Evolution of a Pioneering Idea: 1970s and 1980s
In 1978, attorney and scholar Robert Lillich stopped to consider the unique and powerful force that lawyers could be if they joined the global struggle for human rights. Lillich knew he could help to establish and promote enforceable remedies to human rights abuses. With a staff of two and a small board of advisors, the International Human Rights Law Group (Law Group) was founded as a legal research and advocacy institution, dedicated to offering free legal advice in cases of suspected human rights violations, both in the United States and abroad.
From the beginning, we have worked on a variety of fronts: on the ground, in tandem with other overseas organizations, and domestically, through large international organizations and grassroots groups alike. In those early years, our staff, advisers, and cadre of pro bono lawyers worked principally in countries with long histories of human rights abuses, nations undergoing a transfer of power from military to civilian rule, or those in which crises had prompted governments to suspend human rights protections.
Together, the Law Group and local overseas organizations secured the release of political prisoners, ensuring their families’ reunifications. We did what we could to bring fairness to political trials and controversial elections. We held governments accountable for torture, disappearances, and summary executions. As our influence grew, we worked not only with local organizations, but also international ones, involving ourselves in precedent-setting cases like Filartiga v Pena-Irala, in which tort law was first applied to international human rights violations, and the Haitian refugee case.
In the United States, we participated in more than twenty human rights cases before domestic courts, combating juvenile executions and religious and racial discrimination, and promoting the freedom of movement of people, information, and ideas across national borders and the rights of torture victims from other countries to seek redress through the U.S. judicial system.
Expanding Human Rights Cultures: The 1990s and 2000s
The long list of grave human rights violations in the last several decades is staggering: the atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the incomprehensible human toll in war-torn Central Africa, the execution of human rights leaders in Nigeria, the systematic violence against women in Afghanistan.
The Law Group was on the front lines in fighting these horrors. We supported local human rights movements throughout the world, mentoring, partnering with, and sometimes financing local groups, working on the ground in their countries for long periods of time to strengthen their effectiveness in combating abuses. By 1995, our in-country programs in Romania, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo had become the models for putting in place human rights protections through partnering with local activists. In the former Yugoslavia, we joined with local advocates to expose cases of wartime rape and gender-based violence. In Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Nicaragua, we proposed reforms to strengthen the independence of their judiciaries. In Kazakhstan, we advised the government on incorporating human rights protections in the nation’s first draft Constitution. In Paraguay and Guatemala, we assisted local lawyers as they litigated cases involving executions, disappearances, and torture.
As the 1990s wore on, we built on our role as true leaders in the international human rights community. We have worked closely with organizations like the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to hold governments worldwide accountable for rights violations and to help ensure respect for human rights standards around the globe.
From the Law Group to Global Rights: Partners for Justice
In 2003, after careful deliberations by the board and the leadership of the organization and with input from our offices in the field, our many local and international partners, our funders and supporters, the International Human Rights Law Group changed its name. Global Rights: Partners for Justice reflects accurately the work we do with local partners in the countries in which we operate, and conveys our belief that the critical forces for achieving deep-rooted and sustainable change in societies come from within each nation. Human rights cultures are built from the ground up.
2010 and Beyond
Global Rights has worked in nearly 100 countries around the world since our founding in 1978. Today, our programming focuses on our deep commitment to increase access to justice for poor and marginalized groups, promote women’s rights and gender equality, and advance racial and ethnic equality. In addition to this, we have two special initiatives—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights and natural resources and human rights—that allow us to explore new program areas while targeting populations that fit within our core programming.
While this piece portrays just a handful of Global Rights’ achievements over the years, it should be said that our network of dedicated staff, local activists, and supporters in our offices in Afghanistan, Burundi, the Maghreb, Nigeria, Uganda, and the United States continue to work tirelessly to nurture the seeds of justice and promote sustainable change in all our programs throughout the globe.
Today, Global Rights has five offices around the world and works on the ground in over ten countries. For more information on our current programming, please click here.
Hear the story of a young Moroccan woman who was able to start her own women's rights organization with the power of Global Rights' partnership. Click here to watch! »»