, Berlin

Dear Rhonda,

Talking to you rather than about you feels right, since our encounter was more personal than related to your professional and political career. We first met in Berlin in the summer of 2007 when you came to attend a conference. You were so interested in my partner Ika’s autobiography and immediately offered your assistance in contacting a publisher in the US. Then our friendship evolved around your health situation. Being a cancer survivor myself and having accompanied Audre Lorde in her naturopathic therapies in Berlin, you trusted asking me for advice at various junctions of your path. Once I visited you in New York in the hospital and tried to convince you to scale down your program for the summer: learning Spanish, counseling a women’s legal aid center in Chile and teaching two courses there at the university. But I soon learned that slowing down was not part of your worldview and that you drew your energies from your active commitments to the causes that were close to your heart.

We shared other things – went to the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, spent time together at Blanche’s and Clare’s, and had a lovely afternoon at the Rubin Museum, where I convinced you to buy a beautiful dresscoat for the ceremony in California where you received a prize. You hesitated, found it too extravagant, but finally bought it, looking great in it. I never heard whether you wore it at that special occasion.

And we shared our love for fotography. I kept sending you fotos I had taken und you responded enthusiastically “oooh dag---these are all gorgeous pictures. you are a spectacular photographer! we should have a show for you here and raise money for your film on Audre’s times in Berlin! i'm not kidding.” I regret though that you never sent me any of your own fotos!

Rhonda, you were, you are, a dear, genuine, loving, brilliant person who has done so much for women in your lifetime! I miss you with so many others. But be sure, your life and your work will be carried on!

Dagmar (Schultz)
Berlin, Germany

Sunday, May 23, 2010

From Rosaline Mcarthy, Sierra Leone

President, Women's Forum at the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service Studio.

May 23, 2010

Dear Friends,
This is just a short note to add our voice at the Womens Forum(Sierra Leone) to the many tributes to Rhonda.  I  met her briefly at the annual meeting of the Coalition in Montreal.  I was really impressd by her output.  It is so sad to lose such a dedicated person. We feel gratifiied though that she was able to share her time and talents for the emancipation of women. We all must continue to promote the cause of women, especially to enhance their unhindered access to justice.

Warm Regards,

Rosaline Mcarthy

Friday, May 21, 2010

From Pat Cain, California

Law professor, Santa Clara University

I will always remember Rhonda as the most tireless champion of justice and of kindness I have ever known. We all have friends we see too infrequently and that was certainly true of me and Rhonda. But then whether in Texas, Iowa, California, or her own territory, New York, it never took more than two seconds to reconnect. Rhonda was always just there – being Rhonda. She made the time of shared friendship stand still. And I had hoped it would stand longer still. She nurtured that hope with her optimism.

I felt the stab of a knife when I first learned of Rhonda’s cancer – a late learning as is often the case with geographically distanced friends. My need to reconnect was immediately met with Rhonda’s need to assure me that she was just fine – something she kept assuring me. And so that is how I will always remember her – exuding tireless energy, whatever the task, and always telling me she is fine. Yes, Rhonda, you are so fine.

Love to all,

Pat Cain

From Navenethem Pillay, South Africa

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, former International Criminal Court Judge and President of the Rwanda Tribunal

Rhonda Copelon was a tireless and inspiring champion of human rights. She was at the forefront of the movement that ensured that the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were translated into practice for women everywhere.

Hers was a life of knowledge, passion and courage, as well as friendship and warmth. Rhonda's talent, expertise, and advocacy led to the successful conclusion of Filartiga v. Pena Irala, a landmark case which provided victims of gross human rights abuses with access to United States courts. She co-founded the International Women's Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School which under her guidance provided amicus briefs for the United Nations international tribunals for cases involving the worst human rights abuses.

As a former President of the International Tribunal for Rwanda, I can testify to the profound importance of this work in defining rape and other gender-based crimes as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Rhonda's efforts through the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice were instrumental in ensuring that the Statute of the nascent International Criminal Court would include a gender sensitive perspective. Before her death, Rhonda created the Rhonda Copelon Fund for Gender Justice at the Center for Constitutional Rights in order to channel the legacy of her gender advocacy.

She will be mourned with profound affection, respect and admiration by many friends, activists and road companions around the world.

Navenethem Pillay
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights

From Susannah Heschel

Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College

Eulogy for Rhonda Copelon at Riverside Memorial Chapel on Friday, 21 May 2010.

From Zazi Sadou (in French)

Zazi of the Algerian Assembly of Democratic Women worked with Rhonda on the war crimes case against the Islamic Salvation Front for fundamentalist attacks on women's rights activists.

Karima bonjour

Je ne sais à quel moment ce message te parviendra. Je ne peux trop dire en ce moment. Je ne maîtrise pas mon émotion, ça déborde. Comme je l'écrivait hier à Lalia suite à son message, j'ai beaucoup trop de mal à dire les choses .. ça viendra sûrement... Je n'imaginais pas cette réaction, moi, qui accumule depuis de si longues années, les "mots" pour rendre hommage à nos cher(e)s disparu(e)s.
Rhonda est partie trop vite ... trop trop vite et c'est une énormeinjustice !

Merci à toi et à Marieme d'avoir la force de témoigner pour nous . Je compte bien avec le concours de Malika et Marieme, organiser un moment de "mémoire" pour mettre en commun toute l'énergie que Rhonda nous a donné durant de longues années.

En partageant le pain et le sel de nos larmes avec elle, en nous nourrissant de son énergie et son incroyable optimisme, elle nous a aidé à survivre et à vivre.

Tu sais toi qui est une enfant de résistant , la valeur symbolique des "porteurs de valises" pour les algériens durant la guerre d'indépendance et bien Rhonda est aussi ce symbole là pour nous qui l'avons connu et pour toutes celles et tous ceux qui ne connaissent que son nom de RHONDA COPELON . Elle est pour nous "la porteuse de Liberté".

Comme on dit chez nous, que sa tête soit légère et que son doux sourire continue de rayonner pour nous, ses soeurs de coeur et de combat.

A très bientôt je le sais pour continuer de "semer" les graines de la Liberté. Je t'embrasse et vous embrasse toutes très fort


Thursday, May 20, 2010

From Sarah Wunsch, Boston

I think of Rhonda taking a sabbatical from CCR and what does she do? She goes off to Maine to learn to build a house. And then she did it, built a house. I think of her with her dog Gracie too. Something feels wrong in the world with Rhonda not in it.

Sarah Wunsch

From Marina Kipnis

International Women's Human Right's law clinic alumnae

I am feeling so shocked right now. I didn't realize that Rhonda was that sick. I cannot believe that she is gone. She was such a kind woman. For all her great work, she was such a humble and gentle person. I loved her so much. It saddens me to think that this world has lost such a special person. I will miss her. It's like losing a mother. Just knowing she is gone makes me feel a deep void inside.

From Malika Zouba, France

An Algerian journalist in France

Dear Charlotte and dear friends,

It is very sad to hear that our beloved Rhonda has passed away. Please accept our sincere and heartfelt condolences on my own behalf and also on behalf of the numerous Algerian women and men who had got to know Rhonda in Paris and Algiers. She visited Algiers twice despite strong warning issued by Western countries against visiting Algeria then still at throes with fundamentalist violence. We will never forget her strong commitment in support of women’s human rights and her standing by our side at a time when fundamentalists were and still are being labeled by mainstream human rights organizations as the only victims. Well before 9/11, Rhonda understood the human rights situation in Algeria and the fundamentalists’ horrendous crimes. With her tenacity, hard work, intelligence, the idea that justice we were unable to seek in our own country could be done elsewhere came into being. Unfortunately, we lost our case against Anwar Haddam, the Islamic Salvation Front leader who eventually secured asylum and found a safe haven in the United States, but Rhonda won everlasting respect and gratitude of those Algerian women and men who will for ever admire her courage and strength. Coming forward she enlightened our path with her amazing human qualities and the seeds she sowed will have for ever Rhonda’s taste.

Thank you Rhonda and may you rest in peace.

