Speech to American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights

Louisville, KY

February 5, 2024


Good afternoon.  As President and CEO of Human Rights First, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to members of the Center for Human Rights.  I thank your chair, Roula Allouch, for not only inviting this conversation, but for her work at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which does so much for the civil rights of the American Muslim community.  And I thank all of you for coming today.

A word about my organization. Like so many of you, we at Human Rights First protect intrinsic human rights. We support victims of injustice and promote the rule of law. For almost 50 years, Human Rights First has worked tirelessly at home and abroad to uncover human rights abuses, bring perpetrators to justice, and ensure that all people live without fear of oppression or persecution. We challenge authoritarianism, we confront extremism, we combat systemic injustice, and we curb the abuse of technology by empowering our network of rights defenders and equipping them with the tools to enact change. We are driven by a fundamental belief in universal rights and, working together, we will create a just world for all.

This is a dream we all share, and for many of us, it has become our life’s work. And like any calling, we who follow this one have each taken our own path to this point.

In many ways, my own began in 2003. I was about 23 years old when I found myself as a Second Lieutenant with Bravo Company, First of the Sixth Infantry, in Baghdad, Iraq. I was fighting a war that I had vehemently opposed as a college student the previous year, trying to do my duty to my soldiers and my country, and trying each day to make it through to the next.

I saw a lot of things during my time there. But one set of experiences in particular, I think, really helps explain how I got here.

At the beginning of my time in Iraq, I spent most of my time working with local Iraqi contractors and community leaders to rebuild and revitalize infrastructure, like schools and hospitals. But before long, the insurgency began in earnest. We’d work to rebuild a place, and then a suicide car bomber would try to blow up what we’d just built. So, like a lot of my fellow soldiers, I got into the business of hunting bomb-makers.

I remember the first one of these raids vividly, though there were dozens. I’m an Eagle Scout from a small town in New Hampshire. My dad is a retired law enforcement officer. I remember hearing him tell me about the rights of the accused when I was about three years old. My dad would tell me it’s better to let ten guilty people go free than to convict one innocent person. Due process of law was a constant childhood mantra, right up there with eating my vegetables.

So I remember going through the door in my first raid at about three in the morning, knowing that the person I was after built bombs to kill strangers for money. But of course, when I found him I also found a family, terrified in the middle of the night as armed men entered their home. I don’t know if my words meant anything to them, but I remember saying with all the naïve confidence of youth “We are different from the soldiers who might be have been here six months ago under the previous regime. We’re not going to shoot your dad in the front yard. We’re Americans. This is the flag I’m wearing. We don’t torture people. We don’t murder people.”

I must have said that dozens of times to different families, as I was taking someone they loved away in flex-cuffs. They all went off to the same detention facility. And then, many months later, the country now in chaos, I walked into the basement of an Iraqi police station to inspect the condition of the prisoners there. In front of me was a big holding cell full of men. They saw me coming down the stairs, and they panicked, begging the Iraqi police not to let me take them. Because of the uniform I was wearing.

Because all of those people I had taken into custody, whose families I had told about America’s respect for human rights, had ended up in Abu Ghraib. Many of them had been tortured there. And now the word was out.

Those prisoners and I were both facing a terrible truth together in that basement.

And so I thought to myself: how did we become this? How did the flag and the uniform I wore come to be this – a symbol of fear to a cell full of helpless people? How can I help make sure this never, ever happens again?

Eventually, I left the military, went to law school, and made my way to Human Rights First – an organization whose name I didn’t know back in those tough days in Iraq, but whose work I had seen. The organization that had rallied the most senior retired military leaders in the nation to stand against torture. That was Human Rights First, and how I came to know them.

That’s part of why I am here. That’s why I care so deeply about the future of the human rights movement that I would like to talk about today. Some of what I have to say is critical. Some of what I have to say is provocative. But it comes from a place of both deep hope and a deep personal stake in the future of these values and this movement, at what I think is a critical time for all of us.

This has been a difficult and in many ways heartbreaking time for all of us who believe in universal rights. It remains a dangerous time. And for me, and I suspect for some of you as well, the question now is the same one I had in that basement in Iraq nearly 20 years ago: what is the path back to hope? To believing in ourselves, not on the basis of illusions, but in a much stronger sense that is grounded in the full truth?

