Our work is motivated and defined by the stories and courage of 50+ human rights defenders from around the world.
Representing a diverse array of cultures and ideas, these defenders and their activism encourage students to further engage with international human rights law, standards, and advocacy and to realize how one person can truly make a difference. Our list of defenders is always growing, as we work to discover new stories that can inspire a generation to take action.
We feature our Defenders in a variety of ways, whether it be through interviews from Kerry Kennedy’s book Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders who are Changing Our World or teacher-developed lesson plans. Beginning with the story of a specific human rights defender, each of these lesson plans outlines a series of activities inspired by the defender’s advocacy and designed to encourage students themselves to “Become a Defender.” They are available in 7 different languages for students at all levels, ranging from elementary school to law school. In addition, they align with Common Core Learning Standards.
Robert F. Kennedy
Robert Francis Kennedy was born on Nov. 20, 1925, in Brookline, Mass., the seventh child of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy. After high school, he served in the Navy during World War II, attended Harvard University and later the University of Virginia Law School. In 1950, Robert Kennedy married Ethel Skakel and later had 11 children. In 1952, Kennedy managed his older brother John’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. Later, he worked in the U.S. Senate, winning attention as the Senate’s lead lawyer investigating Teamsters’ Union leader Jimmy Hoffa for corruption.
In 1960, he managed John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and was appointed attorney general in President Kennedy’s cabinet after the election where he won respect for his effective administration of the Department of Justice, fighting organized crime and helping African-Americans exercise their right to vote, to attend integrated schools and to use public accommodations. Robert Kennedy also helped President Kennedy propose the most far-reaching civil rights law since Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed eight months after President Kennedy’s death.
Soon after President Kennedy’s death, Robert Kennedy resigned as attorney general and, in 1964, ran successfully for the United States Senate in New York. As New York’s senator, he initiated a number of projects in the state, including assistance to underprivileged children and students with disabilities and the establishment of the Bedford- Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation to improve living conditions and employment opportunities in areas of Brooklyn.
On March 18, 1968, Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. He challenged complacency in American society and sought to bridge the great divides in American life—between the races, between the poor and the affluent, between young and old. His 1968 campaign brought hope to an American people troubled by discontent and violence at home and war in Vietnam.
Robert Francis Kennedy was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Calif., shortly after claiming victory in that state’s crucial Democratic primary. He was 42 years old. Robert F. Kennedy was committed to the principles of freedom and social justice. He carried a message of hope and an unflagging conviction that courage would bring change. His central belief in the civic and moral responsibility of each individual and the community to take action against injustice, poverty and prejudice underlined his public life. He urged each person not to turn a blind eye, but instead to tackle the issues that challenge freedom and justice.
Although his life was cut short, Robert Kennedy’s vision and ideals live on today through the work of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights in Washington, D.C.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work has contributed to confronting the bigotry and violence of South Africa’s apartheid system. Born in 1931 in Klerksdorf, he graduated from the University of South Africa in 1954 and was ordained a priest in 1960.
He studied and taught in England and South Africa, and in 1975 he was appointed Dean of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Johannesburg, becoming the first black South African to hold that position.
In 1978 he then became the first black General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches.
Outspoken against the evils of apartheid, he was vilified by friends, foes, press, and politicians, alike. Yet through extraordinary patriotism, commitment to humanity, his vision, and ultimately his faith, he persevered. After South Africa’s first democratic, nonracial elections in 1994, which effectively ended eighty years of white minority rule, the new parliament created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, appointing Tutu as its head to lead his country in an agonizing and unwavering confrontation of the brutality of the past.
His faith is exemplified by his belief that the battle for the triumph of good will be won or lost, not by prayers alone, but by actions taken to confront evil here on earth. Today Archbishop Tutu chairs “The Elders” a group of prominent world leaders who contribute their integrity and moral stature to deal with some of the world’s most pressing issues.