Malika Zouba

From Marieme Hélie-Lucas, France

Secularism Is a Woman's Issue and co-founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)

Friends in New York,

I do not know how you are going to organize your gathering for Rhonda tomorrow, but if you decide to read out testimonies, here is my contribution. Lalia sent hers to Ariane and Anissa. Zazi and Malika still feel unable to write at the moment.

But i want all of you to know that on the day Rhonda died, around the very time she was dying, Zazi, Malika and myself sat together in a café in Paris to comfort each other, to share our pain and grief, as well as our love, respect and gratitude for her.

There are three things i want to highlight about Rhonda.

1. The first one is what Rhonda did for us Algerians who fought fundamentalists, and promoted free thought, women's rights, separation of state and religion and democracy - against theocracy.

Rhonda supported us when no one else did, when we were abandonned by all those who should have been our natural allies: the Left / democrats at large, human rights organizations, and even by many feminists. It is still the case today...

We were fighting such a lonely battle that her support went straight to our hearts: you have no idea how many friends Rhonda has in Algeria. And how many people who never met her know her name and what she did.

She had to fight for us within her own group of human rights advocates, to convince her organization, CCR, to defend the victims of fundamentalist non state actors. It was a brave and lonely struggle for her too.

For other human rights organizations, she was largely a traitor.

I like such traitors: the Women in Black in Israel fighting the occupation of Palestine and the militarisation of their country; the Japanese women confronting their Emperor , publicly, in Tokyo, accusing him of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on the so called 'comfort women' during WW II; the women of Belgrade physically and emotionally assisting their sisters in Bosnia and Kosovo against the troops of their own country...

I respect people who are capable of standing alone, against their own people, for what they believe is right. Rhonda thought it was right to defend the women who were attacked by armed fundamentalists in Algeria, and she could see that main stream human rights organisations were not doing that.

She took the risk to confront in a US court Anouar Haddam, the ex-FIS and GIA leader who condonned so many crimes and violations in Algeria. I must tell you that i was, we were , afraid for her safety and that one of the things that came to my mind when she was dying was that 'they' could not make her pay for her support to us, not anymore - Strange thoughts one has in those moments...

2. The second thing Rhonda did for Algerian feminists, she did it without knowing. But i am immensely grateful for it.

She was everything young people, in a post independance Algeria influenced by growing fundamentalism, have been taught to despise and hate, or at the very least to keep much distance from : she was white, she was an American, she was a Jew and she was a lesbian: the perfect ennemy ! Algerian feminists and democrats had to face the fact that it was she - and she alone - who was defending us and taking risks and working like a dog for us, when others who were neither Jews, nor lesbians, nor US citizens - and sometimes not even whites ! - were letting us down.

She was working tirelessly when she came to meet victims of fundamentalists in Algeria, she was entirely involved with them, devoted to the anti fundamentalist cause. She understood exactly what it was about. She would exhaust, drain people who accompanied and protected her during these visits - an experience that many in the USA share with us , no doubt ! ( I have fond memories of all of us getting nuts under Rhonda's intellectual pressure during the preparation of the statutes of the International Criminal Court !)

Well, thanks to Rhonda being who she was, friends in Algeria , both men and women, had to quietly reconsider a lot of their prejudices, and this is a major - albeit probably unconscious - contribution of Rhonda to the enlightenment of the Algerian feminist and democratic movement.

3. The third thing is a lesson in the love for life , the art of living, that i received from her in the last weeks and days of her life. It stays in my heart that she wanted to go again to Long Island and watch the sun set on her favorite beach, that she wanted to go back to New York and to the Opera, that she wanted her bed by the window to have a view on the river in her Manhattan apartment... that she wanted to die surrounded by friends, flowers, conversation and music. What a lesson ! Her last gift.


From Liz Wood

Remembering Rhonda's 2008 trip to Sanibel Island, Florida

Dear Blanche and Clare,

I can't stop thinking about Rhonda. I barely knew her, yet she was indelible, unforgettable, I think because of her love of life and being alive. The image that haunts me is being in the airport after we had all had our new year vacation at Sanibel Island. You two had started the shell collecting hunt, and there we all were, heading home, and she came to us one by one with a special shell - for remembrance, I am now convinced. I have mine, together with the jar of shells you made for us, and I shall forever see in them: Rhonda, so alive and happy to be with all of us, so fully alive as if she'd never heard of illness or cancer or weakness or despair. She brought that kind of fearlessness to her pathbreaking work as well. A stunning clarity and courage.

Liz Wood

From Ann Cammett

January 9, 2009

Ann Cammett: Society of American Law Teachers Introduction of Rhonda Copelon

Good evening. My name is Ann Cammett and I am a new law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law. Before I begin my remarks I also want to extend my congratulations to another deserving awardee, Steve Wizner, for his receipt of SALT’s Great Teacher Award.

Tonight I have a unique opportunity to offer a few words of introduction for an extraordinary woman, Rhonda Copelon. I do this at my first Society of American Law Teachers dinner in a space filled with fellow travelers, so to speak, which only compounds my joy in this honor. I am delighted that you have had the good judgment to honor Rhonda – one of the most thoughtful, creative, and generous people that I have ever known.

In just a few minutes you’ll hear from Charlotte Bunch – an incredible activist in her own right – who will comment on Rhonda’s incalculable contributions to the field of International Women’s Human Rights. My task here is a more modest, but I believe important one: a story about one activist teacher’s profound influence on another, and I’m sure that in the telling I am channeling the story of a hundred others.

As SALT represents “a community of progressive law teachers working for justice, diversity, and academic excellence” I can think of no more appropriate place to make these remarks as I trace my desire to become a law professor to Rhonda’s unique style of mentoring.

Let me start back in the 1990s, when I was a student at CUNY Law School and fortuitously landed in Rhonda’s Constitutional Family Law class. At CUNY, unlike other law schools, family law is a required course. That turns out to have been a true benefit to me, as I ultimately became a family lawyer working with women in prison.

Now: Rhonda’s class was fascinating and as you would imagine, often controversial. She had already established herself as a special Supreme Court litigator in reproductive rights cases and all the movements for gender equality, arguing such cases as Harris v. McCrae, which challenged the cutoff of Medicaid funds for abortion. Rhonda’s cases always focused on improving conditions for those most at risk as there was often an economic justice component to her work, and I truly admired that.

During one law school class in particular I was in for a treat when she delivered a lecture essentially equating the institution of marriage with slavery. Even the most stalwart young feminists squirmed in their seats as it appeared that she had shot a thunderbolt through their most core belief systems. But in Rhonda’s inimitable soft-spoken (barely audible style), she continued to in a non-polemical way deconstruct the institution of marriage and challenge heteronormativity, and moreover - push people to think of the family as a political unit like any other where specific rights and responsibilities countenanced by society – i.e. a feminist analysis of marriage.

I chuckled in the back of the class as the classroom drama unfolded, and Rhonda quietly calmly engaged the students, without a trace of defensiveness. Needless to say I was impressed, and resolved to work with this woman. Luckily, she soon asked me to be her teaching assistant.

Now, most of you here who know Rhonda also know that being a teaching assistant isn’t just being a teaching assistant, right? In essence, it’s like signing up for a lifetime commitment to Rhonda’s global social justice juggernaut!

Once she gets her hooks in you it’s all over. The good fortune for those who work with her is not just that you benefit from Rhonda’s passion, creative thinking and generosity of spirit, it is also that you are instantly connected to a (literally) global network of activists that provide more than just camaraderie, but who offer support to each other year after year of grueling, tireless and often thankless work. But no one works harder than Rhonda, which is why it is so easy to be caught up in her orbit… There is always an injustice to tackle around the corner.

So, this is how an exchange with Rhonda might typically work: the phone rings; “hi darling it’s Rhonda”; “hi Rhonda”; “Listen, I have an idea. I think we should [fill in the blanks]”; uh oh. [Laughter] You know when you hear the royal “we” that what comes next will likely involve significant work or a commitment of some kind. In fact when you first got the phone call, Rhonda had some sort of hairbrained scheme, which through her intense hard work and imagination, somehow magically morphed into what will later be referred to as “creative litigation.” But one of her talents is being able to see talent in other people and to help them to utilize their talents in the best possible way, and to bring them along with her… I’ve had the benefit of her sage personal and professional advice ever since I was her teaching assistant at CUNY Law School. I am the richer for it.