We need that grounded belief in ourselves, and the confident action that springs from such belief. We need it because these dangerous days we are living through together demand that we meet them with our best.

Because in 2024, global democracy and human rights are on the brink.

This year, roughly half of the people in this planet, in over 60 countries, will be going to the polls to elect new leaders or re-elect the ones they have.

But in so many places, there are leading candidates that run counter to democracy, universal rights, and the rule of law.  In governance, there’s a backsliding toward authoritarianism.  Extremism is seething through the culture.

Take, for example, a country that…

Recently had a national election, and the incumbent refused to concede.

He rallied his supporters to challenge the results of that election.  They stormed the national legislature to make sure he would remain in power.

And since then, his supporters, the right-wing media, and extremists have been undercutting social institutions, weakening those that oppose them.

And, because he was an incumbent, he’d been able to stack the courts in ways that could keep justice from being served.

I think we’d all agree that everybody in this room, and the entire international human rights community, would be concerned.

We’d educate the public on the crisis, go to court, set up advocacy campaigns, write op-eds – whatever we could to save this nation from falling into an authoritarian human rights disaster.

And international human rights organizations like ours would lead that charge.

We would push for stringent nonpartisan, external oversight of the next election.  We would try to backstop that country’s public institutions.  People around the world might hold vigils, carrying the country’s flag as a sign of concern for that democracy and the rights of its people.

At this point, I’m sure you realize, I’m talking about the situation in the United States right now.

But I’m not making this case for the reasons you likely expect.  I raise this specter not because of all the actions I mentioned a moment ago – which are crucially important to address – but to show the shortsightedness of any separation between international human rights and the fight for civil rights in America.  Or the challenge of domestic extremism.  Or the battle we’re in to protect and strengthen democracy.

What is the shape of a human rights movement that can meet the challenges of this moment?

Part of the answer, I think, is that to be resilient in the face of true danger, and to make real and lasting progress, we’ve got to be relevant to our neighbors: we’ve got to show up more in our own communities. We need a human rights movement that can honestly say we are a real part of our communities, not standing apart from them or imagining that our global outlook places us above them. Internationalism is rightly at the core of our belief in universal rights, and it would be unfair to say that the traditional human rights movement has completely ignored domestic concerns, but I believe that we have got to be much more committed to showing up for our neighbors when it counts.

To see this truth, and why it matters so much, we need look no further than some of the most powerful, resilient, diverse, and determined movements for universal rights in history; they’re here, all around us. Many of you in this room are no doubt leaders in these movements.

We have a powerful LGBTQIA movement that’s brought profound changes to our society in a very short time.

The civil rights movement, in this decade typified by Black Lives Matter, has taken on police brutality and wider issues of racial justice.

The movement for women’s reproductive health, agency over their bodies, and the right to privacy has been a transformative force in our society, and has risen again with profound power in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs Decision.

These are just a few examples of the powerful movements at work in American culture.  Now take a moment, and look at them from another perspective.

They aren’t necessarily disjointed movements at cross-purposes.  No, these are all movements that share an agenda – they are movements for justice.

They are, from my point of view, unmistakably, if not self-consciously, missions to preserve, protect, or build respect for bedrock, universal human rights.

Though we often speak of it by other names, there is a mighty human rights movement in America. That movement has made tremendous strides for universal rights and justice, in the face of terrible opposition and at terrible cost. That movement may rightly claim responsibility for transforming the American experiment from an apartheid republic to something approaching a true democracy, and for safeguarding that democracy for all of us.

So this is the most important thing I have to say today, and I want to say it clearly. It is past time for American human rights advocates to definitively, and with much-needed humility, reject false distinctions between human rights and civil rights. This has got to be fully understood and undertaken as a single struggle. The future of our movement and our society probably depends upon it.

There are two strong reasons for this.

The first is that, as I mentioned before, these are the same moral struggles. Civil rights ARE human rights. Treating them synonymously underscores the social, economic, and political threads that connect a just and free society. And treating civil rights as human rights strengthens the legal foundation for equality and encourages the reinforcement and introduction of policies that protect and promote the rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or creed, and beyond the boundaries imposed by borders.

The second reason is because we really have no choice.  At times of relative social peace, maybe, movements could strive for social changes for their supporters, all on their own.

But today, the social contract is fraying. Alone, each of us will be threatened with defeat.  Shorn of allies, even the victories we achieve will be short-lived.