Other members include Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Aung San Suu Kyi, Jimmy Carter, and fellow Speak Truth to Power Defender Muhammad Yunus.
Elie Wiesel was brought up in a closely-knit Jewish community in Sighet, Transylvania (Romania). When he was fifteen his family was herded aboard a train and deported by Nazis to the Auschwitz death camp.
Wiesel’s mother and younger sister died at Auschwitz, but his two older sisters survived. Wiesel and his father were then taken to Buchenwald, where his father also perished.
In his autobiography, Wiesel writes: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
Wiesel has devoted his life to ensuring that the world does not forget the atrocities of the Nazis and that they are not repeated.
After the war, Wiesel became a journalist in Paris, ending his silence about his experiences during the Holocaust with the publication of Night in 1958. Translated into twenty-five languages, with millions of copies in print around the world, Night is a searing account of the Nazi death camps.
Wiesel has since written more than fifty books. He served as the chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and was the founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and the Medal of Liberty Award, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986 he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel taught at Boston University and traveled the globe advocating for human rights until his passing in July 2016.
Civil Rights, Political Participation
One of the most courageous people the civil rights movement ever produced, U.S. Congressman John Lewis has dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he described as “The Beloved Community” in America.
The “conscience of the U.S. Congress” grew up as the son of sharecroppers. He was inspired by the activism surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott, a protest campaign against racial segregation on public transit that started in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama; and by the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to become a part of the civil rights movement, a mass protest against racial segregation and discrimination in the U.S. that peaked between 1955 and 1965.
As a student at American Baptist College, Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations, was one of the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States, and was named Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which he helped form.
By 1963, Lewis was dubbed one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement. At twenty-three, he was an architect of, and a keynote speaker at, the historic March on Washington in August 1963. Attended by some 250,000 people, it was the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation’s capital. The event is remembered for Lewis’s keynote address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1964, he coordinated voter registration drives and community action programs during the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a campaign in June 1964 that attempted to register as many African-American voters as possible. The following year, Lewis helped lead more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, with intentions to march to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state. The marchers were attacked by Alabama state troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as “Bloody Sunday” and hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. After leaving SNCC in 1966, he continued his commitment to the civil rights movement as associate director of the Field Foundation and his participation in the Southern Regional Council’s voter registration programs. Lewis went on to become director of the Voter Education Project (VEP). Under his leadership, the VEP transformed the nation’s political climate by adding nearly four million minorities to the voter rolls.
He was elected to Congress in November 1986 and has served as U.S. Representative of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District since then. John Lewis holds a B.A. in religion and philosophy from Fisk University and is a graduate of the American Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been awarded more than fifty honorary degrees and has received numerous awards from eminent national and international institutions, including the only John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for Lifetime Achievement ever granted.
Kailash Satyarthi is India’s lodestar for the abolition of child labor. Since 1980, he has led the rescue of over 100,000 enslaved children in India and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation.
Kailash has emancipated thousands of children from bonded labor, a form of slavery where a desperate family typically borrows needed funds from a lender (sums as little as $35) and is forced to hand over a child as surety until the funds can be repaid. But often the money can never be repaid—and the child is sold and resold to different masters. Bonded laborers work diamond, stonecutting, manufacturing, and other industries. They are especially prevalent in the carpet export business, where they hand-knot rugs for the U.S. and other markets.
Satyarthi rescues children and women from enslavement in the overcrowded, filthy, and isolated factories where conditions are deplorable, with inhuman hours, unsafe workplaces, rampant torture, and sexual assault. Satyarthi has faced false charges and death threats for his work. The constant death threats are taken seriously—two of Satyarthi’s colleagues have been murdered.
Satyarthi organized and led two great marches across India to raise awareness about child labor. On the global stage, he has been the architect of the single largest civil society network for the most exploited children, the “Global March Against Child Labor”, active in over 140 countries.