I’ve learned three important things from working with Rhonda:

1) Don’t let the current state of the law or your circumstances limit you. Because she fails to be limited in her approach, she is not afraid to take chances. So the first thing you learn is not to be limited in your own approach to achieving a goal. If the federal courts are inhospitable to civil rights, pursue the fight for justice under the rubric of international law… For activist lawyers this is an incredibly important lesson. The political landscape is constantly changing and being effective in social justice work depends upon your ability to become a shapeshifter.

2) Patience: The second thing you learn is to have plenty of time, flexibility, and a sense of humor. [Laughter] Know that she will be late, engaged in six other activities on the way, exasperate you with the variety of angles that she MUST review a problem. But when she is with you she is completely with you and often way ahead of the curve on many issues.

3) Finally, Rhonda was my model of how to be an activist law teacher. I was a veteran activist before law school and would have been a social justice lawyer in any event. That’s just what some of us must do. But in thinking about Rhonda and what I learned from her, I am reminded of Toni Cade Bambara saying, “What is the work that you want your work to do?”

What Rhonda offered to me is a model of how one could continue to important work in the world, do scholarship that had meaning (in that it served to improve people’s lives); and inspire students, should they choose to, find their own way to make a contribution. And, as it turns out, it has been a good fit for me. But then again, Rhonda knew that back in the day, before I could see it, when she commandeered me into being her teaching assistant – and to my joy – a beloved friend.

I want to close by saying this: It is a rare gift to be able to publically honor someone that has meant as much as Rhonda has meant to me personally, philosophically, and professionally. I may have had the inclination to be an activist law professor, but Rhonda gave me the tools to make it happen and for that I’ll forever be grateful. Thank you Rhonda from the bottom of my heart, and congratulations on a much-deserved honor.

From Lalia Ducos (in French)

Lalia of the Women's Initiative for Citizenship and Universal Rights (WICUR) received Rhonda in Paris when she was starting to look for the witnesses in the case against the Islamic Salvation Front.

Mes chères amies,

Rhonda nous a quittés. Ces quelques mots sont tombés comme un couperet. Je ne veux pas m’appesantir sur la brulure que j’ai dans la poitrine.

Aujourd’hui, je voudrais seulement vous dire à vous toutes qui l’avez accompagnée jusqu’au bout, combien nous nous sentons proches de vous.

Pendant des années, j’ai connu Rhonda Copelon à travers son engagement politique. Avocate de renom, elle a été une remarquable défenseure des Droits des Femmes. En tant qu’Algérienne, je lui suis infiniment reconnaissante pour son soutien quand nous luttions contre les intégristes islamistes, aux moments les plus dures de l’histoire de la décennie noire. Grâce à son travail, nous avons pu dénoncer ANNOUR HADDAM, comme étant le commanditaire de bien des crimes des Groupes Islamistes Armés , en Algérie.

En 2005, Marième me propose de rencontrer Rhonda à Paris et m’apprend que Rhonda souhaitait visiter le jardin de MONET à Auvers sur Oise. J’avoue que j’étais assez intimidée à l’idée de me retrouver avec une personne aussi renommée! Selim-Jean Paul , mon mari ,et moi décidons d’emmener Rhonda visiter le jardin et la maison de Monet.

Dès notre rencontre, nous avons eu l’impression d’avoir toujours connu Rhonda. Sa simplicité, son regard franc et rieur nous ont vite séduits et nous nous sommes retrouvés comme des amis de longue date. Pendant que Sélim –JP conduisait et qu’il cherchait un peu sa route en « râlant »,( le GPS, n’existait pas encore !) Rhonda et moi admirions le paysage magnifique du Vexin ; je me moquais de l’impatience de mon mari et Rhonda riait.

La visite du jardin et de la maison de Monet fut un véritable bonheur. Nous redécouvrions ce lieu magnifique avec les yeux de Rhonda. Tout l’émerveillait ! Depuis ce jour, Rhonda Copelon est devenue pour Selim et moi Rhonda. C’est ce souvenir des quelques moments de vrai plaisir partagé avec elle, qui resteront gravés à jamais, que j’évoque aujourd’hui avec vous.

Merci à vous toutes.

Lalia et Sélim-Jean Paul

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

From Kristen Timothy

I was so saddened to learn of Rhonda's passing after her valiant fight with cancer. I admired Rhonda profoundly for her commitment and dedication to bringing about real change for women in the field of human rights. Her energy and ability to act strategically combined with her legal knowledge will be sorely missed as will her persistent enthusiasm for the cause...

Thanks to all who were by her side to comfort her.

Kristen Timothy

From Sharon Thompson, Maine

I'm no gardener & I'm not religious. But after Rhonda told me she had ovarian cancer, I found myself outside on my knees planting lavender, thinking I'm doing this in remembrance of her, and feeling that I understood the last-supper request Jesus made of his friends for the first time. No founding of a church, no crusades. Just sharing bread and wine and memories.

So many wonderful things come to mind to do in memory of Rhonda:

pluck hot wild raspberries along a path or roadside; sit still & quiet on a beach or mountaintop at sunset or dawn; make things last, use them broken; plant flowers, ideas, friendships; let piles of papers and laundry accumulate rather than leave important work half-done or miss the chance for time with friends; check the I Ching and remember perseverance furthers all; play Scrabble as if life depends on it; anagram the words on shampoo bottles; mix things up like the alphabet – people, ideas, plans; when someone expresses shame or fear, take their hands & say, "you're just like me;" chomp aromatic take-out in movies, fall asleep, wake up with a start, asking, "what's happening?"; love women; go way out of the way to visit gardens; in restaurants, ask, "and how is it prepared?" about each item on a lengthy menu, then order what you wanted all along & talk a friend into splitting it; grab every chance to take a boat – ferries, circle lines, kayaks, canoes; sing at the top of your lungs, pitch no object; point beauty out; shake & shout good ideas until they sharpen, multiply, deepen, and spread; contest bias until prejudice itself gives up in exhaustion; swim in salt water; start work before dawn, keep going into the wee hours of the night, then catch 40 snoring winks whenever time's wasting – in seminars, meetings, movies, plays, operas, on buses, trains, planes; arrive late rather than not at all; befriend women; speak truth to power and to everyone else you can buttonhole; fit as much as possible in, then more; drink red wine, eat brie, bluefish; shop for bargains & buy lots so there's always enough to share; fight for women; prioritize people, politics, and pleasure over utility bills & taxes; put anger & joy alike to work for social justice; do everything possible, then more; treasure cantankerous as well as easy friends; let grudges fall away; pass things on – ideas, bargains, knowledge, inspiration, love; eat bread and work and drink wine with friends as long as you can; then tell everyone who loves you it's all right, you've done your work & enjoyed your share; take a last deep breath and let go. . . . .

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

From Charlotte Bunch

May 18, 2010

Rhonda Copelon—An Architect of Feminist Human Rights Law

By Charlotte Bunch

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.

Rhonda Copelon, 1944 to 2010

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.”

From Linda Stein

Spring 2010

Rhonda Copelon and her Global Family of Friends
by Linda Stein

On May 6, 2010, pioneering human rights attorney, Rhonda Copelon, CUNY School of Law professor and Vice-President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) died at age 65, after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer.

Copelon was noted for her key role in the landmark human rights case, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, establishing that victims of gross human rights abuses committed abroad had recourse to U.S. courts. She was a champion of women’s reproductive health and argued to the U.S. Supreme Court, Harris v. McRae, for the overturning of the Hyde Amendment that denied women Medicaid reimbursement for abortion, a position rejected by a narrow margin.

She helped open U.S. courts to victims of international abuses, especially cases involving violence against women, and argued forcefully and creatively for women's reproductive rights.

