Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and Member and Vice-Chair, UN Committee against Torture
I said goodbye to Rhonda in late April, in person and in correspondence. She turned that sad exchange into yet another teachable moment, reflecting on what I should do – and of course not do!
When I complimented her and thanked her for all she had done, she turned it around to compliment me, thank me, and urge me to do more. Whatever subject we addressed, she was bursting with creative approaches and new advice: Weakened by her fight with “the disease,” she spoke of how much she had just enjoyed being taken to visit a park in Brooklyn to see and smell the spring flowers –and when I replied that I too had been overwhelmed by the beauty of flowering trees and bushes as I drove through a surburban NJ town that morning, Rhonda advised me impatiently: Felice, you have to get out of the car!!
That instruction was so characteristic of the remarkable activist that was Rhonda Copelon. And we laughed about it, together, recognizing that even here, seeing and experiencing the sights and smells of springtime, Rhonda wanted full commitment from each of her friends, colleagues, students.
Rhonda’s memorial in New York on September 19 offers all her friends from around the world a chance for continuing reflection on how much more commitment like hers is needed, and where. Her extraordinary role has already been chronicled and preserved in the websites dedicated to her memory. She told me, just a couple of weeks before her death, that she had known of the extent and significance of her own contributions to changing the rights discourse and promoting accountability for violations of women’s human rights – but that she had not realized until her very last years how much others did indeed value it.
I spoke of her contributions at a Symposium convened by CUNY Law in March 2008 at the New York City Bar Association, on the subject of General Comment 2 of the Committee against Torture:
"This morning, I took from my shelf a remarkable 1994 article, “Recognizing the Egregious in the Everyday: Domestic Violence as Torture.” This work, and those that have followed it, have been eye-opening, agenda-setting, and extremely influential. Professor Rhonda Copelon, the author of that article, has served as Faculty Advisor for the Law Review on this Symposium. Through a body of writing, analysis and advocacy, she has transformed the way that the human rights discourse and UN bodies in particular understand ‘the place of women and the status of gender-based violence within the human rights discourse” and I would like to recognize that contribution. …
"In 1994 she told us that “the egregiousness of gender-based violence has been matched only by its absence from human rights discourse.” Today, that too has changed significantly and is still changing in large measure due to the insights and attention she has brought to the subject matter, to the work of UN and regional human rights bodies, and to CUNY Law School itself through the International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic.
“So I salute Professor Copelon and her students – a group of remarkable and dedicated lawyers who are changing the way we look at the world of human rights. As was stated at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, they are looking at the world “through women’s eyes” –and as a result, so are the rest of us!
“Professor Copelon …helped us see the invisible: to move past what one critic has dared to term as irrelevant “sentimentality” rather than human rights abuse. In the work of the Committee Against Torture, as reflected in General Comment 2, we have clearly moved into examining these important areas of abuse, the roles of private actors, and the actual obligations of state actors to exercise due diligence about such matters. Effective measures require more than words: they require continual evaluation.”
# # #
It turned out that Rhonda was not present when I made those comments – illness and traffic caused her to arrive late to the Symposium. When she read the remarks in my draft article, some months later, she told me they were “over the top…” but also, that “there were a couple of important things missing”-- among them the idea that education is a preventive measure in itself. Working with Rhonda was an education, and those of us fortunate enough to have had that experience won’t forget it. Let us ensure that her achievements continue to spur us and others worldwide to keep moving forward to build greater preventive mechanisms and remedies to abuses of human rights.