Charlotte Bunch spoke with AWID to pay tribute to her longstanding and cherished colleague and friend, Rhonda Copelon.
Posted on: Friday, June 11, 2010
Charlotte Bunch, a member of MADRE's Network of Experts, spoke with Masum Momaya of AWID.
AWID: Charlotte, can you tell us how you came to work with Rhonda?
Charlotte Bunch: I began working closely with Rhonda in the 1990s after she became part of the founding faculty of CUNY Law School and later director of the School’s International Women’s Human Rights Law Clinic, which she founded with Celina Romany. We had been on parallel tracks in our U.S. feminist work in the 1970s, although we had not worked together then. She came to our apartment in Brooklyn in 1990 to discuss with me and Roxanna Carrillo how she could bring her legal expertise to the developing global women’s human rights movement, and a close partnership began. It was clear from the outset that we shared a passion for linking global women’s struggles to feminist and human rights issues in the U.S. – to seeing ourselves and U.S. movements as part of global solidarity and a common struggle, and not as separated.
After that, Rhonda traveled with me and Roxanna to Argentina for the next regional feminist encuentro, where Rhonda rapidly picked up speaking Spanish with a French accent! We learned much from women there who had been working to bring feminism to that continent’s human rights struggles. Rhonda then became a core part of the global campaign for women’s human rights that strategized with activists from around the world on how to bring a feminist interpretation of human rights to the UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, to women’s reproductive rights as human rights at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development in 1994, and finally to full public awareness of this perspective at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995.
AWID: What will Rhonda be remembered for?
Charlotte Bunch: Many things as her fingerprints are all over the documents that make up the work of women’s human rights from the last two decades. All of us who have known and worked with Rhonda have experienced, witnessed and benefited from her deep human rights vision, creative legal mind, political persistence and generosity of spirit. She had keen intellectual acumen, legal strategic brilliance and was always an unswerving and courageous advocate. Throughout her life, she never ceased to persevere in the pursuit of justice for all.
Her perseverance, though, sometimes drove us crazy! For example, in the women’s caucuses for UN World Conferences, when we thought a document was finished, she often raised another critical point not seen before – after it had already gone to the printer. We wanted to say “it’s too late,” but we knew she was usually conceptually right, and something more needed to be said or done.
AWID: Can you tell us about the role Rhonda played in ensuring reproductive rights?
Charlotte Bunch: For 12 years, Rhonda served as a litigator at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. There, she played a critical role in the legal evolution of reproductive rights, and particularly the intersection of gender with race and class in determining women’s access to these rights in the U.S.
From her successful argument in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of African-American teacher aides in Mississippi who were fired for being unwed mothers to her lead as counsel in Harris v. McRae, which challenged the federal amendment that cut-off of public funds for most abortions, Rhonda made connections between policy, law, and the every day realities of people for whom exercising rights was not a given, especially women of color and poor women.
Although the loss of McRae by one vote was heartbreaking, Rhonda’s contribution to that case reverberated throughout the field and influenced so many people working on reproductive rights. Her work challenged the law, and equally importantly, influenced advocates to link social and economic rights to personal ones. For her entire career, Rhonda fought for abortion to be safe, legal and fully accessible to all women.
But Rhonda’s work on reproductive rights is just one example of how she contributed her “brain waves,” both behind the scenes and on the front lines, to many of the most important breakthroughs in progressive feminist advances both in the US and globally.
Rhonda was also co-counsel in other critical cases challenging racist practices and governmental misconduct, the Vietnam War, and, ultimately, in Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, which recognized that the 1789 “Alien Tort Claims Act” encompasses torture as an international human rights norm constitutionally as part of the “laws of the United States.” Filartiga laid the foundation for work that Rhonda continued in developing gender perspectives in numerous cases involving war crimes, corporate abuses, and immigrant domestic workers.
AWID: Are there other cases in Rhonda’s career that stand out?
Charlotte Bunch: Rhonda represented Algerian journalists, feminists, and their families, persecuted and murdered by armed Islamist groups in a U.S. Court in the groundbreaking case of Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anouar Haddam. The case was so dangerous that the clients - including people who had witnessed the killing of their own children - had to remain anonymous.
As Karima Bennoune notes: “Rhonda is a now a legendary figure among Algerians working to oppose religious extremism in their country. They see her as a visionary who comprehends that the state is not the only source of threat to human rights and who understands that the most progressive stance toward the Muslim world even in the era of the "War on Terror" is concrete solidarity with its progressives rather than apology for fundamentalism.”
This is just one example of Rhonda taking on something that many people would not go near. Many profoundly admire her willingness to take on an uphill battle even when virtually alone, a hallmark of Rhonda’s legal career. In fact, whenever someone told Rhonda that something could not be done, she tried to do it and brought the doubters along in her effort to push the boundaries!
AWID: What about Rhonda’s contributions to ending against violence against women?
Charlotte Bunch: Rhonda was one of those who laid the conceptual groundwork for much of the legislation and resolutions in place today. She participated in the process for drafting the Inter-American Convention Against Violence Against Women in Brazil in 1992 and wrote groundbreaking articles on domestic violence as torture, which were taken up by the UN Committee Against Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture over a decade later. Even today, these articles open eyes for those new to the movement.
Rhonda’s article on war crimes in Bosnia contributed to the recognition of rape and sexualized violence as torture generally and in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the International Criminal Tribunals, and as genocide in the Rwanda Tribunal.
Lepa Mladjenovic of Women in Black Belgrade has written that: “Rhonda is admired, read, discussed and cared for all over the world. At one point her piece on rape in war as primarily a form of male violence against woman, and not just nationalism, was a keystone. It was crucial in the particular moment of the war for us feminists from the Balkans, to have our Rhonda near, knowing that all her professional and activist self, written & spoken is behind her political belief.”
AWID: Rhonda also influenced the International Criminal Court, right?
Charlotte Bunch:One of her lasting areas of leadership was through co-founding the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice, leading to the landmark codification of gender in the International Criminal Court (ICC) statute in 1998 – which was the first international Human Rights instrument to fully incorporate gender – rather than women having to catch up to add this later. She was unrelenting in the negotiations for this – just ask some of the men in the Coalition for the ICC.
Rhonda also trained judges on every continent and for the ICC and was sought out for advice by UN Special Rapporteurs. In fact, whenever anyone in the movement had a legal/political question – someone always said: “let’s ask Rhonda,” and she always did her best to respond.
AWID: And how do you think Rhonda will be remembered personally?
Charlotte Bunch: This question should be asked to the many who knew her. A friend from Latin America described Rhonda aptly as a “tesoro” – a treasure of the women’s human rights movement.
Ros Petchesky, a close friend of Rhonda’s wrote that: “Even more than her brilliant mind, Rhonda’s example shines in her practice of a truly feminist humanity in the everyday - her devotion to younger generations, her fierce and loving presence for her many friends; and her passionate embrace of both politics and fun. Rhonda is my model of a life fully realized.”
Rhonda was always there for you – open – probing – committed and joyful. She could be called upon at any hour, and she would call you at any hour also!
She welcomed the world into her home – in her Brooklyn apartment and especially in her home in Long Island, which she built with her friends and partner at the time to heal wounds from losing the McRae case. It has become a sanctuary for many feminist activists to renew themselves. My partner Roxanna and I considered it our second home as did many women from all over the globe. She is loved and respected by many who know that our world was better because Rhonda had been part of it – politically and personally – and we will all remember her with great love and admiration.