In the weeks before her death, Copelon announced the establishment of the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice at CCR for which she has provided the seed funding. A contributor to On the Issues Magazine, Copelon, was beloved by her students and clients, helping them personally as well as professionally. Her friends reached across many continents and, in the end, gave back to Copelon the extraordinary love, caring and support she so generously bestowed on others.

Rhonda Copelon was a role model of integrity, strength, intelligence and perseverance.

© Linda Stein, All proceeds from the sale of Copelon portrait (based on a photo by Jim Block) will go directly to the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice, under the auspices of the Center for Constitutional Rights. To purchase a portrait, go to and scroll down to the Copelon portrait.

Linda Stein is art editor of On The Issues Magazine.

From Kathy Engel

May 7, 2010

Dear beautiful loving Anita.

Thinking of you. And the amazing Rhonda. I met her in about 1980 and she was a force. And continued to be. Saw her at a yard sale a couple of months ago, beautiful and thin.

I've known Rhonda since my early twenties. I remember at that time Vivian talking about "those amazing CCR women."

I'll never forget when Rhonda took a group to Nicaragua and then came to meet with us in the MADRE office. She was so open, ready, humble.

With all that she did she always wanted to know how each member of the family was, seemed overflowing with interest and joie de vivre.

I know you were there with her and for her. And being there means everything. This is so sad. Just wanted to send you my love and gratitude.

hugs, Kathy

From Florence Butegwa, Ethiopia

Dear Friends,

Thank you so much for sharing with us the sad news of Rhonda's death. And thank you for being there for her throughout the difficult as well as the good times.

Many of us were touched by Rhonda as a gentle but strong advocate for women's rights, and do remember the sisterhood and leadership in working with her.


Florence Butegwa
Representative to the African Union and UNECA
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

Monday, May 17, 2010

From Vahida Nainar, India

Remembering Rhonda…

It’s a week since my friend Rhonda Copelon passed away. I am asked to write a few words to commemorate her in India but find it difficult to talk about her in the past tense. I am still grappling with it. Since it was known for sometime that the end was near, I thought I was prepared for the news and I was… for the first couple of days. With each passing day since, I am having trouble as the news sinks in. That there was no one around with a common history with her when the news came in made it more difficult. Email and skype have their own limitations and virtual hugs can only go this far. As I read through the trajectory of Rhonda’s life, the sense is not only one of profound loss but of overall restlessness, the reasons for which may have to do with the realization of my own shortcomings and lost opportunities with her.

The obituaries describe Rhonda’s significant lifetime achievements and the importance of her work protecting and promoting constitutional rights and gender justice. I am awe-struck and feel privileged to have known her. The privilege began with an opportunity to work together, which evolved to a beautiful friendship. There are a number of things that is uniquely Rhonda that made her who she was and what she did in her lifetime.

To me, the one word that describes Rhonda’s activism, advocacy and commitment to gender justice is: relentless. If Rhonda engaged with an issue, she would keep going at it until the desired result is achieved or until the issue itself gives up i.e. it no longer remains an issue or somehow becomes moot. She did not quite hear or understand a ‘no.’ Indeed, she gave it her own interpretation which was often - ‘not now,’ ‘not in this form,’ ‘not at this forum,’ ‘not with this set of people’ – thus always keeping open the possibility of over time turning a ‘confirmed no’ to a reluctant, skeptical, tired, convinced or an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ I recall delegates at the various United Nations preparatory committee meetings during the advocacy of gender issues in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court seek her out as an authority when they wanted to inform themselves or escape her from afar when what she sought them out for was too ahead of their time.

Rhonda’s brilliant legal mind inspired most of us who worked with her. It was a mind that often read into existing legal texts, judgments and decisions, treaties and conventions, the possibility of justice for women where its plain reading suggested otherwise. Observing her argue domestic violence or rape as torture; or evaluate evidence for violations under the Alien Tort Claims Act has been an invaluable education. It was nothing short of a performance by a magician - a powerful exercise of looking at an issue from all angles, sometimes even out-arguing herself leaving some of us completely bewildered. At the end of such marathon discussion however, we had not only covered all possible grounds but had also done it within the framework, the limitations, the challenges of the letter and the spirit of law. Friends in India would recall Rhonda’s brilliance, relentlessness and passion for justice as she visited Gujarat in 2002 as a panelist of the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat.

When one describes the life work of someone who has achieved a lot and has made a huge difference in their area of work, one often uses the words ‘selfless and untiring.’ Untiring Rhonda most certainly was – the woman was a ball of energy, the source of which remains unknown. Those who sat with her through any of the long work sessions would know how everybody in the team would end up exhausted, hungry and tired except for Rhonda who would be full of energy, ready to take a stab at the next issue. But selfless she was not – she was selfish, ambitious, personal and passionate about the issues she was involved in. Those who worked with her would second my view if they were part of some of the famous heated discussion that ended up with people walking out. Indeed, I wonder if selflessness in engagement with social issues is not overrated. It has sometimes led to a sense of having sacrificed for ‘others,’ lacking in ownership of the issue and the drive to see things through its logical conclusion. I for one therefore believe that it is Rhonda’s relentless, selfish pursuit of justice, of the goals she believed in; her personal and passionate involvement in the causes she espoused that is responsible for her achievements and the success of many of the initiatives she was associated with.

Knowing and working with Rhonda has been an ongoing and an endless learning experience that I was lucky to have. Being a friend I may have taken her for granted for I do not even know the full extent of her achievements and influence – something I am only beginning to know from all the obituaries that are pouring in. I feel a deep sense of gratitude that she entered my life as a rare gift and influenced it in many unimaginable ways. The precious memories that I cherish of Rhonda would always remain personal – her kindness and generosity, the long walks at the Noyac beach, the drives to her beautiful country home, the numerous memorable dinners that she cooked, the warm welcome by her incredible network of amazing friends, the crazy ‘Rhonda stories,’ the millennium new year’s eve, the 2004 World Social Forum, her stay at my apartment in Bombay, and most of all her belief in me; her personal support, encouragement and nurturing that helped make something out of this rookie from India. The incredible thing is that I am only one of the many women for who she opened her heart and her home. With her immense energy and enthusiasm, she similarly touched and influenced the lives of many women around the world. Finally, I will cherish the rare (coming from her) last two-words in an email I received a week before she passed away – ‘bless you’ and I had not even sneezed. I feel blessed.

Vahida Nainar

From Temma Kaplan

I am so sorry about Rhonda's death and my inability to respond before now. I first met Rhonda as part of a delegation of "lawyers, writers, and a judge," invited by Amnlae to discuss women's issues with the Sandanistas and liberation priests since the Bertha Calderon hospital kept 15 beds a day available for women with miscarriages out of a population of 1.5 million in Managua. We quickly became known as the abortion group and after our return raised money to purchase a vacuum machine to aid in abortions. Rhonda was a guiding force of that group as with so many of the efforts to achieve women's rights internationally. Even those of us who admired her from afar will miss her courage, persistence, and creativity.


Saturday, May 15, 2010

From Dale McCormick, Maine

Director of Maine Housing, led the women's housebuilding course that Rhonda took and came down from time to time to help her build the Noyac house.

I have wonderful memories of working on the Noyac house with Rhonda. Actually, working on the roof one day when it was foggy and we were puzzling over a particularly vexing problem that only roofs can present was when the phrase "lifting the clarity fog" was born. Another tradeswoman from NYC whose name I can't remember who was there with us helped birth the phrase. It took all three of us to figure out the solution and then...the clarity fog lifted. We loved our solution, the phrase, and praised our intelligence all the while laughing so hard we almost fell off the roof.

I still use it. I don't know if Rhonda did.

Friday, May 14, 2010

From Andrew Fields

Greeting and Congratulations to the members of the Class of 2010, and to Family, Friends, Staff, Faculty, Administrators, and Fellow Travelers

I am Andrew Fields and I have had the great privilege, honor, and pleasure of teaching for the past 8 years with Professor Rhonda Copelon in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic.

It is a great honor then, albeit one taken at a time of great sadness, to be here today to address you on the occasion of this honor being bestowed upon Professor Copelon or, as we knew her, Rhonda.

