Rhonda Copelon often worked behind the scenes, but her finger prints, or perhaps I should say brain waves, are all over many of the most important breakthroughs in progressive feminist advances both in the United States and globally. (Charlotte Bunch, 2010)1

Rhonda Copelon, Professor of Law at City University of New York (CUNY), human rights attorney and Vice-President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) died on 6 May 2010 of ovarian cancer. She was 65. After having graduated from Bryn Mawr with a degree in history and political science in the mid-1960s and obtaining a law degree from Yale University, Copelon went on to develop a strong public profile as internationally renowned feminist human rights lawyer, activist and scholar.

While Ronda Copelon was — and loved to be — a New Yorker, her work was truly global. This is evident in every aspect of her engagements, from her legal cases to her theorizing and teaching, to activism. Copelon enriched feminist, legal and human rights theory in the fields of domestic, political and war violence. She developed innovative ways of linking law, gender and human rights conceptually, and found brave and determined means to turn these conceptualizations into legal and teaching practice. Copelon grounded her theorizing, teaching and practice of law in advocacy, activism and networking from local to global levels. She sustained this work through endless translations from one field of engagement into another.

It is precisely her understanding of those many fields and types of engagements as indispensable to, and constitutive of, each other that distinguishes Copelon from many other activists and advocates, legal practitioners, lecturers and scholars. It was the unique way Copelon lived her American citizenship that made her a truly global figure and left a lasting legacy. In most creative and critical ways, she used the best in American legal traditions to support feminist and human rights struggles within and far beyond US borders.


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Two specific legal cases in the early days of Copelon's career as an attorney aptly show her creativity, and at the same time indicate the two pillars on which her life-work has rested. One was a case of political torture, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala (1980), which she won. Another was a case of public funding for abortion, Harris v. McRae (1980), which she lost. The courts’ decisions on the two cases came, coincidentally, on the same day: 30 June 1980. While at the time they represented two separate fields of Copelon's engagements, in future she would bring them together. In doing so, her fight for women's human rights and gender justice in peace and war alike has had a lasting impact on intellectual and political struggles against different forms of gender-specific violence across the globe.

The Harris v. McRae2 case was a class action lawsuit against restrictions of federal funding for abortion, presented to the US Supreme Court in 1976, by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).3 The CCR is a non-profit organization of lawyers established in 1966 to support the civil rights movement that perceives of law as a political tool in the struggle against segregation and different forms of political and economic injustice. The CCR often took on cases that seemed rather hopeless legally, but were at the core of political struggles for justice. As an attorney working with the CCR, Rhonda Copelon argued in front of the Supreme Court against decisions that prohibited the use of federal medical funds to cover abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, and when pregnancy poses a grave danger for women's health. Copelon argued, first, that abortion had to stay within the federal medical funding scheme because, if denied, the life of the foetus would be considered more valuable than the life of the mother. Secondly, Copelon argued that the absence of funds would gravely disadvantage poor women who could not afford the costs of legal abortion without federal fund assistance (at a time when legal abortion costs were higher than the family welfare allotment), and whose lives would be endangered by opting for an illegal abortion. Despite the huge amount of evidence in support of Copelon's arguments, the nine members of the Supreme Court returned with a 5:4 decision to uphold the elimination of abortion from public funding. The decision was so divisive and controversial that four dissenting judges wrote separate opinions supporting Copelon's arguments. But, the legal case was lost, leaving Copelon acutely aware of the fragility of women's position before the law, and the need for concerted and systematic political action in defence of justice for women.

On the same day the Harris v. McRae court decision was announced, Copelon secured a legal victory in another case, Filártiga v. Peña-Irala.4 In March 1976, Dolly Filártiga was called upon to identify the mutilated body of her 17-year old brother Joelito. Her brother had been abducted, tortured and murdered by the Paraguayan police, apparently as punishment for their father's political activities. As Dolly Filártiga confirmed the identity of her brother's corpse, the police commander Américo Norberto Peña-Irala remarked to her: ‘This is what you deserve’. These now infamous words ensured that Dolly Filártiga would never let go of this terrible incident; she would devote the rest of her life to bringing Joelito's killers to justice (Aceves, 2007).

