Crucial as Bread: Rhonda Copelon’s Pioneering Work

Crucial as Bread: Rhonda Copelon’s Pioneering Work

by Yifat Susskind

It’s been two years since the passing of Rhonda Copelon, a women’s human rights advocate and lawyer. While we feel her absence, women worldwide also feel the presence of her vital work. She changed the face of international law, molding it into a tool that could better protect women. Her work was critical in winning recognition of rape as a war crime and a crime against humanity.

In my work at MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, I had the opportunity to work with Rhonda. I met her in my late 20s in 1997 when I came from Jerusalem to New York to work at MADRE. I was invited to dinner at the home of our long time executive director, Vivian Stromberg. This was a home that Vivian shared for many years in Brooklyn with Rhonda, so Rhonda joined us for dinner. And Rhonda very kindly asked me about myself and wanted to know what I had been doing in Jerusalem. I told her that I had been part of a joint Israeli-Palestinian human rights organization and that I had been running a project for Palestinian political prisoners.

Rhonda reached across the table, patted my hand and said, with warmth and not a bit of condescension, “Oh, sweetie, that is so great!” And I felt honored.

I knew who Rhonda was, not because I was a lawyer, but because I was an activist. This speaks volumes about the impact of Rhonda’s work in the world. What Rhonda did for those of us who are human rights activists was to create a treasure trove of strategies for how we could change conditions on the ground using international law.

This is a model that MADRE has pursued in our human rights advocacy for decades, and it is a model that was pioneered in many ways by Rhonda herself. This model is all about making international law relevant, accountable and useful to women in the communities where violations are actually happening.

Of all of Rhonda’s cases, the ones that touch most closely on the work we do at MADRE were the cases where Rhonda argued that rape committed during armed conflict is not incidental violence. Rather, when committed by state actors, rape is an act of torture, and under certain circumstances, an act of genocide. She won rulings that created new norms in international law.

I have worked over the years with the women these laws are aimed to protect; women from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Haiti and from other countries, as well, who suffered those politically motivated rapes that Rhonda fought to prosecute. I know from these women how critical those rulings have been to their ability to recover from what happened to them, to face what happened with self-respect, to command respect from others, to overcome tremendous and life-threatening stigma. These rulings allowed them to not just heal and rebuild their own lives, but to participate more effectively in rebuilding their communities and their countries.

I once spoke with a woman from Bosnia who said that Rhonda’s work was “as crucial as bread” to her and her daughters in being able to overcome what they experienced in the war. “As crucial as bread”; that is Rhonda’s work.

The last time that I ever spoke with Rhonda was in the spring of 2010. She called me, incensed about something that she had seen on television, something that many of us saw: images of women in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after the earthquake, standing in line to receive food aid, and those women being shoved out of the way by men, being yelled at to get to the back of the line, having their food parcels torn out of their hands.

Rhonda said to me, “We’ve got to do something. It is so unjust.” I was struck by the weight of that truth, because that, in fact, was the whole problem — that it was so unjust — and Rhonda said it plainly. It made me think about how we tend in our work to traffic in complexities. Politics is complicated, and legal strategy can be complicated, but much of the time, justice is simple. Rhonda never lost sight of that.

In the early spring of 2010, just weeks before Rhonda died, she helped me think about how we could stand with the women of Haiti to demand accountability. She also planted the seeds for a legal strategy that we would undertake later that year at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in response to the sharp rise in rapes in the displacement camps of Haiti. Drawing from her inspiration, we won a groundbreaking legal ruling requiring the Haitian government to take urgent action to protect women in the camps.

And for the past two years, we’ve been working with a coalition of partners to try to see that strategy implemented on the ground and in the hands of the women activists in Haiti. As we have been doing this work, once again, I have had a chance to see close-up how brilliant Rhonda’s strategies really were. Because what Rhonda showed us how to do was not just to theorize women’s rights within international law — which is, of course, critical — but how to operationalize those rights. She showed us how to do that in a way that doesn’t just address past violations, but changes future outcomes by advancing international law so that abuses are prevented.

And that is life-changing not just for the women who are plaintiffs in one particular case, but potentially for all of us everywhere. Rhonda left a brilliant legacy in our care. It is our responsibility and our great privilege to move it forward. So let’s keep moving.

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women’s health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building.