While some of you knew Rhonda even before she came to this Law School, many of you are learning of her only today. Whichever category you fall into, your life has been touched by Rhonda.

You may have been touched by the love and caring you shared with Rhonda as her student, colleague, comrade, or friend.

If you didn’t know Rhonda personally, you nonetheless have been touched by her many accomplishments.

Indeed, the world has been made a safer place for all of us by the paradigm shift in human rights law and international criminal law, instigated in part by Rhonda’s work, that recognizes the universal prohibition against sexual and gender violence, whether perpetrated by armed combatants or by our intimates in our homes.

When Rhonda received the M. Shanara Gilbert Human Rights Award from the Society of American Law Teachers, she noted that awards - such as the one you bestow today - are a form of theft. As Rhonda explained, the award has been given to her but:

“We all know it takes not only a good dose of serendipity, but also a village and even a global movement—at least in the field of social justice and women's rights—to make change.”

With this in mind, then, I first want to acknowledge that all of the accomplishments for which Rhonda is being recognized today were done in collaboration with and with the assistance of so many of you. Most especially, the insight, hard work, sacrifices, and patience of the many generations of students and staff in the IWHR Clinic was integral to the accomplishments for which Rhonda is being recognized today.

This is also a good point to emphasize that Rhonda was every bit as committed as a teacher as she was committed to changing the world. She was tireless in her efforts to promote students, their understanding, and their work and these efforts knew no boundaries.

I spent some time with Rhonda just a few days before her death and, recognizing that she would not be here today, she asked me to relate a message with her advice for leading a well-lived life.

But before I relate the message, I want to challenge some of the assumptions you may be making at the moment. With all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds this graduation, and with the reverence that we bestow upon someone who has recently passed away, and with Rhonda’s world-changing accomplishments, how can it be that Rhonda’s suggestions for a well-lived life have any relevance to us who are far less perfect?

Now those of you who knew Rhonda don’t need me to tell you that if all people have their complications and contradictions, then someone as great as Rhonda most assuredly must have had some pretty great complications and contradictions. And this, of course, is true. For example:

-Rhonda’s thinking was years if not decades ahead of her time. Yet she was always late for meetings.

-Rhonda has literally changed the world, but she never could figure out how to change the ringer setting on her mobile phone so it wouldn’t go off at inopportune moments.

-And Rhonda, who was so committed to the importance of process as a means of limiting power and thereby ensuring fairness, somehow could never limit her remarks to the time prescribed by that process. [And so, if I go over my allotted three minutes, know that I do it with Rhonda close to my heart].

As I return to sharing Rhonda’s message, know that she was as normal and complicated as the rest of us, and and therefore her advice is not tarnished by greatness but rather is equally relevant to all of us.

Rhonda explained that looking back at her life, she was comforted and satisfied because she felt that her life was well-lived. A life-well lived, she explained, was one marked by purpose and a search for meaning. And, she explained, there were two hallmarks to a well-lived life: your relationships and your life-work.

The nature and quality of the relationships that you cultivate during your life are key to a well-lived life because it is through these relationships that you will be able to effect positive change within yourself, in the many communities in which you participate, and in the broader world. Rhonda urged that “you find colleagues for life and join together in your search for meaning.”

Rhonda included among her significant relationships those with her friends, her colleagues, her intimates, those with whom she fought for social change, and, importantly, the students (and graduates) of this Law School.

While the ingredients in any successful relationship are complex, the success of Rhonda’s relationships were based in large part on respect and love.

Rhonda was a feminist and an activist at heart, and she brought this to her roles as a lawyer, a scholar, and a teacher. Her life work included combating entrenched and long-standing assumptions about gender that created, perpetuated, and protected an unjust distribution of power and resources to the detriment of all people. As Rhonda would tell you, rigid and constricted notions of gender limit the freedom of all, even as these limitations are most conspicuously experienced by women, girls, and by those of us who live at odds with those assumptions about gender.

Rhonda’s advice was that you will find meaning and satisfaction through choosing a path of life work that has meaning for you and the communities around you.

Rhonda’s life work was difficult and constantly being challenged, but Rhonda was successful in large part because the relationships that surrounded her made that work enjoyable and sustainable. And just as the people around Rhonda sustained her through her life-work, so too did she - with unbounded love and commitment - sustain those around her.

In this time of “me, me, me,” Rhonda’s advice sounds like such a difficult task - to find and cultivate relationships that can sustain you through the difficult life paths you have chosen as public interest lawyers and as activists committed to important social change. But you are already well on your way. Just look around you, at the people seated throughout this auditorium. These are the people who will support you, sustain you, and challenge you, as you do your glorious life-work.

This is a community that sustained Rhonda through her life-work, and it will sustain you through yours. Good luck!

From Sangeeta Budhiraja & Irene Schneeweis

Sangeeta is Program Officer and Irene is Communications Manager at the Ms. Foundation.

Honoring Rhonda Copelon, Tireless Advocate for Women's Human Rights

It is unbelievable to have lost three phenomenal women activists in such a short time, each of whom played her own inimitable role in the struggle for social justice and women’s human rights. Having just mourned the passing of Wilma Mankiller and Dorothy Height, we now share our deep sadness for the loss of another: Rhonda Copelon.

Rhonda Copelon, international human rights lawyer, activist and professor -- and our dear friend and mentor -- died of cancer on May 6, 2010.

It is nearly impossible to catalogue all of Rhonda’s characteristics and accomplishments: her creative, brilliant use of the law; her precedent-setting arguments in international human rights and US cases on behalf of women and countless others whose rights are routinely abused; her insistence on the need to address the intersecting impact of race, class, gender, religion and sexuality on our lives.

It is also hard to adequately recount her spirit, which enabled her to fight for so many for so long, to captivate the minds of her students and colleagues, and as demonstrated in a now-infamous story, race 45 minutes to work in her car with the driver’s side door missing because she just couldn’t say no -- to her students, to a friend in need, to the movement.

Rhonda was particularly well known for her role in two key Supreme Court cases, both of which happened to be decided on the same day, June 30, 1980: Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, a landmark case which established that victims of gross human rights abuses committed abroad had recourse to US Courts, and Harris v. McRae, where in an unsuccessful outcome, the Court narrowly upheld the Hyde Amendment -- a law which, as the nation was reminded during the recent health-care reform debate, continues to prohibit federal funding for nearly all abortions.

Later on, as a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, she and her students submitted amicus briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia that resulted in the recognition of rape as a crime of genocide and torture in international law.

Rhonda was less well known, but should’ve received equal praise, for yet another feat: in arguing Harris v. McRae in 1980, she became the first woman to wear a pants suit before the Supreme Court.

In her 40-year career as a feminist, social justice attorney, Rhonda was a founding faculty member of the CUNY School of Law, co-founder of the school’s International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, co-founder of the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice, and a trailblazing attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights.

But Rhonda’s greatest gifts were those that couldn't be captured in any title. She was at heart always a teacher, a believer in and a champion for younger generations of activists. She had unwavering faith in her students, in their own intellectual potential and passion for social justice. And she believed wholeheartedly in activism for progressive change -- hard-fought, sometimes won, and always worth the effort.

Rhonda’s passing is a loss for all of us: her family, friends, students and colleagues, the global women’s movement and the field of international human rights.

We will miss her dearly. We will continue to learn from her always.

Posted on the Ms. Foundation's blog at

From the Coalition for the International Criminal Court

Note on the passing of Ms. Rhonda Copelon, Champion for Human Rights

The Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC) is saddened to learn of the passing of Ms. Rhonda Copelon on 6 May, 2010 in New York City. Rhonda Copelon, an inspirational feminist human rights lawyer, was one of the Co-Founders of the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice (WCGJ).

Current vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and a professor at the City University of New York School of Law at Queens College, Ms. Copelon played a major role in several groundbreaking cases in US Courts, including one that allowed victims of abuses in other countries to seek justice in American tribunals. In her long career- of more than 40 years- she worked on cases involving gender-based violence, racial discrimination, government wiretapping, job discrimination and abortion rights. She filed amicus briefs in cases before the UN ad hoc tribunals that contributed to recognition in international law of rape as a crime of genocide and torture.

