Sad Loss of a Women's Human Rights Pioneer

May 11, 2010

Rhonda Copelon, American University
Rhonda Copelon, American University

I recently heard the sad news that Professor Rhonda Copelon died on May 6th 2010.  Professor Copelon’s work was critical to defining women’s rights as human rights.  It was her dedication to gender justice, combined with her tireless work  as founding faculty member of the CUNY Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, that contibuted to the recognition in international law of rape as a crime of genocide and torture. It is thanks to her that domestic violence 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. 

It was no small feat to persuade the human rights community to treat gender violence as a human rights violation.  Feminists were met with resistence to the notion that violence committed by private individuals – such as domestic violence – could constitute a human rights violation.  As Professor Copelon put it “including private gendered violence, it was said, would “dilute” the human rights framework”.  However, Professor Copelon persisted in the struggle to integrate gender in the international human rights framework – and won.  

Many Human Rights NGOs expanded their work on women’s human rights and, thanks in part to the foundation Professor Copelon laid, Amnesty International launched a global campaign to Stop Violence Against Women.  Professor Copelon was generous with her time, advice and encouragement and was an inspiration to human rights activists around the world. 

Iwas fortunate enough to hear Professor Copelon speak about her work with the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, a group committed to ensuring that gender was integrated into all aspects of the International Criminal Court’s work.  What struck me was not only her passion, dedication and incredible intelligence but also her humility, collaborative spirit and sense of humor.  In her  opening remarks she said “I am not known for obedience.”  Well, thanks to her defiance and determination women’s rights really are human rights.  Her passing is a huge loss and she will be missed.