Obtaining justice was not possible in the Paraguay of the 1970s, headed by Alfredo Stroessner, a military dictator who took control in 1954 and remained in power until 1989, in no small part due to political support from the United States (Mora and Cooney, 2007). As with most totalitarian states, the police and judicial system were notoriously corrupt and it was clear that no charges would be brought against the police commander. But Dolly Filártiga never gave up hope. When, in 1978, she went to the United States and realized that Peña-Irala had also migrated from Paraguay to the USA, Dolly Filártiga filed a case against him with the CCR. While the case looked rather hopeless to start with, her lawyer, Rhonda Copelon, who worked on the case together with fellow human rights lawyer Peter Weiss, found a way to hold Peña-Irala accountable. She revived an old, forgotten — but still valid — document: the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). This Act, passed in 1789, allows for any individual to make a claim to a US Federal Court against any state agent for the acts of torture and any other acts against the ‘law of nations’, as long as the perpetrators are on US soil. The law had largely been forgotten for nearly two hundred years until Copelon dusted it off as a human rights instrument. The court granted the plaintiff motion and awarded Filártiga damages of US$ 10 million.

What was so special about this case, and why did Rhonda Copelon's efforts in Filártiga leave such a valuable legacy? First, it was her form of legal advocacy and networking that included affected communities, human rights activists and legal scholars and transcended conventional forms of either legal or political engagements. Socio-legal scholars such as Richard Abel would explain the dynamics of such cases as a form of ‘politics by other means’ (Abel, 1995). For Keck and Sikkink (1998: 2) those engagements would mean a production of an epistemic community, firmly ‘bound together by shared values [and] a common discourse’. Secondly, the cases of Copelon and her colleagues from CCR powerfully illustrated that this form of ‘politics by other means’ could employ not only criminal prosecutions under the principle of universal jurisdiction (see, e.g., Inazumi, 2004; Reydams, 2003), but also civil lawsuits, to claim compensation for victims of human rights violations.

In 1991, inspired by Filártiga, ATCA was followed by an additional legal weapon to be wielded against impunity in the USA law: the Torture Victim Protection Act (or TVPA). The TVPA provided further legal possibilities for torture survivors to obtain justice and protection, and was later used in a case against the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (ACLU, 2006).

Throughout the 1990s, many law suits were brought before the US courts under the ATCA and TVPA. While many of these legal cases did not succeed in apprehending, let alone punishing, the perpetrators, the attention that they generated for human rights violations, and the legal implications of that attention at national and international levels, have been profound. For example, in 1993 Copelon and CCR colleagues, together with the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic at the CUNY School of Law brought a law suit against Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for his role in the Bosnian war crimes of torture and rape.5 In 1995, a lawsuit was filed against the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria and Anwar Haddam,6 charging them with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including assassinations, rape and torture. Copelon lost this case on the grounds of insufficient evidence, largely because this was not provided by some human rights organizations that were operating under extremely dangerous conditions. Nevertheless, the case re-emerged in the context of the US-led ‘war on terror’ and informed an ongoing debate among human rights organizations about the complex nature of these issues.

The momentum for international justice that the Filártiga case created spilled over the borders of the USA and led to an arrest warrant and extradition request to the United Kingdom by the Spanish authorities against the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998. The arrest warrant declared Pinochet as suspected of acts of torture and crimes against humanity, following a complaint by the Spanish families of the victims. Although Pinochet escaped justice in the UK and Spain on a technicality, the decision to arrest him and the ground-breaking judgement by the UK House of Lords made very clear that immunity could not be claimed, even by a former head of state, for acts of torture. Indirect attention is now also paid to government violations through the actions of corporations and individual military commanders, including the government of Israel by way of a claim against a corporation based in France (Nieuwhof and Lherm, 2007) and against individual Israeli military commanders in the courts of the UK (Machover and Maynard, 2005).

