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An American Feminist, Honored by France, Carries On a Tireless Global Fight for Women’s Rights

Jessica Neuwirth, an American advocate for women’s rights globally, was appointed to the rank of chevalier in the French Legion of Honor in a ceremony on Oct. 5, 2021, in Manhattan, above. As part of the citation, the French government expressed “gratitude” for Neuwirth’s role in “fighting for equal rights between women and men, a cause that is a priority for our republic as well.” FLORINE TAUPIN/CONSULATE GENERAL OF FRANCE IN NEW YORK

Jessica Neuwirth, a pivotal force in promoting and supporting the rights of women and girls worldwide, was appointed to the rank of chevalier in the French Legion of Honor by the French government in a ceremony in New York City on Oct. 5. The citation said: “This high distinction expresses the gratitude of the French nation and its authorities for your role in fighting for equal rights between women and men, a cause that is a priority for our republic as well.”

Neuwirth, with a history degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard, was aware from her youth that academia had its constraints and limits. Raised in the Riverdale section of the Bronx and the daughter of a lawyer (her mother) and a doctor (her father), she traveled extensively early on to learn what human-rights protections, or the lack of them, meant by listening to a range of people, from ex-prisoners in the former Soviet Union to oppressed women in the developing world. Later, working within the United Nations, she played important roles in the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity after the Rwandan genocide and the ravaging of Liberia by the warlord Charles Taylor.

In New York City, she saw the UN from inside as a leader in human-rights offices. Now from her small office at Roosevelt House, a public-policy institute at Hunter College, she brings global realities and people who live them to students and others in her reach in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Her career has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in advising, connecting and supporting women’s rights groups and the women in politics who have advanced gender equality. PassBlue recently invited Neuwirth to talk about her extraordinary life in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The interview with Neuwirth is part of PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers series, focusing on individuals who are influencing global matters in profound ways. The interview was done by email and begins with Neuwirth’s own description of how she got immersed in the world of human rights. As she says, “In my experience there is nothing more rewarding than knowing that something you did had a real impact.” — BARBARA CROSSETTE

“I grew up in New York City and was lucky enough to have a high school history teacher, Lee Stearns, at Riverdale Country Day School, who started the first high school chapter of Amnesty International in the US. She asked me to join the group, and through this work she gave me connections with other parts of the world that changed everything for me.

I skipped my last year of high school and went to college at the age of 16, which gave me a head start. At Yale, I continued working with Amnesty and studied history, writing my thesis on the Middle Ages and the rise of intolerance. I spent a year at Oxford, where I learned through intensive study that I did not want to pursue an academic career. I then went to law school although I never intended to practice law — I had been told it would be ‘good background’ for human rights work, which it certainly has been.

I went to Harvard Law School because they had just launched human rights summer fellowships, which I did for two summers, first in the then-Soviet Union, traveling across the country meeting recently released political prisoners, and then in apartheid South Africa, where I was Navi Pillay’s first intern. She was running a law practice in Durban at the time doing innovative human rights cases on detention and torture. [Pillay, a South African jurist, was the UN high commissioner for human rights from 2008 to 2014.]

I went to work for Amnesty immediately following law school, where I had the good luck to work for Jack Healey, then director of Amnesty International USA. Under his leadership, I was one of the producers of Human Rights Now! in 1988, one of the first rock concert tours for human rights — 20 concerts in 16 countries over the course of 6 weeks to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Navi, who joined that tour, then started working on women’s rights and helped me understand their importance. She co-founded Equality Now with me and another lawyer, Feryal Gharahi in 1992, and the organization took off.

Meanwhile, I had left Amnesty and found myself working at a Wall Street law firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, on sovereign debt restructuring to better understand the economics of the debt crisis. The firm was incredibly generous and supportive, helping me get Equality Now off the ground as a pro bono project.

In the early 1990s, I was recruited for a job at the United Nations as legal officer for the UN Administrative Tribunal, which was my introduction to the UN and its underside. I moved into a multitracked career that included a fair amount of judgment drafting in the emerging international criminal justice universe: the case of Jean-Paul Akayesu [convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity for sexual violence in Rwanda]; the media case on hate speech, for which I was principal drafter; and later the Charles Taylor case on war crimes and crimes against humanity, where I led the drafting team.

I also did a stint as the New York-based director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in 2009-2010 — another heavy immersion into the UN universe. At the end of my term, I stayed on to organize a high-level OHCHR panel chaired by Kyung-wha Kang, then deputy high commissioner for human rights, with the to-be Nobel Peace Prize recipient Denis Mukwege of Congo and the world’s first woman to serve as defense minister, Elisabeth Rehn of Finland, as panel members. We toured the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] in its most remote areas and talked with survivors of sexual violence about legal remedies and reparations.

In 2013, I started Donor Direct Action as an offshoot of Equality Now (and now hosted by the Sisterhood is Global Institute) to raise funds for groups working in the DRC and other similarly situated countries and amplify the voices of these front-line women’s groups. A few years later, at the request of US Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney — whom I had come to know through Equality Now’s work on sex trafficking — I co-founded the ERA Coalition to build a bigger and broader constituency for the US Equal Rights Amendment.

