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Alumni Spotlight: Power of the Law

Gabor Rona JD'78: Advocate for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

The Alumni Office had the pleasure of interviewing Gabor Rona in February 2015. After 9 years as International Legal Director at Human Rights First, he recently took a full-time position at Cardozo Law School to teach international human rights law and law of armed conflict. He was also recently appointed to the Executive Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association, and continues to serve on the UN Working Group on Mercenaries. 

Your range of experiences and positions is so lengthy and inspiring, we are wondering, what drives you?

I really enjoy teaching and the variety of other work. Every day is a new puzzle and presents new opportunities. Experience is key. During 20 years in the field of human rights and humanitarian law, I have tried to hone my sense of how to work efficiently. There's very little that I do solo, and there are some terribly dedicated and competent people in my field, here and abroad. Knowing who they are and what they do—and how to work together—is critical.

Where does your passion for human rights and international law come from?

My parents are Holocaust survivors. I'm a refugee. My family escaped from Hungary during the anti-Communist uprising of 1956. I came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. I suppose this all instilled in me a sense of how power corrupts and robs the less powerful of their dignity. It also taught me that the U.S., for all its many flaws, is a better place to work for justice than many.

Did you come to Vermont Law School with the intention of focusing on human rights?

I was interested in civil liberties and access to justice but as a law student, I really didn't know anything about international human rights. While still in law school, I wanted to create a non-profit law clinic to fill the gap between how poor you had to be to qualify for legal aid or public defender services and how rich you had to be to afford a lawyer. After law school, I did that in Montpelier and Barre, and spent almost a decade representing the Abenaki Indians pro bono in fishing rights litigation. That was a tremendous experience that exposed me to some aspects of customary and treaty-based international law, including the universe of international human rights law. I also got great satisfaction in criminal defense work, in going toe-to-toe with insurance companies in tort cases and in representing victims of police misconduct. But I didn't know I was already trafficking in international human rights issues in these cases until I went to Columbia Law School for an LLM in international law.

What are some of the daily challenges you come across in your work?

Finding money for effective advocacy is tough. There's money available for human rights work, but funders have a pretty short horizon and want to see concrete results. This ignores the fact that some things, like closing Guantanamo, establishing accountability for U.S torture and bringing targeted killing within the rule of law can take a long time. It also fails to appreciate the unmeasurable: the things that don't go wrong because of what human rights advocates do.

Another challenge is reaching consensus among human rights advocates about goals and how to achieve them. Human rights advocacy, like politics, is the art of the possible. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" is a daily mantra. But sometimes we settle too cheaply. We all want to see Guantanamo closed. Should we endorse bringing detainees to the U.S. for indefinite detention or should we insist that all the detainees are either tried or released, even if that adds a hurdle to ending Guantanamo detention? Finding the right balance is important because often, a united front is critical.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the conferences you've been setting up with the Holocaust and Human Rights Program, in terms of the focus within human rights and counterterrorism issues. What types of people sit on the panels?

Later this month [February], we're having a panel on how the end of US military operations in Afghanistan, the advent of ISIS and the proliferation of terrorist groups in Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere changes the rules of counterterrorism. The discussion will include a New York Times reporter, a representative of the ACLU and a Cardozo Law professor with deep experience in national security matters...I'm also working on a conference in the fall to address the role of psychologists in fashioning and implementing interrogations. I hope to draw not only psychologists but also medical ethicists, interrogators, military officials and international law experts.

In your teaching, given the array international human rights conflicts happening in the world today, do you focus on a particular type of conflict or geographic region?

The Arab/Israeli conflict, sadly, is a gift that never stops giving to the study and development of international law. But it is the scourge of international terrorism, often involving failed states and ungoverned spaces, that presents the greatest challenge, and thus, the greatest source of debate about the content and future of applicable law.

What are some of the issues you're working on or dealing with on the United Nations Working Group on Mercenaries?

We're working on a draft of a new international convention to regulate the activities of private military and security contractors. These companies are increasingly transnational and their activities often fall through the cracks of domestic legal regulation. Contractors often perform police functions or directly participate in armed conflict hostilities. This requires that the structures of international human rights law and law of armed conflict applicable to States be also applied to for-profit businesses that perform these increasingly outsourced functions. We are also studying and later this year, will be reporting to the General Assembly and Human Rights Council, on the increasingly dangerous phenomenon of foreign fighters returning to their home countries from Syria and other countries where they engage with terrorist groups. The problem is not only the risk of bringing terrorism back home, but also, that State efforts to combat the problem will trample on rights of privacy, travel, association and freedom of religion, as well as increase risks of racial and religious profiling.

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