I’m not as worried about the domestic American movements I’ve been talking about as I am our own human rights movement.

We are the ones that have to change, to ally, to listen, and to reach out to survive.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean.  Hungary emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and has been a member of the European Union for two decades.  But since taking power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed him and his party to consolidate control over the country’s once-independent institutions.

In control of the government, Fidesz has used its institutional power hamper the reach and effectiveness of opposition groups and political parties.

Election observers note that they improperly swayed the last elections to maintain their power.

From there, Orban’s government has pushed and passed laws that target minority groups like immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community.  They’ve curtailed reproductive rights.

They used the Covid pandemic to gain emergency powers they used to curtail more freedoms, like teachers’ right to strike and barred public events like political demonstrations.

They have also clamped down on journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations critical or, like so many autocratic regimes, potentially critical of the ruling party.

Pro-government media attacks opponents of the Fidesz government’s programs and policies.  NGOs are called foreign agents or even “Soros agents” – an antisemitic dog whistle.

So the political situation is dire in Hungary.  Freedom House rates the country only partly free, and Hungary’s scores continue to drop each year.

With all these pressures, elements of civil society opposition to oppression are frayed.  But the organizations that are continuing to be able to do work, that are making it through the gantlet of government oppression, are those that are cooperating across communities.

They are fusing their work for civil rights, human rights, political rights, the rights of an array of minorities in that country – Roma; LGBTQ people; migrants, women (though women are not actually a minority), with economic and environmental action, and together, they are finding in their allyship their voice against Orban’s autocracy.

The United States is not now – or perhaps, yet – in the same state as Viktor Orban’s Hungary. But in the still-recent past, much of our nation has been far worse than that, for far too many. We must never stop learning from the movements that overcame such brutal injustice, and that made tremendous strides toward a more perfect union for all of us.

And one of the many great strengths of the civil rights movement is that while its goals have always been universal, its approach to organizing and action has always been deeply, profoundly GROUNDED. Rights, after all, are vested most fundamentally in the individual human being, living and working and realizing themselves within the rich context of place, relationships, experiences lived and shared and understood in relation with others, identity and sense of self inextricably tied to the specific, grounded reality of place and time. In other words, of community. And it is exactly this very human experience that forms the building blocks of the most powerful movements for rights, from Selma to the streets of Kharkiv and Hong Kong.

This is a mindset and an approach that I believe the human rights movement must fully embrace, in a spirit of open-minded humility that allows us to learn. It is an approach that can help build real, much-needed power for our movement into the next generation. And it is an approach that can deliver progress even in the face of incredible danger.

Let me offer another example, from my own organization.

We have worked with Ukraine’s LGBTQIA community for years.  Since the Maidan Revolution, we have engaged with the LGBT community there, doing everything we could to help them protect – and hopefully expand — their rights.

We applauded the banning of workplace discrimination there.  We worked with American leaders who called out the anti-LGBT repression in that country.  We cooperated with leaders from that community to lead the first LGBT Pride Parade in Kharkiv, and we worked with them to respond to hate crimes when that parade was attacked by far-right extremists.

The truth is, in that culturally conservative eastern European country, we were not making great progress. Rights for that community was an unpopular cause, and those who led the work were often targeted and shunned within their own communities.

After the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, Kharkiv was almost entirely surrounded by Russian forces within hours. The city held on by a thread, the downtown under artillery fire. Almost everyone who could, including many city leaders and first responders, fled for their lives.

But our allies in the LGBT community refused to yield. They didn’t run. Instead, they proudly wore their pride gear as they delivered critical medical supplies and food to the neighbors who had once shunned them, dodging incoming shells and missiles. They delivered thousands of rainbow pride socks to Ukrainian soldiers in the bitter cold. And when Pride came the next year, they organized their celebration in the city’s metro to keep it safe from Russian bombs – and it became the party of the year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked his government to study the legalization of same-sex marriages, to change the country’s constitution from defining marriage to be between men and women to something broader.  The courage of a few activists, and their willingness to extend a hand to their neighbors even in the face of bigotry on the one hand, and death on the other, transformed an entire society’s view on a bedrock human rights issue.

Ukraine is one reminder among many that when it comes to the future of American communities and the character of our nation as a whole, the stakes are truly global. Whether we like it or not, getting our own house in order matters to billions of others around the world.

