There’s a sea change in perspective, with greater application of Geneva conventions and international law.”
Gabor Rona works on the front lines of human rights. As international legal director of Human Rights First (HRF), he advises on international human rights and humanitarian law. He doubles as interim director of HRF's law and security program, standing watch for human rights in U.S. counterterrorism policies and practices.
Far from desk-bound in the NGO's New York office, Rona watched the Obama inauguration while at Guantanamo, figuring—prematurely—he'd seen his last visit. He's traveled to Bagram, Afghanistan, and heard detainees' tales of torture and abuse at the U.S.-run detention center there. In a previous post at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York he pursued civil claims against Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Haitian death-squad leaders for crimes against humanity. While at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva he inspected Rwanda's prisons and helped negotiate rules of Procedure and Evidence for the International Criminal Court.
Rona's first exposure to human and civil rights problems came as a five-year-old refugee, when he and his Holocaust survivor parents escaped to Austria one night during their native Hungary's 1956 uprising. They ultimately made their way to New York, where new conflicts were brewing. As Rona explains, "the context of my formative years was Vietnam. I knew before law school that civil rights and human rights were going to be my guiding influences." He took a chance on Vermont Law School—"right after its big bang, when the question was, ‘will it last?&rsquo"—and found it difficult to study subjects he wasn't going to use, like tax law. But, he says of his VLS training, "I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do and the right place to do it."
His teachers made that the case. Emeritus Professor Ken Kreiling was a favorite. "He taught us how evidence works, the policy rules behind the rules. I knew I needed that to be an advocate." Rona continues, "Peter Teachout was great. Constitutional Law lends itself to inquiry, and Peter emphasized critical thinking about the Constitution. He always talked about ‘the Scylla’ of this and ‘the Charybdis’ of that, and brought out legal and societal equities."
Rona notes that today's human rights and security issues remain difficult to navigate. "There's a sea change in perspective, with greater application of Geneva conventions and international law," he says.
"However, this administration, like its predecessor, persists in the promiscuous assertion of defenses like the state secrets doctrine to prevent victims of torture and arbitrary detention from obtaining judicial remedies." Still, HRF now enjoys more open working relationships with military leaders and the Justice and State departments. "You see the dysfunctional systems of Gitmo and Afghanistan firsthand, but you also have access to the people who make the decisions. For example, we worked hard convincing the administration not to seek legislation to authorize further administrative detentions-it was one of our important victories, and they're very gratifying."