Kailash Satyarthi is also the architect and leader of Global Campaign for Education (GCE) a civil society movement working to end the global education crisis and ensuring that States deliver the right of everyone to a free, quality public education. He successfully spearheaded a countrywide movement to make education a Constitutional Provision which subsequently paved way for the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education in 2009 in India.
In 2014, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Malala Yousafzai.
The Right to Education
Malala Yousafzai is a student and education activist from the town of Mingora in the Swat District of Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. She is known for her activism for rights to education and for women, especially in the Swat Valley, where the Taliban had at times banned girls from attending school.
In early 2009, at the age of 11, Malala wrote a blog under a pseudonym for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) detailing her life under Taliban rule, their attempts to take control of the valley, and her views on promoting education for girls in the Swat Valley. The following summer, a New York Times documentary was made about her life as the Pakistani military intervened in the region, culminating in the Second Battle of Swat.
Malala rose in prominence, giving interviews in print and on television, and was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize by South African activist and Speak Truth to Power human rights defender Desmond Tutu. In October of 2012, the Taliban’s attempt to assassinate Malala left her in critical condition, sparking a national and international outpouring of support. The United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, launched a petition in her name, using the slogan “I am Malala”, demanding that all children worldwide be in school by the end of 2015 – a petition which helped lead to the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
Malala was the winner of Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize. On July 12, 2013, to celebrate her 16th birthday and Malala Day – a day declared by UN officials, Malala gave her first public speech since the shooting, highlighting the necessity of universal education at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2014, for her struggle against the suppression of children and young people, and for the right of all children to education.
Marina Pisklakova is Russia’s leading women’s rights activist. She studied aeronautical engineering in Moscow, and while conducting research at the Russian Academy of Sciences, was startled to discover that family violence had reached epidemic proportions. Because of her efforts, Russian officials started tracking domestic abuse and estimated that in a single year, close to 15,000 women were killed and 50,000 were hospitalized, while only one-third to one-fifth of all battered women received medical assistance.
With no legislation outlawing the abuse, there were no enforcement mechanisms, support groups, or protective agencies for victims. In July 1993, Pisklakova founded a hot line for women in distress, later expanding her work to establish the first women’s crisis center in the country. She lobbied for legislation banning abuse and worked with an openly hostile law enforcement establishment to bring aid to victims and prosecution to criminals.
She began a media campaign to expose the violence against women and to educate women about their rights and now regularly appears on radio and television promoting respect for women’s rights.
Today her organization ANNA (also known as the National Center for the Prevention of Violence) operates a network of 170 crisis centers across Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is now active not only in combating the scourge of violence against women but also in preventing the trafficking of women and children.
In 2004 she received the Human Rights Global Leadership Award. Pisklakova’s efforts have saved countless lives, at great risk to her own.
Sonita Alizadeh is a young Afghan rapper working to end child marriage. With a poet’s soul and activist’s passion, she uses rap, conviction, and courage to stand up for women’s and girls’ rights. Sonita was born in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. Daily life was dangerous, and Sonita’s childhood was challenging. To escape the Taliban, her family walked hundreds of miles to Iran in the rain and snow. Sonita grew up an undocumented refugee in Tehran.
To support herself and her family, she cleaned offices and bathrooms and sold handicrafts. Without official papers, Sonita could not go to school. Undeterred, she eventually found a local NGO that provided basic education to young Afghans in the region. While there, Sonita discovered a talent for writing and art. She witnessed the injustice of the world around her and found poetry, photography, and music to be an outlet for self-expression.
At age 14, she began experimenting with pop music but found the slow pace to be too confining for all she had to say. After hearing an Iranian rapper on the radio, she decided to give rap a try. The faster beat and narrative nature of rap created enough space for Sonita to share all that was on her mind. Although it was illegal for a girl to rap alone, and dangerous to speak out, Sonita could not remain silent, so she wrote her first rap, about child labor.