In 1997 Copelon co-founded the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice in the International Criminal Court (WCGJ), one organization member of the Steering Committee for the CICC. The WCGJ coordinated an effort with partners across the globe ensuring that the Rome Statute was written to take gender into account concerning the crimes, procedure and evidence and composition of the Court and personnel. In particular, as a result of her tireless passion and work with partnering organizations, the ICC codified sexual and gender crimes as being part of their jurisdiction.

"The CICC Sends its most sincere condolences. Rhonda Copelon will be missed, but her work and idealism are enshrined in the Rome Statute and n so many legal rights causes that she led," said William Pace, convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. "Rhonda's passing is a huge loss for the global human rights community."

Copelon was a member of CARASA, the National Jury Project, the NARAL Board, Feminist and Gay/Lesbian roundtables, and Human Rights Watch, Women's Rights Advisory Board. She was also a member of the National Lawyers Guild, and on Boards of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

From LACWHN, Chile

A Tribute to Our Sister, Rhonda Copelon

Well-known feminist lawyer Rhonda Copelon passed away in New York, on May 6, 2010, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Despite her serious illness, Rhonda had continued her dedicated efforts to protect and promote the human rights of women and girls and to reject all forms of sexist violence, regardless of its source.

Rhonda Copelon Rhonda shared her experience and wisdom with many human rights projects that made history in the defense of the status of women. She helped write the first draft of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent, Punish and Eradicate Violence Against Women (the Convention of Belem do Pará) and thanks to her tireless efforts the International Criminal Court (ICC) included sexual and gender crimes as being part of its jurisdiction.

For over three decades, Rhonda taught law at the City University of New York, training thousands of lawyers with a perspective of gender justice and an understanding of universal human rights. She was also the Vice-President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a U.S. organization that defends and promotes civil rights. In the United States, Rhonda is recognized for her key role in a civil suit in the early 1970s that paved the way for victims of human rights abroad to be able to seek justice in U.S. courts. She was also a steadfast supporter of the right to freedom of reproductive choice and fought for the health system to cover the cost of abortion procedures.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Rhonda supported the struggles of women to live free from violence. She worked closely with many well-known feminists of our region, including Alda Facio, María Suárez, Ana Elena Obando, and with our colleagues at Radio Internacional Feminista/Feminist International Radio Endeavour, who have planned a special virtual tribute to their lifelong friend.

This is a very sad moment for the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network. We have lost a close friend who generously collaborated with our publications, the Women’s Health Journal and the Women’s Health Collection, sharing her knowledge and opinions on the ethical, philosophical and political value of sexual and reproductive rights in many articles and interviews. Since the earliest days of the Network, Rhonda had been a very dear friend of Amparo Claro, LACWHN’s first General Coordinator.

On her last visit to Chile, Rhonda gave a special lecture on human rights law. Her visit coincided with the session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hear testimony in the suit against Mexico for the cases of feminicide committed in a cotton field outside of Ciudad Juárez. In her usual calm but relentless style, Copelon testified as an expert in the case, arguing that the longstanding failure to investigate, prosecute or prevent the crimes in this case violated Mexico’s obligations under international human rights law. The final ruling on the Campo Algodonero case found Mexico responsible and clearly reflected the arguments set out in Rhonda’s testimony.

The memory of Rhonda Copelon will live on in all those who are committed to human rights and gender justice.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

From Meredith Tax

Saturday, May 8, 2010 - 21:51

Remembering Rhonda Copelon: Sept. 15, 1944—May 6, 2010
Posted on Meredith Tax's Blog

I met Rhonda Copelon in 1977, when Congress passed the Hyde Amendment, making it impossible for poor women to get abortions on Medicaid. A group of New York feminists came together to figure out how to fight this ban. Many of us did not want to treat abortion as an isolated issue as previous feminists had done; we also wanted a broader platform than the radical feminist slogan of “abortion on demand” or the evasive language of “choice.” We wanted to defend a woman’s right to resist forced pregnancy, but we also wanted to defend her right to have children, which was threatened by sterilization abuse, particularly in poor minority communities, and undermined by the absence of a strong economic and social safety net. We formed CARASA, the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, and by the nineties our multi-issue approach—which turned out to be similar to that of many women in other parts of the world—had become “reproductive rights, ” an essential part of the program of the global women’s movement.

Rhonda was one of the most remarkable of the extraordinary group of women who made up the founding cadre of CARASA. She had the tenacity of a bulldog—once she set her mind to a question, she did not stop chewing on it until she had extracted every ramification and strategic implication. Then she would start talking, in her sweet soft relentless little voice, until she had convinced everyone of the way to go. She combined enormous intellectual sweep and persuasive power with tireless energy and an incredible memory for detail. In fact, Rhonda made everything seem so clear and reasonable I couldn’t imagine how any court could resist her arguments.
She was already a wellknown attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights by the time I met her; now, in response to the Hyde Amendment, the CCR, together with the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, filed a class action suit seeking an injunction against the new Medicaid rules. The Harris vs. McRae case argued that the Hyde Amendment denied poor women equal protection under the law and that it eroded the separation of church and state because the Catholic Church was so instrumental in its passage. Under the Constitution, Rhonda argued, it is impermissible to prefer the potential life of a fetus to the health and life of a pregnant woman.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled against her, 5-4, saying that a woman's freedom of choice did not carry with it "a constitutional entitlement to the financial resources to avail herself of the full range of protected choices." In other words, equal protection of the law only applied to those with enough money to pay for their own abortions.

At the same time Rhonda was working on abortion rights, she and Peter Weiss, another CCR attorney, were developing Filártiga v. Peña-Irala, a case that revolutionized international human rights law. This case came out of Paraguay, then under the rule of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, who exercised power for 35 years using the usual methods of dictators. In 1976, seventeen year old Joelito Filártiga was abducted from his school, tortured and killed. When his family sued Peña, the chief of police responsible, in Paraguay, their attorney was arrested and later disbarred. In 1978, Dolly Filártiga, Joelito’s sister, came to the US and got political asylum. When she learned that Peña-Irala was also here, on a tourist visa, she went to the CCR, who sued for damages for Joelito’s wrongful death.

Rhonda kept talking about the case, but it was almost impossible for me to believe that she could pull off something like this. How could a US court have jurisdiction in a crime committed by a foreign national in another country? Rising to the challenge, Rhonda and Peter Weiss found an obscure law passed to protect foreigners in the early days of the republic, the Alien Torts law of 1789, which said
"The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” They argued that torture was a violation of human rights so despicable that those who practiced it became the enemies of all humankind and therefore could be sued in any country. The US district court agreed and they won.

This visionary case opened up a whole new area of international human rights law. Since 1993, US lawyers have filed 29 cases in US courts seeking to hold US corporations responsible for violations of human rights in other countries. Indeed, one can say that Rhonda’s 1980 case set the precedent for such milestones as the trial of Pinochet in Spain, and the establishment of international tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

In 1983, Rhonda became a founding faculty member of the new City University of New York law school, whose mission is to train students in human rights and poor people’s law. There she set up the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic in 1992
to teach the next generations of human rights lawyers how to integrate gender into their work. In the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic, students do both litigation and advocacy, locally and globally, in conjunction with women's and LGBTQ advocates, human rights lawyers, and grass-roots organizations in the United States and abroad. The CCR’s obituary describes the groundbreaking work that came out of the clinic:

Under her leadership, CUNY Law’s IWHR clinic enabled students and activists around the world to participate in a range of precedent-setting legal and advocacy campaigns. For example, IWHR’s amicus briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia resulted in the recognition in international law of rape as a crime of genocide and torture. IWHR’s work with the United Nation’s Committee against Torture, and other international bodies, contributed to the recognition that gender crimes, such as domestic and other forms of gender violence, can constitute torture under the United Nation’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

One of Rhonda’s most important cases was the 1996 lawsuit Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam, which charged Algerian fundamentalists with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture. In recent discussions of Gita Sahgal’s charges against Amnesty International (see my earlier blogs) Rhonda often referred back to this Algerian case, in which the judge made a summary judgment against the defendants because of insufficient evidence, The reason she couldn’t produce enough authoritative evidence, Rhonda told me, was that the major human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, hadn’t been willing to gather the evidence. Even though their researchers were asked over and over to take testimony from civilians who had suffered at the hands of the FIS and other fundamentalists, they were too busy defending the rights of these same fundamentalists against the government to want to hear very much about the abuses their clients had committed. So in the end, the record did not truly represent the human rights situation in Algeria.