When America’s policies and actions no longer match its higher values, when hate and extremism are normalized, and when our democratic processes are threatened, our global legitimacy is undermined along with our ability to protect the most vulnerable worldwide.

To understand the power of that global legitimacy, listen to Vaclav Havel’s voice from 1989 on the impact of American human rights diplomacy behind the iron curtain:

The first opposition movements which emerged in the Soviet bloc at that time had one thing in common: they all cited the Helsinki documents, as well as other papers binding governments to respect human rights and liberties. To these movements, the accords were an inspiration, a shield, a chance to resist coercion and to make it more difficult for the forces of coercion to retaliate.

An inspiration and a shield. That’s a powerful reminder of what America has meant in the past, even with all of our brutal imperfections, to those rising up against the tyrannical power of empires now fallen. It’s a powerful reminder of what we can and must be again.

I think it’s also an encapsulation of who we as lawyers can and should be for our neighbors, our communities, and our society: an inspiration and a shield.

Lawyers are central to any movement for rights, and we always have been. After all, it is through the practice of law on behalf of real people that the universal language of rights encounters the particular, unique, and infinitely valuable cosmos of meaning that makes up each individual human experience. And when lawyers step forward to champion just how sacred and valuable each individual person ought to be in our society, we can do so with justified faith that our neighbors will stand beside us.

Like many of you, I’ve seen this first-hand.

I was at a conference not unlike this one, in Philadelphia, when the Trump administration declared its now-infamous Muslim ban in its first few weeks in office. An organization I’d co-founded as a law student, the International Refugee Assistance Project, was among the groups that scrambled to respond. The situation was chaotic, but I was an IRAP board member and a lawyer and so I decided to book it to Dulles Airport to do whatever I could.

I vividly remember how I felt on that ride down to Dulles. I’m guessing some in this room took similar rides that day. I had no idea what I’d find when I got there. And I have to admit, I was pretty worried I’d find myself all but alone when I arrived.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. What I found was hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the eastern seaboard, packed into baggage claim. All ages and backgrounds, pitching in, making signs, getting organized, speaking out. I remember meeting an Iraq war veteran, his children alongside him, who had driven for hours to stand tall and fight for the rights of strangers — nobody had called him, he’d just come, he explained, because it was the right thing to do.

And lawyers, at the center of it all. Lawyers on two phones at once, setting up office equipment on the benches, filing briefs from baggage claim. Lawyers that the crowd of good-hearted humanity who rushed to Dulles that day looked to for guidance, for leadership, for the expertise to translate their deeply held values into human outcomes.

And all through that night, and into the next day, lawyers delivered. One family at a time, the travelers the administration had targeted on the basis of their faith walked proudly out of detention and into a sea of friendly faces, calling welcome. I watched that veteran pin one of his Purple Hearts — a medal that can be earned only by shedding one’s own blood — on a newly arrived young boy. And I heard the crowd chanting a mantra over and over that they’d learned by heart, pointing toward our little baggage claim law firm — advice to the newly released that became a kind of anthem: “to stay free, see the lawyers!”

A bit later, IRAP filed some big CASES. A brilliant legal team took the fight to the (highest courts) and won. But when I think of what the practice of law really means to me, when I think about the heart that lies behind all our hard-won skill, I think about those faces walking out of detention and into a sea of welcome — into a reclaimed land of the free.

I remember what rule of law looks like with a human face.

As I know many of you will agree, once you have experienced what it means to stand alongside your neighbors as part of a grounded movement for rights and justice, you will never forget it. It will forever change your sense of the possible, your faith in those around you and the positive potential of your society. For me, that experience tells me that we can face these dangerous days together with justified and hard-won hope.

Every fight for justice is ultimately a part of a global struggle for universal rights – rights that can only be fully realized in the grounded and lived experiences of individuals and communities. These myriad fights for justice, these million fires around the world burning in the face of tyranny and extremism and violence, each one grounded in community – these are the bright future of a rekindled human rights movement.

For me, in these dangerous days, that’s the path back to hope. That’s the path back to a belief in ourselves that’s grounded, truly grounded, in the whole truth of ourselves and in hard-won faith in one another.

Thank you for having me here today as part of this incredible community. I look forward to our conversation, and to working with you and standing with you in the days to come.



  • Michael Breen

Published on February 5, 2024


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