Human rights need guardians. Without protection, anyone’s rights can be violated. A human rights lawyer is a lawyer that focuses on human rights issues such as discrimination based on characteristics like sex, race, gender, and more. They can represent individuals or groups in court both nationally and internationally, challenging unjust laws and policies and working to ensure equal treatment under existing laws. Here are five human rights lawyers making a big impact:
A Canadian lawyer, Julian Falconer built his career on defending human rights. His alma mater, the University of Toronto, named him as one of their 100 most notable graduates of the twentieth century. At his law firm Falconers LLP, Falconer and his team have represented the family of a young woman who died in custody at a prison; journalists who were unlawfully beaten and arrested at the G20 summit; and Maher Arar, who was detained and tortured after being deported to Syria, instead of Canada, his home. That case made Canadian legal history when Arar received the largest human rights settlement given to an individual plaintiff. Falconer also represented the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in a crucial case, which led to the Court of Appeal for Ontario acknowledging that racial profiling is a valid defense for racial minority communities.
Falconer has received various awards for his work, including the Urban Alliance Race Relations Medal and Pride News Magazine’s African Canadian Achievement Award. He and his team’s work has expanded in recent years, focusing on state accountability, the relationship between Indigenous nations and Canadians, and issues like child welfare, education, and community governance as it applies to Indigenous nations.
Best known in the general public for his book A Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based human rights organization. Through this organization, Stevenson has taken on and won legal challenges aimed at the prison system. His focuses include unfair and excessive sentencing; innocent death row prisoners; abuse of prisoners and the mentally-ill; and children being prosecuted as adults. Over the course of his career, Stevenson and his team have won relief, reversals, or release for over 135 wrongly-condemned death row prisoners. The cases often go to the United States Supreme Court. In a case from 2012, the court banned mandatory life-imprisonment-without-parole sentences for kids 17 years old and younger, while a more recent case from 2019 ruled in favor of protection for condemned prisoners with dementia.
Stevenson’s work against an unjust criminal justice system and poverty has earned him multiple awards, including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, the ACLU National Medal of Liberty, and the 2016 American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award. In addition to his legal work, Stevenson led the opening of the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The latter is the United States’ first memorial dedicated to the lynching of African Americans, while the Legacy Museum examines the history of slavery, racial segregation, and connection to mass incarceration today.
Human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney was born in Lebanon, but her family left for England during the Lebanese Civil War. In 2000, Clooney went to Oxford for a law degree, and then New York University of School for a Master of Laws. After working as a barrister in London, Clooney was appointed by the UN as an adviser to Kofi Annan, and her career took off from there. Notable cases include representing Armenia in order to gain recognition of the Armenian Genocide; representing a journalist who was imprisoned after publishing evidence of corruption by Azerbaijan’s president; and representing an Iraqi student forced into sex slavery by ISIS.
Throughout her career, Clooney has advocated for women’s health and human rights with a special focus on sexual violence during war. In 2016, she co-founded the Clooney Foundation for Justice with husband George Clooney. The foundation seeks to promote justice for survivors of war, give vulnerable children an education, and support refugees searching for safety. In 2018, Clooney became an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Law. Because of her marriage to a famous actor and impressive career, many consider her the most well-known human rights lawyer in the world.
The chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda is one of the world’s most influential human rights lawyers working today. Originally from Gambia, Bensouda received her Barrister of Law from the University of Nigeria and became Gambia’s first international maritime law expert. She then began work as a non-government civil servant with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. First a Legal Adviser and Trial Attorney, she moved up to Senior Legal Adviser and Head of the Legal Advisory Unit from 2002-2004. In 2012, Bensouda was named the chief prosecutor for the ICC. When she began investigating the possibility of war crimes committed by the US forces and allies in Afghanistan, the US revoked her visa, banning Bensouda from the country. Her office plans to continue their investigation.
For her work and status within the human rights community, Bensouda has received many recognitions and awards. In 2009, she received the ICJ International Jurists award for her criminal law work nationally and internationally. In 2011, she was awarded the World Peace Through Law Award, and in 2017, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Samantha Power’s career begins with her serving as a war correspondent during the Yugoslav Wars, and then getting her J.D. degree from Harvard Law School. From 1998-2002, she served as the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The following year, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. The book examined and critiqued America’s indifference to genocides around the world.
For her dedication to combat global human rights violations, Power became the chair of the Atrocities Prevention Board during Barack Obama’s presidency in 2012. She had previously served as his foreign policy fellow when he was a senator, and is credited with drawing his attention to Darfur. In 2013, she also took on the role of Ambassador to the United Nations, a position she held until 2017. Her office focused on women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, religious freedom, refugees, human trafficking, and other humans rights issues. In 2016, Forbes named her as the 41st most powerful woman in the world.