At the NGO, Sonita saw her friends disappear from the classroom one-by-one, as they were forced to marry. Although deeply troubling, this was not a surprise. Sonita’s own family had tried to sell her into marriage when she was ten years old, and then again when she was sixteen.
At age 10, Sonita had no idea what it meant to get married. In her mind, marriage meant dressing up and playing bride and groom with her friends and family. The arrangement fell through and Sonita was not married at that time.
At age 16, Sonita was told again she had to get married because the family needed money to pay for her brother’s wife. However, Sonita had other ideas for her life. In response to her impending marriage and the feelings of so many of her friends, Sonita wrote the song “Daughters for Sale” and, with the help of a filmmaker who was recording her story, made a music video. They posted it on Youtube, and it quickly went viral. The video was seen by the nonprofit organization Strongheart Group who reached out to Sonita and then facilitated her move to the United States for school at Wasatch Academy in Utah. She was also assisted significantly by the director and crew filming her story, the documentary “Sonita”, which would later receive great acclaim.
Although Sonita was now safe from the imminent threat of marriage and able to go to school for the first time in her life, she was not at peace. Thoughts of her friends in Iran and Afghanistan, and all the children still facing forced marriage, haunted her.
Compelled to do something more, and with the continued support of Strongheart, Sonita began sharing her story and actively speaking out about child marriage. Sonita’s message is reaching the highest levels of global leadership and civil society, and her story and vision have been shared worldwide. Through her work as a human rights defender and a Girls Not Brides champion, Sonita’s message is reaching young people around the world who are drawn to her music and vision and joining her in the movement to end child marriage.
Human Rights in Time of War
In 1991 the cessation of Slovenia triggered the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia into the republics of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
Led by the ethnic cleansing policies of Croatian dictator Tudjman and the Serbian Milosevic, efforts to consolidate territory along ethnic lines were systematized and enforced using concentration camps, rape camps, and other gross violations of human rights. With the NATO bombings of Bosnia and later of Kosovo, the armed conflict ground to a halt.
Physical bravery is rare on the battlefield; rarer still is the bravery it takes to stand up against one’s own government, or against one’s own community, including family, friends, and professional colleagues, all in the pursuit of justice. Natasa Kandic is among a small minority of Serbs who have dared this, as she investigated wrongs committed by her own and other ethnic groups.
Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Kosovar Albanians, and Romas have, in turn, labeled her a traitor for her unbiased and unrelenting struggle for human rights.
Born in 1946, and first working in housing issues for the Trade Union Organization, she formed the Humanitarian Law Center, Yugoslavia’s premier human rights organization in 1992.
Known for meticulous investigative work despite the extreme danger, HLC has been relied on by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to research human rights abuses in the wartime Balkans.
HLC also represents victims before tribunals and is a legal pioneer in bringing claims against the Serbian government. HLC provides legal assistance to refugees for land claims, citizenship, right of return, pension payments, and property ownership rights, among others. Kandic has also used her own considerable organizing skills to mount popular support for peace, initiating the Candles for Peace campaign in 1991, where citizens stood with flames alight outside the Serbian presidential building nightly for sixteen months, reading the names of those killed during the war.
She also organized a thousand volunteers to collect 78,000 signatures protesting the forced conscription of Serbians into the war in Croatia. In 1992, the Black Ribbon March saw 150,000 Belgraders demonstrate against the suffering of civilians in Sarajevo. That same year, Kandic’s weekly column (wherein eighty intellectuals called for peace) appeared in Borba, Belgrade’s first independent daily newspaper.
Kandic and HLC continue to lead the charge in filing criminal complaints against alleged war criminals and have been instrumental in bringing long-buried evidence out of the shadows of history and into the spotlight of the courtrooms to help the Balkans confront its past. Beginning in 2006, HLC and its regional partners embarked on an initiative to establish a regional commission to establish facts about the truth of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.