Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Felice Gaer

Human Rights Awards Reception – Spotlight! On Ms. Felice Gaer

Our Human Rights Awards Reception takes place this Thursday, December 8, and today we are pleased to introduce you to Ms. Felice Gaer our Lois B. Sohn Human Rights Awardee.
Ms. Felice Gaer is currently the director of AJC’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and the Vice-Chair of the United Nations Committee Against Torture. If you would like to learn more about Ms. Felice Gaer’s work with the UN Committee Against Torture, her background and influences, please read on!  
UNA-NCA: Can you tell us about yourself and what led you to get involved in human rights work?
F.G.: I was a young Jewish girl growing up in the decade after the Holocaust – the more I learned about what had happened, and how the world ignored the signs of legaldiscrimination, organized incitement to hatred, official deportation policies and the actual practice of genocide in specially designed death camps, the more I felt it was important to be engaged in ensuring that the world in which I was growing up would be different. I was also inspired by Jewish ethics, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and knowledge of abuses in the world around me: The message of Rabbi Hillel, over two millennia ago, sums it up:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am not for others, who am I?  And if not now, when?”  
UNA-NCA: Has there been an event or experience that has had a continuing impact on your life?
F.G.: Seeing first-hand the repression in the Soviet Union in the early 70s was certainly a key experience for me, as was the exhilaration when helping change someone else’s life for the better through direct human rights advocacy. Those experiences were multiplied again and again throughout the world, in Chile and China, in Sudan and Sri Lanka, in Bangladesh and Bosnia and elsewhere, on my visits related to human rights.
UNA-NCA: I learned that you studied and worked with a focus on the Holocaust, Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia at the beginning of your career. Can you please tell us how this has influenced your career trajectory?
F.G.: After graduate school, I was a program officer at the Ford Foundation, responsible for Eastern Europe and the USSR among other things. My travels to these countries were for fledgling projects to “build bridges,” to try to get communication started in various ways among experts and intellectuals. The intellectuals seeking real freedom stood out in so many ways—and it became clear to me that human rights always had to be a part of the picture in public and private sector activities regarding those countries. I knew the diplomats and business people of the world would tend to “building bridges” – but I also recognized pretty quickly that few people actually focused on the human rights side of the picture. I thought I had the skills and knowledge to make a difference on this – so I left Ford and began to work full time on human rights ---which I haven’t stopped doing.   
UNA-NCA: You have been a part of the UN Committee Against Torture since 1999, can you please tell us about your current role in the Committee and how you have been able to push for progress through the UN mechanism?
F.G.: Combatting torture and ill-treatment of our fellow men and women is a beginning, not the end of human rights—and we have such a long way to go. The need to combat it effectively is extraordinarily important. I had spent years using the mechanisms of international human rights bodies to advance the safety, freedom, and rights of men and women from all over the world. The opportunity to serve on one of these bodies has enabled me to raise cases, facts, concerns about this repression directly, eye-to-eye, with the representatives of those countries. Putting a formal spotlight on abusive practices and the need for change often has brought results. As an independent expert and an American, I have never flinched from asking tough questions – and some of the toughest are about torture and cruel treatment which continue to be inflicted despite the international treaty. It may seem surprising, but people from other countries generally don’t speak out as I do. But why else serve on such bodies?
For example, at the current session of the Committee against Torture, we examined the report of Sri Lanka, which has engaged in a lot of torture, sadly. One of the members of the delegation that came to discuss these issues with the Committee was the Director of National Intelligence. I found that during a difficult period in civil war in his country, he had been Deputy inspector general with responsibility for two government sections reliably linked to some of the most egregious reports of ongoing torture. I asked about it –point blank. And when I got no reply, I asked again the next day, more pointedly. I was stunned that no other member of the Committee did so. Why are they there if not to speak out at such a moment?
When I was rapporteur on the review of Saudi Arabia, I asked frank questions about corporal punishment – stoning, whipping, and amputation. About real people and cases like Raif Baddawi, the blogger who is imprisoned and has been lashed terribly.  And I do the same for every other country’s representatives. We had a difficult encounter with the representatives from the Holy See when I asked for statistics and other information on the reports of complicity in ‘priest shifting’ and avoiding investigations and prosecutions in cases alleged to involve sexual abuse of minors, like those detailed in the movie Spotlight. But it is surely essential to examine these issues if the Committee and other  international bodies are to have any real role to play in eradicating and preventing torture and other human rights abuses. I’m honored to have been entrusted with this responsibility.
UNA-NCA: Do you have any human rights heroes or role models you would like to share with us?
F.G.: I have written before about Andrei Sakharov, the brilliant Soviet scientist, dissident and Nobel Peace Laureate as a hero. His wife, Elena Bonner, was indeed another hero. I’m not sure I can do justice to so many other such courageous people I’ve admired, and learned from. But Sakharov stands out – he was a genius and a person at the pinnacle of a very stratified society, but he decided to speak out against repression of his fellow men and women, and never stopped. He bore witness to repression, by learning the facts, attending trials, writing appeals, travelling to see things when he could – and sadly, he was forcibly  ‘disappeared’—and imprisoned in Gorky for so many years because of his criticism of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—and his life was cut short by this, no doubt. As an elected member of the Parliament after his return from exile, he had so many wise proposals for change. If only he had lived longer, perhaps we would have seen a different Russia than we have today.  Sakharov’s life is a model for anyone interested in human rights protection and in moral courage.  
UNA-NCA: What are some ways you can suggest in which people who are interested in human rights can make an impact?
F.G.: Today there are many organizations that work professionally and full time on advancing human rights (this was not always the case). They all need financial support. Few of them are setup to enable volunteers to take action, but creative individuals can nonetheless figure out how to make a difference, either by working with such groups directly or taking action locally. The most important thing is to keep raising issues with people in positions of power, to keep working to strengthen the international and national organizations that are in a position to make a difference and to not to fall silent in the face of repression. I hope I’ve made it clear that it isn’t good enough to leave these issues to others—every person should treat these matters as personal, as the abuses can be applied to each of us if we don’t do enough to protect every one of us.  
UNA-NCA:  Anything else that you would like to add for our audience?

F.G.: I’ve been a big advocate for women’s rights as human rights—and your question reminds me to point out that human rights must be rights for all persons. You must see the world through different eyes and ensure that rights have meaning for all. As Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the US, put it, the destiny of human rights is in the hands of all of our citizens in all of our communities.
Thank you so much for your time! We look forward to learning more about the amazing work you have done and continue to do at the UNA-NCA Human Rights Awards Reception.

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