In 2018, I moved to Hunter College as director of the Human Rights Program at Roosevelt House, where I still have not gotten over the thrill of going to work every day in one of the homes of Eleanor Roosevelt.”

PassBlue: Tell us about the mission and activities of Roosevelt House.

Neuwirth: Roosevelt House was acquired by Hunter College from the Roosevelts in the 1940s. It was reopened in 2010 as a public policy institute honoring the legacy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Its mission is to educate students in human rights and policy, to support faculty research and to foster creative dialogue. I have been the Rita E. Hauser Director of the Human Rights Program of Roosevelt House since 2018.

Over the past few years, we undertook a number of initiatives in collaboration with the UN and various NGOs that I hope do justice to Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy. María Fernanda Espinosa, of Ecuador and as president of the UN General Assembly at the time, came to meet with Hunter students. We hosted the New York premiere of the film “Feminister,” with Margot Wallstrom, former foreign minister of Sweden, about her life and her vision of a feminist foreign policy. We hosted a meeting of experts for the UN secretary-general’s representative on children and armed conflict and former child soldiers from South Sudan and Sierra Leone, who met with Hunter students who showed them around New York City.

We organized a consultation for the UN secretary-general’s senior adviser on policy, Ana Maria Menéndez, and others in preparation for the review of Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security — bringing in by Zoom (before the pandemic!) activists from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq to talk about the on-the-ground reality of the implementation (or nonimplementation) of 1325. Also using Zoom, we brought together global leaders to hear from and express their solidarity with Congolese women, who had just had a national meeting in Kinshasa, the capital, to forge a women’s movement for peace.

Last but not least, we hosted a preliminary meeting together with Pramila Patten, the UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad at Roosevelt House, with numerous UN ambassadors and others to talk about the idea of a reparations fund, which was launched later that year — 2019 — at the UN as the Global Survivors Fund.

All this to give you an idea of the kinds of convening we have been doing — bringing people together in a way that Eleanor Roosevelt would have wanted, and in particular to bring the voices of grass-roots advocates to policymakers at the highest levels.

For France in 2019, we organized with the French consulate a public forum for G7 Gender Equality Council representatives, led by Marlène Schiappa, secretary of state for gender equality in France at the time, and featuring Denis Mukwege, Inna Shevchenko, Aryana Johar and others in the Council.

PassBlue: Readers may be well acquainted with the early heroes of human-rights advocacy in the era of Eleanor Roosevelt, but it would be interesting to hear who some of your most-admired contemporaries are now.

Neuwirth: In addition to Navi and Margot Wallstrom, I would have to say Denis Mukwege, Kyung-wha Kang, Sapana Pradhan-Malla and Gloria Steinem, all of whom have been tremendously inspiring to me and supportive of my work. They are all larger than life in terms of their ability to lead, their deep commitment and their personal and political skills.

PassBlue: Is the human-rights movement more “human” now and less legalistic or politically institutional?

Neuwirth: Over the time I have been in the human rights movement, I think as it grew it became much more legalistic and institutionalized and less “human.” While I come from a legal background and have spent much of my career trying to promote legal reform and effective implementation of the law, I often feel that the human rights movement now has too many lawyers, which has also undermined its “human” qualities. And groups like Amnesty International defined human rights mandates that were very narrow in scope and distorted what many people came to think of as the parameters of human rights.

At the same time, at the conceptual level, more recently the movement has started to expand in scope, which is more compatible with the vision of Eleanor Roosevelt as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When you go back to the Universal Declaration (one of my favorite documents in the world), you find a whole range of human rights that cover most if not all of what we sometimes talk or think of as “new” rights.

The “right to a standard of living adequate for health and well being” is language that covers many of the emerging issues, such as climate change, that were not necessarily in the mind of Eleanor Roosevelt and other drafters but are completely in keeping with her/their vision. And certainly, racial justice is not in any way a new issue, just newly recognized as the top priority it should have been from the beginning.

Similarly with women’s issues, you can go back to Abigail Adams, the wife of US President John Adams, pleading with her husband to “remember the ladies.” Yet women were intentionally left out of the US Constitution, which we are still working to address hundreds of years later, still with surprising resistance.

PassBlue: Rights advocates may not always agree with one another from one country or society regarding a third milieu, where there may be issues that have to be handled more delicately than others.

Neuwirth: From FGM [female genital mutilation] to Afghanistan, I have always heard those who would deny fundamental human rights to women and girls label these issues as “cultural,” somehow ignoring all of the women and girls in these cultures who very much want their rights and keenly feel their deprivation. It’s happening today in Afghanistan, although there are women across the country, and girls, speaking out and even taking to the streets at great personal risk to demand their rights.

