By Charlotte Bunch
When Rhonda Copelon died this month of ovarian cancer, she was 65 and
the influence of her ground-breaking legal career could be
appreciated around the world. Here, adapted from a tribute at an
awards ceremony last year, friend and colleague Charlotte Bunch
describes her extraordinary personal and professional contributions.
Feminist and human rights lawyer Rhonda Copelon often worked behind
the scenes, but her finger prints, or perhaps I should say brain
waves, are all over many of the most important breakthroughs in
progressive feminist advances both in the United States and globally.
Friends and colleagues long ago recognized her keen intellectual
acumen, her legal and political strategic brilliance, and her
unswerving advocacy in the pursuit of justice. It's true that her
perseverance could drive us crazy when, late at night in a women's
caucus for the UN World Conferences, she would raise a critical point
that clearly needed our attention after a document had already gone
to the printer. But her generosity of spirit would bring us around
more often than notbesides, she was usually conceptually right.
As a young lawyer, working for 12 years at the Center for
Constitutional Rights (CCR), Rhonda played a critical role in the
legal evolution of reproductive rights. She understood how gender
connected with race and class in determining women's access to these
rights in the United States. Recognizing the everyday realities of
poor women and women of color, she successfully argued in the U.S.
Supreme Court on behalf of African American teacher aides in
Mississippi fired for being unwed mothers. And she challenged the
federal "Hyde Amendment" cut-off of Medicaid funds for most abortions
as lead counsel in Harris v. McRae. To heal the wounds from losing
that case, she built with her own hands (and assistance from her many
friends) a home in Long Islandone that became a sanctuary for many
feminist activists to renew themselves. Yet her vision of
reproductive justice in the McRae brief changed, if not the law, then
the politics and strategies that profoundly link social and economic
rights to personal ones.
Rhonda was also co-counsel in other critical CCR cases challenging
racist practices, governmental misconduct and the Vietnam War. In
Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, the CCR team invoked the little-used 1789
"Alien Tort Claims Act" to encompass freedom from torture as an
international human rights norm and constitutionally part of the
"laws of the United States." Filartiga laid the foundation for her
continuing work in developing gender perspectives in numerous cases
involving war crimes, corporate abuses, and immigrant domestic
workers, as well as global women's human rights.
In 1983, Rhonda became part of the founding faculty of CUNY Law
School. She also directed its International Women's Human Rights Law
Clinic, which she co-founded with Celina Romany in l992. At this
point I began to work closely with her, as we discussed how she could
bring her legal expertise to the developing global women's human
rights movement. We also shared a passion for linking global women's
struggles to feminist and human rights issues in the United Statesto
seeing ourselves and U.S. movements as part of global solidarity and
a common vision for change.
Together we traveled to Latin America to engage in feminist
encuentroswhere Rhonda rapidly picked up a conversational Spanish
delivered with a French accent. We 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.
There the international community first fully recognized women's
rights as human rights, leading some to accuse women of "hijacking
the event." Our work continued at the Cairo population and
development conference, presenting women's reproductive rights as
human rights, and finally to full public awareness of this
perspective at the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995.
Feminist scholar Ros Petchesky called Rhonda her "model of a life
fully realized." Even more than her brilliance, Ros cited her
friend's "practice of a truly feminist humanity in the everydayher
devotion to younger generations, her fierce and loving presence for
her many friends; and her passionate embrace of both politics and
fun." Through the CUNY law clinic, Rhonda brought her students along
to participate in ground-breaking developments in human rights.
Her intellectual leadership was also reflected in her
writingparticularly a ground breaking l994 article on domestic
violence as torture, a view that was implemented by the UN Committee
Against Torture and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture over a
decade later. It remains one of the favorite eye opening articles of
my students at Rutgers University. Her article on war crimes in
Bosnia contributed to the recognition of rape and sexualized violence
as torture generally and as genocide in the Rwanda Tribunal. UN
Special Rapporteurs sought out Rhonda for advice. She trained judges
in every continent and for the International Criminal Court (ICC). A
lasting mark of her leadership was co-founding the Women's Caucus for
Gender Justice, leading to the landmark codification of gender in the
ICC statute. She was unrelenting in the negotiations for thisjust
ask some of the men in the Coalition for the ICC.
Rhonda was also always willing to tackle the difficult issuesearly
on in the McRae case or more recently by representing in a U.S. court
Algerian journalists, feminists, and their families who had been
persecuted and murdered by armed Islamist groups. That case (Jane Doe
v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anouar Haddam) was so dangerous that
the clientsincluding people who had witnessed the killing of their
own childrenhad to remain anonymous. Arab American law professor
Karima Bennoune called Rhonda "a nearly legendary figure among
Algerians working to oppose religious extremism in their country." In
an era of the "War on Terror," said Bennoune, Rhonda understood the
importance of "concrete solidarity" with progressives in the Muslim world.
Perhaps above all, Rhonda built enduring personal friendships in her
workmaking her as one Latin admirer said a "Tesoro," a treasure of
the women's human rights movement. As Lepa Mladjenovic, Women in
Black Belgrade, wrote when Rhonda received a prestigious human rights
award last year, "Rhonda Copelon is admired, read, discussed and
cared for all over the world." Feminists from the Balkans, she wrote,
needed "to have our Rhonda near," for her professional advice and "as
well her tender face that gives love and meaning to her feminist
theory and inspires us to cherish her."