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Remembering Professor Rhonda Copelon

Posted on: Friday, May 6, 2011

Keywords: Activist, Haiti, Guatemala, Women Human Rights Defenders

Today, MADRE remembers our friend and long-time ally, Rhonda Copelon, the wonderful women's human rights lawyer and activist who died one year ago, at the age of 65.

Today, May 6th, is the one-year anniversary of a tremendous loss for the CUNY School of Law community. Last year, founding faculty member Rhonda Copelon died after a valiant fight against cancer. We send this memorial note to take a moment to remember her legacy and to share some of the recent work of the International Women's Human Rights (IWHR) Clinic here at CUNY Law, which we know would have made Rhonda proud.

As you know, Rhonda established the IWHR Clinic in 1992, at a time when few other law schools offered clinics devoted to women's rights worldwide. IWHR continues to flourish with the intellectual and adventurous spirit characteristic of Rhonda herself. In fact, one of the clinic's most recent projects in Haiti builds on the work that Rhonda led in 1994 when Haiti suffered from a surge in sexual violence due to political instability. In response, Rhonda brought together a group of advocates to file a brief with the Organization of American States (OAS), calling attention to the violence happening in Haiti and to the notion under international law of rape as a form of torture when committed by government actors.

In keeping with her vision, IWHR Clinic students, along with CUNY Law Professor Lisa Davis, recently traveled to Haiti on fact-finding missions to document gender-violence in camps for those needing shelter in the wake of recent devastating earthquakes. CUNY Law students visited several different sites, including camps in Martissant and Champ de Mars, and met daily with local grassroots women's groups. These facts students gathered provided the supporting evidence for a petition that IWHR and partner attorneys submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission issued an unprecedented decision granting their legal request that the Haitian government and the international community take immediate measures to prevent violence against women and girls in Haiti.

As many of you know, of the hundreds of requests for precautionary measures the Commission receives each year, few are granted. Out of these, only a handful have been granted to protect individuals from rape, and those have been in response to rape committed by state actors - never by private actors. This precautionary measures decision is the first ever to recognize that Haiti, like all states, has a responsibility to prevent violence against women committed by those who are not state actors and builds upon the work started by Rhonda and IWHR in codifying rape as a form of torture under international law.

In addition, IWHR students, in collaboration with the New York-based women's rights organization MADRE, recently returned from Guatemala, where they conducted a fact-finding investigation focused on labor conditions for women, femicide, and the rights of indigenous women. Our students conducted interviews in several different communities in El Quiche and Guatemala City in order to gather information for a shadow report that will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the body charged with enforcing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The students working on the Guatemala Project also submitted a brief late last year to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and urged the Committee to request that the Guatemalan government address women's human rights violations in its investigation.

Under Rhonda's leadership, CUNY Law's IWHR Clinic enabled students and activists around the world to participate in a range of precedent-setting legal and advocacy campaigns. We continue her vision today, working with community-based partners to make innovative and fundamental change around the world.

In her last months of life, Rhonda established the Copelon Fund for IWHR to enable the next generation of IWHR students to continue to have the opportunity to gain important international advocacy experiences. If you would like to support the Copelon Fund, please click here.

Thank you for remembering Rhonda's powerful legacy.

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