United States: Pioneering Feminist Rhonda Copelon Dies at 65

The American Society of International Law

The WLUML network is saddened to learn of the passing of friend, ally and inspirational feminist human rights lawyer Rhonda Copeland, who died on 6 May 2010 after a long battle with cancer.  She was a professor at the CUNY School of Law, a practicing human rights attorney with and Vice-President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) who broke new ground opening U.S. federal courts and international tribunals to gender-based violence and international human rights violations. She worked closely with the WLUML network around issues of having women’s rights recognized as human rights by the United Nations, and around a groundbreaking lawsuit on behalf of nine individuals and the Rassemblement Algerien des Femmes Democrates (RAFD) against the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria and its leader. The case charged the FIS with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture. 

Copelon was noted for her key role in the landmark human rights case, Filartiga v. Pena-Irala, which established that victims of gross human rights abuses committed abroad had recourse to U.S. Courts. Additionally, she was a champion of women’s reproductive health and argued before the Supreme Court in Harris v. McRae, in which the Court narrowly upheld the Hyde Amendment which prohibited Medicaid reimbursement for almost all abortions. Remarkably both the Filartiga and McRae decisions came down on June 30, 1980.

“This is a huge loss for human rights worldwide,” said CUNY School of Law Dean Michelle J. Anderson. “Professor Copelon’s tireless passion and precedent-setting work leaves a legacy in human rights law, and particularly women’s rights law, that altered the bedrock of how U.S. courts treat international human rights abuses,” Anderson added. 

Peter Weiss, a vice president of the CCR, where she began her ground breaking feminist-oriented legal work as a staff attorney, and her co-counsel in Filartiga said, “Rhonda had a fiery passion to bring justice to all the oppressed and abused women of the world."  

Dolly Filartiga, the plaintiff in the case that bore her family name  and who became her dear friend added, “Rhonda was a true fighter who through the years has shown me her unconditional love for human kind and her effusive desire for the equal rights of all beings. Without her, there would not be a Filartiga principle. She was the pillar that held me throughout the toughest times of my life.”
Over the course of her 12 years at CCR Copelon challenged racial discrimination, government wiretapping, and worked on several landmark cases including Filartiga. She also argued before the Supreme Court in Drew v. Andrews, in support of African-American women plaintiffs who were denied teaching jobs because of the Mississippi Drew municipal school district policy that barred parents of out-of-wedlock children from all but janitorial positions. In this challenge to this moralistic and punitive policy, young unwed mothers won their case and their jobs back at the Supreme Court based on a claim of marital discrimination.  

Deeply distressed by the majority’s cruel interpretation of the Constitution in McRae, but heartened by the door opened on the same day by the Filartiga case, Copelon turned to international human rights as a basis for protection of rights of women and the poor. “Rhonda was creative, determined, and impassioned. She never understood the word ‘impossible,’” said Nancy Stearns, Copelon’s former CCR colleague 

Professor David Cole, of Georgetown University Law Center, a leading constitutional scholar and CCR alumni and current board member said: “It was hearing Rhonda speaking about Harris v. McRae at Yale Law School that inspired me to come to CCR in the first place.”

In 1983, Copelon was a founding faculty member of CUNY Law, and in 1992 she co-founded the Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR). Under her leadership, CUNY Law’s IWHR clinic enabled students and activists around the world to participate in a range of precedent-setting legal and advocacy campaigns. For example, IWHR’s amicus briefs in the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia resulted in the recognition in international law of rape as a crime of genocide and torture. IWHR’s work with the United Nation’s Committee against Torture, and other international bodies, contributed to the recognition that gender crimes, such as domestic and other forms of gender violence, can constitute torture under the United Nation’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. 

Also while at CUNY Law, Copelon cofounded the Women’s Caucus for Gender Justice and through her role as secretariat and as the Director of IWHR, she coordinated an effort with partners across the globe ensuring that the Rome Statute was written to take gender into account concerning the crimes, procedure and evidence and composition of the Court and personnel.  In particular, as a result of her tireless passion and work with partnering organizations, the ICC codified sexual and gender crimes as being part of their jurisdiction. “At every turn, Professor Copelon made CUNY Law proud,” said Anderson. “She inspired a new legal framework for adjudicating and understanding gender-based crimes.”

In 1996, Rhonda brought the groundbreaking lawsuit Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam on behalf of nine individuals and the Rassemblement Algerien des Femmes Democrates (RAFD) against the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria and its leader. The case charged the FIS with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassination, rape and torture.  Though the defendants prevailed on summary judgment, a decision CCR believes was wrongly decided, the case represented pioneering progressive legal advocacy in that it recognized and sought a remedy for the grave harms to progressive activists posed by religious fundamentalists, a cause which Rhonda championed throughout her life.  The victims never forgot that Rhonda stood with them.  In 2008, a group of them wrote, “We thank you, dear friend and comrade who supported us personally, publicly and legally, at a time when you were nearly alone in doing so. We thank you for defying the conventional wisdom - including among the major human rights organizations – by defending the victims of fundamentalist armed groups.”

In the fall of 2009, Dean Anderson announced “with great sadness” Professor Copelon’s retirement and her continuation with the Law School as an emeritus faculty member. In retiring, Copelon commented that her “26 year romance with CUNY Law will never end.” “Professor Copelon’s spirit and intention will always infuse our community,” said Anderson. “Her passion and intellect helped shape this School's core mission and values.” Leading feminist scholar Charlotte Bunch said: “Rhonda’s impact is lasting, and that includes her impact on training a new generation of committed feminist progressive lawyers.” 

In a special Fall 2009 CUNY Law Magazine issue, Copelon described her 26 years at CUNY Law as “a fabulous and privileged journey in education and advocacy working with amazing students, as well as partners and clients here and abroad.” Copelon, who was always humble about her leadership, credited the “cadre of activists, visionaries, and countless courageous women here and abroad who began long, deep, intersectional, and gender inclusive feminist revolutions that exposed the andro-centrism of human rights law.”

In the weeks before her death Copelon announced the establishment of the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice at CCR for which she has provided the seed funding. To donate to the fund,  visit the CCR donate page, select the "gifts in honor of" option, and note that your donation is for the Copelon Fund. 

Champion for Human Rights: In Fall of 2009, Professor Rhonda Copelon discussed the impact and vision of the School's Clinic and the challenges and opportunities central to shifting the worldwide landscape for women's human rights.

View the video here: http://www.law.cuny.edu/faculty-staff/RCopelon.html