Rhonda was concerned at the end of her life to make sure such human rights cases against fundamentalist armed groups continue to be prosecuted. For this reason, she set in motion a process whereby, after her death, her life insurance and other assets would become seed money for a Copelon Fund for Gender Justice at the CCR. The CCR arranged a luncheon in her honor to announce the establishment of this fund, just two and a half weeks before she died. At the luncheon, a number of people spoke of Rhonda’s work, but most memorable was the speech she gave herself. Very thin, and too weak to stand, she spoke with the same courage and clarity she always had, in the same soft, friendly voice, making it clear she was approaching her own death the way she had approached every other great contest, doing her best to win but ensuring that, even if she lost, the work—the central work of defending and extending women’s human rights—would go on. It was an exemplary end to an exemplary life.

For video clips of Rhonda, go to the CUNY law school website.

From Jacqueline Pitanguy, Brazil

Dear Charlotte, Roxana and Anita,
Dear global friends of Rhonda

I am so sad that Rhonda has left us, leaving us orphans of the energy, commitment, and passion with which she has always worked . I feel that I am privileged to have met her and enjoyed her friendship and will always remember her dignity, love and generosity.
In solidarity

Jacqueline Pitanguy

From Aye Nang, Burma

Women's League of Burma (WLB) Secretariat. The International Tribunal for Crimes Against Women of Burma was one of Rhonda's last political contributions.

Dear Liz and friends at Nobel Women's Initiative,

I am writing to give my deepest sympathies for the loss of Rhonda. She was clearly a pioneer for human rights - specifically women's human rights - and most recently for the women of Burma.

We recognize her for her strong contributions to our work for a peaceful, just Burma as she displayed great conviction and commitment in helping us convene the International Tribunal for Crimes Against Women of Burma. Her vast, knowledge and input proved to be invaluable during this complex endeavor and I feel so fortunate to have had this opportunity to work with her.

I know I can speak on behalf of all of the women with the WLB who came to know her through our joint efforts that her spirit and sense of caring will be dearly missed.

All the best,
Aye Nang

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

From Gil Morgenstern

A violinist and Rhonda's neighbor

Dear Jan,

I'm so very sorry to learn the sad news of Rhonda's passing, and am sorry that I didn't have the chance to see her and play for her. However, from just the brief moment I had chatting with Anita when I dropped off the CD, I know she was surrounded by caring and loving friends and that, I'm sure, was a blessing for her.

My best,


From Bene Madunagu, Nigeria

Dear Anita,

Thank you so much for sending us this message as sad as it is but yet important for us to know. I met Rhonda years ago but more closely during the processes that led to Cairo ICPD. Rhonda was a great friend and mentor in Human and sexual rights issues to many of us. I can't forget her soft but very compelling voice, soft, sweet to listen, compelling and convincing at the same time. Rhonda had such a high intellectual power and memory but yet very unassuming, brilliant but extremely humble. She was a hard core convinced Women's rights and indeed sexual rights defender. I had not seen Rhonda for a long time but was privileged to see her during the night that CWGL honoured Charlotte Bunch during the CSW, on March 6th 2010. I did not know that that would the last time that I would see Rhonda. I am glad that I received her warm hug and held on to absorb it. May her gentle soul continue to remind us to pursue the course for which she devoted her life.


From Carol Anderson

I am just saddened by Rhonda's death. She was a warrior. The kind who could make Darth Vader know that he is outmatched, outclassed, out-thunk, and all he could do is just take off his helmet.

She will be missed. Greatly.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From Lorena Fries (in Spanish)

Presidenta Corporación Humanas

La partida de una grande
Por Lorena Fries

Humanas-Muy gringa en su tono, en su facha y en esa costumbre de almorzar al paso mientras se trabaja, sin parar, sin cejar, inclaudicable en el raciocinio hasta la última parada, los derechos de las mujeres, partió una de las grandes.

La conocí en Costa Rica cuando recién se estaba armando el Caucus de Mujeres por la Justicia de Género, esa articulación global de mujeres que sería homenajeada por Koffi Annan a propósito de la importancia de las propuestas surgidas en su seno para introducir la violencia sexual contra las mujeres como crímenes de lesa humanidad y de guerra.

Conviví semanas con Rhonda mientras esperábamos en los pasillos a las delegaciones de los Estados para convencerlos de la necesidad de marcar la diferencia en el Estatuto de Roma en relación a los derechos de las mujeres y la inclusión de un análisis de género en sus procedimientos. Tenaz y perseverante hasta el cansancio es una de las artífices de los resultados normativos en el Estatuto de Roma.

Su trayectoria militante la trajo innumerables veces a América Latina. Con Chile en particular, tenía un vínculo político y afectivo profundo que nos la trajo a Humanas un par de meses cuando recibía su primer tratamiento por el cáncer que finalmente la consumió. Nos acompañó y apoyó en la presentación del informe alternativo sobre tortura cuyo eje sería la tortura sexual practicada mayoritariamente en mujeres en Chile, entre 1973 y 1980. Gran parte del conocimiento y experiencia que Humanas hoy tiene en estas materias, ha significado la visibilización y apoyo a mujeres que presentan actualmente sus testimonios en la reabierta Comisión Valech.

Rhonda apoyó desde sus inicios la creación de Humanas, consideraba que todo esfuerzo para avanzar en la superación de las desigualdades de género aquí y en el mundo, valía la pena. Como integrante del Consejo Asesor de Humanas nos demostró su sororidad, cuestión que a pesar de las diferencias entre mujeres la caracterizó siempre.

La vi en marzo de este año, después de casi cuatro años de luchar por todos los medios contra el cancer cérvical. Compartimos un par de películas sobre genocidios, tema que como la gran humanista que era seguía elaborando para evidenciar que las mujeres lo habíamos vivido en distintas épocas y en distintos lugares. Después de cenas y caminatas, al despedirse me dijo que ya no tenía miedo a morir, que se sentía bien y tranquila. Así la dejé y así la recordaremos desde Humanas, a la que tanto apoyó.

Su Legado

-Académica de la City University of New York, donde formó a centenares de abogadas y abogados desde un enfoque en la justicia de género entrelazada con las demandas de derechos humanos

-Encargada de articular las propuestas de género para ser incluidas en el Estatuto de Roma en el Caucus de Justicia de Género.

-Integrante del Center for Constitutional Rights en Estados Unidos, es reconocida por su rol para que las violaciones a los derechos humanos cometidos fuera de ese país, pudieran ser enjuiciados en las Cortes estadounidenses. También luchó para que el sistema de salud cubriera los gastos implícitos en procedimientos de aborto.

-En América Latina se vinculó al movimiento amplio de feministas y apoyó iniciativas como la Radio Fire, en Costa Rica y la Revista Mujer de la Red de Salud de las Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe

-Mas recientemente, participó como perita experta en violencia contra las mujeres en el caso “Campos Algodoneros”, cuestión que daría herramientas a la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos para elaborar un fallo que será clave en la defensa de los derechos humanos de las mujeres.

From Rebecca Gold Milikowsky

good afternoon ladies

i am rebecca milikowsky, married to nathan, whose mother esther was married to herman copelon for over 25 years, my husband and i, and two daughters loved rhonda and considered her a part of our family. we were stuck in london for the luncheon a few weeks ago, but one of my daughters was present. shira was so moved by the tributes and the love in the room... i know that the energy in that room was felt by rhonda.

we will miss her. my daughters brina and shira were born after herman was married to my mother in law, so they always considered rhonda an aunt--and an interesting one at that,

somehow i am not in the email loop and would love to know the details of the memorial, which i hear is on the 21st.

i know that this is a great loss for you. i only can wish you fond memories of the wonderful woman rhonda.


rebecca gold milikowsky

From Adriana Ortiz, Mexico

Dearest Ros:

Warm Greetings from Mexico and please know I have been following with thorough attention Rhonda´s departure both through Charlotte´s visit to Mexico and talking to Sonia in Buenos Aires. I know how close you have been in all this.