Who controls “culture” and gets to define it is the key question, and as women around the world are slowly gaining power and visibility, their voices are increasingly heard and their “cultures” are changing as a consequence. You can see that here in the United States. I don’t think outsiders should be pushing any agenda, feminist or otherwise. Our goal is to build a movement based on principles of equality and solidarity, and I have found like-minded “feminists” in every country I have been to, born and raised in the same culture that others are trying to differentiate in terms of human rights standards. All cultures including my own are riddled with misogyny and various forms of gender-based violence and discrimination. They may take different forms, but I think the similarities are much greater than the differences.

PassBlue: Maybe the question is, What is feminism in this day and age? Have new technologies better connected women everywhere and bridged cultural gaps with common understanding while also reinforcing the work of small, remote nongovernmental organizations?

Neuwirth: The potential for bridging is there but the reality is lagging behind, despite the technology that brings us together over great divides. Our movement has yet to catch up with the promise of technology and use it to bring the voices of small, remote NGOs into the fold of the global dialogue and to work to build those NGOs so they are no longer small and remote.

Twenty years after founding Equality Now, I realized that while that organization had grown so much, exponentially, its partners around the world had not. Donor Direct Action was founded to address that imbalance, and I am proud that we have raised and regranted more than $4.3 million to those “small, remote NGOs” you mention. But really, it’s a drop in the bucket. While the funds go further and are used much more efficiently by small NGOs, there are simply not enough funds getting to front-line organizations. We should be at the level of $43 million, not $4.3 million, and if it were $430 million, I have no doubt that the world would look very different and much better than it does today.

In Afghanistan, the US spent trillions of dollars over the past 20 years, but the institutions it worked to build and support, such as the Afghan army, collapsed immediately. Had the same level of resource and priority gone into the women’s movement instead of the army, the outcome would have been very different.

PassBlue: Patriarchy is now a favorite target of UN Secretary-General Guterres. Is that a reason or an excuse for dealing with traditional male dominance? How can the UN work with this patriarchy, when institutionally it is dominated by governments dominated by men? Do women in power always make a difference?

Neuwirth: You need to have the right women in power to make a difference, and the right men in power can also make a difference. It is easy to be against patriarchy when it comes to rhetoric, but the reality is that the UN remains an extremely patriarchal institution. It’s great that Guterres has appointed so many women to high level positions, especially positions like the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, that are at the heart of the UN, and he has appointed many women in leadership positions at the field level, especially in peace operations. Let’s hope it makes a difference. They will all need his strong and ongoing support. The World Health Organization recently sent an all-male delegation to Afghanistan to meet with the Taliban — the same WHO has just found that its own staff have been engaged in systematically tolerated sexual exploitation and abuse, which is a perennial revelation in the UN.

The fact that the UN cannot even control the behavior of its own staff, who are violating women with impunity in desperate situations, when they are supposed to be there to help them, is an indication that the patriarchy is alive and thriving in the UN system. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. How the UN deals with the Taliban will be a litmus test for all of the men and women who lead the UN and its various agencies.

PassBlue: What do you see now in the UN’s work on human rights? Any suggestions for UN Women?

Neuwirth: I was part of the campaign when I worked in the UN to get an assistant secretary-general for human rights in New York, and while it sounds bureaucratic, I think it was one of my team’s most significant accomplishments. The voices for human rights are stronger than they used to be in the UN, but they are still not strong enough. Human rights is cited as one of the UN pillars, but it has yet to be fully integrated into the UN mindset. Too often it is seen as problematic and inconvenient, destructive rather than complementary of the other work of the UN. Respect for human rights is fundamental and critical to sustainable peace and development — while at times in the UN, these goals are set against each other; in the long run they are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Dismissing human rights concerns for reasons of political expedience may seem like an easier route at times but I think has long-term consequences that far outweigh any short-term advantage that may be perceived.

For UN Women, I think it needs to play a more effective role inside the UN, and it needs to be more of a bridge for women outside the UN, women who are working independently of their governments in NGOs and otherwise and who need more support. When UN Women was created, I was in the UN and could see firsthand the internal forces of competition that threatened its future success. I think there is too much territoriality in the UN system and not enough synergy and collaboration

UN Women has new leadership now, Sima Sami Bahous, a former Jordanian diplomat. We are all watching to see what direction it takes. This is a critical moment, with the far reach of movements like #MeToo creating enormous potential that has yet to be realized. We need UN Women to play a strong role in ensuring that hard-won gains are preserved, women’s voices are heard at the highest level of decision-making and that the agenda moves forward, despite the challenges.

PassBlue: Has the Human Rights Council been a success?

Neuwirth: No, I would not say so. The Human Rights Council is a good structure and some of its mechanisms, such as the universal periodic review and the special procedures, have created new potential avenues of accountability and better documentation of human rights violations. It meets regularly and has taken up urgent situations, and it is a great improvement on the Commission on Human Rights. But it can only be as effective as member states want it to be. The double standards, and the political agenda of members of the Council whose interest is to avoid accountability for human rights violations has at times rendered it ineffectual, sadly. But like everything else, we collectively have the power to change that!

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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