Please, receive my hugs and know that here I am with loving gratitude to be part of the world that exceptional women like Rhonda and yourself have let we in.

As I read the note that the CWGL prepared I will try to be in New York in the Fall, as well as make contributions to the Rhonda´s Fund.

Un beso y abrazo apretado,

Dra. Adriana Ortiz-Ortega
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México | Secretaría General

From Joyce Horman

Joyce has tirelessly pursued justice for victims of the Pinochet coup, including her husband, journalist Charles Horman, who was executed in the Santiago stadium.

It is hard to comprehend that the Horman's dear CCR lawyer and beloved friend Rhonda is gone.

The Horman family was so positively affected by her compassion and compelling work that I had to reach out to you, who has worked so closely and so importantly with her for so long.

I send my sincere condolences, deep sympathy, and much love,


Monday, May 10, 2010

From Betsy Hartmann

Dear Anita,

Thank you so much for sending this. Rhonda lives on as an inspiration for all of us. When I think of what real feminist leadership, integrity and commitment look like, Rhonda is my model.

All the best, Betsy

From Rebecca Bratspies, IntLawGrrls

In Passing: Rhonda Copelon

It is with a heavy heart that I write to tell you that my beloved CUNY colleague, friend, and mentor Professor Rhonda Copelon, died on May 6th, 2010 after a four year struggle with ovarian cancer. She will be greatly missed.

As a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Rhonda’s groundbreaking work in Filártiga v. Peña-Irala (2d Cir. 1980) gave victims of international human rights abuses access to justice in United States courts. This case established that torture was a violation of the law of nations, a principle of which we seem to have lost sight in recent times. Using a hitherto obscure federal statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, Rhonda’s advocacy paved the way for many high profile human rights cases, including the recently settled suit brought by Ken Saro Wiwa’s family against Shell Oil. Harold Koh has called this case the Brown v. Board of Education of International Human Rights.

Rhonda was also lead counsel in Harris v. McRae (1980), a pivotal case concerning the reproductive rights of poor women. Although successful in the lower courts, Rhonda’s loss at the Supreme Court haunted her for the rest of her life.

As a founding member of CUNY Law School, Rhonda poured her energy into establishing the International Women's Human Rights Clinic. Every year, students in the clinic work to protect the rights of women around the world and in the United States. The CUNY website has a marvelous video of Rhonda discussing her remarkable career in human rights.

In 2009, Rhonda was awarded the M. Shanara Gilbert Human Rights Award by the Society of American Law Teachers. On April 20, 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights honored Rhonda for her life’s work and established the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice.

Rhonda was not just a great lawyer, she was also a generous mentor and friend to students, and young professionals. Her tireless advocacy on behalf of women will never be forgotten.

I've included below just a couple of tributes from women in international law whose lives Rhonda touched, and welcome you to add your thoughts in the comments section.

What a loss to the clinical community and to the ongoing struggle for women's human rights! Rhonda was an amazing, passionate, committed advocate for women's human rights. I first met her when I was at AU. Rather than being territorial towards a newcomer, she was supportive of all persons with a commitment to women's human rights, and worked tirelessly for the cause. She was loved and respected around the world. I saw her in action in Beijing at the Women's Conference in 1995, and had the opportunity to work together on a project with women's rights advocates from throughout Latin America to integrate a gender perspective into legal education. She was universally respected and admired and her legacy will be everlasting.

--Lauren Gilbert

I am so saddened at the passing of Rhonda Copelon. She was a brilliant lawyer and an inspiring teacher and a warm and generous person. I met Rhonda during the preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women. I was not yet a lawyer and new to the world of U.N. conferences and human rights advocacy, and she was unfailingly supportive and always willing to share her expertise in navigating complicated issues and institutions. She has served as a model of engagement and accessibility to me and so many others. Her passing is a huge loss.

-- Rachel Rosenbloom

From Ivanka Corti, Italy

Former chair of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

Dearest Charlotte,

My server blocked my computer for nearly three days this is the reason that only in this moment I receive from you the very sad news about the death of our beloved

First of all, thank you so much, dear great feminist Charlotte, to be so kind to send to all of us Rhonda's friends round the world on Rhonda's passing away and for having assisted her in the last moments of her life on behalf of all of us who loved and respected her, but, unfortunately, very far from her. You covered her fragile body with flowers and I suppose, you dedicated some on behalf of all of us.

You can't imagine how sorry I am that one of so good friends of mine is no more with us! I was very close to Rhonda during my permanence in CEDAW and we maintained this friendship through the regular correspondence. She was always punctual in responding to my emails and in the last one I received at the end of last year she promised to come to Rome "next summer" and be some time with me!!!!!!

Rhonda for me was not only a loyal friend, but a really extraordinary human being - somebody whom you imagine, but rarely find in reality, as a "humanist" human being (if I can say so?) with an extraordinary generosity. It is not to me to describe all her merits on behalf of the women's rights round the world, because, fortunately, during her life she has received numerous recognitions from different parts of the world. I always greatly respected what she has done for women's "cause" and freedom and equality in general.

Rhonda, dearest friend I waited for your promised visit to Rome next summer!! You will not come but in my memory you will always be with me. You gave to me faith in friendship and helped me sincerely during my permanence in CEDAW. Thank you for all and thank you for being an example what the sincere feminist is. Good buy, dear great Rhonda!

Dear Charlotte, for the moment I don't know how to participate in donations on behalf of Rhonda but, please, be so kind to inform me about the follow up of remembering her.

Thank you!

Ivanka Corti

From Everjoice Win, Nairobi

Dear Charlotte and friends,

My sincerest condolences on the loss of Rhonda. I first met Rhonda when I came to the CWGL. She kindly offered me her apartment to stay in New York for a few days after the institute. She was such a warm and gentle person. Each time I met her after that, I would keep saying that I was still coming to stay in her apartment - which I hadn't done back in '91. And she would laugh that sweet low laugh and give me a hug.

May her dear soul rest in peace. I am sending you, Rox and others who were very close to her a big hug and a kiss from Nairobi.

Lots of love,

From Peggy Antrobus, Barbados

Dear Charlotte,

So sorry to hear this news. I saw Rhonda at the anniversary celebrations and it was great to catch up with her after all these years. She looked very frail, but I didn't realize that she was ill. I first met and got to know Rhonda in 1993/4 around issues related to the ICPD negotiations. Her commitment to women's human rights and passion for a broader agenda for social justice made her an indispensable colleague; her warmth made her a friend. Although I didn't work with her much after that, it was always lovely to see her, to experience her gentle smile and sharp mind.

She will clearly be a great loss in our on-going struggles and lives.

Thanks for bringing us together to share this loss.


From Danny Weiss

Danny is Chief of Staff to Congressman George Miller (D-California)

Thanks for passing on this very sad news. I remember her fondly, and I had the privilege of working with her to write and introduce a House resolution in January 1993 to declare rape a crime against humanity and to encourage Bush to include Rape as one of the charges to be included in the international criminal court for crimes against humanity in the Bosnia conflict. Looking back through my files on that case I see that in 1996 the court did include rape as a crime against humanity and that 8 Serbs were indicted for mass rape in Bosnia. And Justice Goldstone was on the court and in favor of the charges.

Danny Weiss

Sunday, May 9, 2010

From Edna Aquino, Philippines

Dearest Charlotte:

Very sad to receive the news about Rhonda - a very generous mentor and sister. I will always cherish the memory of meeting her again last June at Rutgers and for having hugged each other for the last time. She is a great loss to the movement and many thanks to you and our friends who are nearby for keeping the flame alive on her behalf.

Love and warm hugs to her loved ones and to all of you who have been steadfastly looking after her during her final moments.