The ATCA was also used in claims against multinational corporations such as Union Carbide Corporation, concerning its responsibility for the explosion at one of its factories in Bhopal, India, in which thousands of people died and many more were seriously injured (Muchlinski, 1987).


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Rhonda Copelon clearly recognized that the relevance of legal cases goes far beyond the legal claim itself and that human rights claimed in such cases should be regarded as universal and indivisible (Copelon, 1998, 2002). As a feminist human rights lawyer, Copelon understood that there are clear and direct links between different forms of violence, protection of human rights and gender justice. To translate those links into legal and political effects one has to engage socially and politically, thus far beyond legal practice.

During the late 1980s and especially throughout the 1990s, Copelon's scholarship, legal practice, teaching and activism became integrated into a concerted, multi-pronged feminist strategy. The aim was to create intellectual and institutional structures that would secure universal recognition of women as rightful and legitimate claimants of human rights. This in turn would create the basis for prosecution of different forms of violence that marked the lives of many women in peace and war alike.

In the early 1990s, the former Yugoslavia disintegrated through war, and genocide raged in Rwanda. In both countries, the widespread and systematic rape of women shocked the world and produced a global feminist network consisting of local and international human rights activists, lawyers and legal scholars. Their objective was to ensure that raped women would receive proper psycho-social and medical support, but also justice, and that the crimes against them were recognized as gender-specific war crimes. To make those objectives legally achievable, and to secure legal justice for raped women, it was crucial to re-conceptualize rape as a war crime. Until the 1990s, international conventions and laws defined rape of women as a by-product of war, a matter of ‘family honour and rights’ (1907 Hague Convention), subsumed under other grave offences (1949 Geneva Convention) or seen as an ‘outrage against personal dignity’ (1977 Second Geneva Protocol) (Copelon, 2003). Re-defining the rape of women in wars as a deliberate, strategic, gendered and sexualized form of violence was a major endeavour. For Copelon, this endeavour meant overcoming two serious obstacles: first, the mainstream international and national legal practice of normalizing war rapes (engraved in the proverbial ‘boys will be boys’); secondly, the racism and ethnocentrism with which this particular type of violence in specific parts of the world was used as a discursive tool of othering. Her theorizing, teaching and activism together have addressed both of these obstacles.

In theorizing rape as a war crime, Copelon drew on various theoretical, advocacy and experiential resources, arguing that ‘to exaggerate the distinctiveness of genocidal rape obscures the atrocity of common rape’ (Copelon, 1994a: 205). To assume that rape as a war crime in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were unique methods of ‘ethnic cleansing’ ignored the fact that women are raped ‘not simply because they “belong to” the enemy, but precisely because … they too are the enemy; because of their power as well as vulnerability as women’ (Copelon, 1994a: 207; emphasis in original).

At the time, these arguments were not widely accepted by most lawyers, and were even resisted by feminists. In the early 1990s, national and international legal and feminist scholars, with few exceptions, largely followed the mainstream politics in the ethnic classification of both Yugoslav and Rwandan violence. Many lawyers and feminists have taken ethnic categories as a given, never attempting to analyse the processes by which those categories became privileged in waging, and explaining, the violence (c.f. Mibenge, 2008).

International law at the time did not recognize gender and ethnicity as intersecting forces of sexual violence against specific groups of women in time of war. The Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)7 recognized race and ethnicity as bases of individual violations, and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1975)8 recognized gender as a basis of persecution. But both these instruments have failed to explicitly recognize the intersections of gender and race/ethnicity as combined forces that make ‘women members of an ethnic group targeted for human rights violations’ a specific target of sexual violence (Mibenge, 2008: 159). Copelon's theoretically sharp and politically uncompromising analysis of rape broke new ground in conceptualizing rape as a war crime. It offered a new basis for legal claims and international legal interventions. Her theorizing has been essential in defining rape as a war crime and crime against humanity at the special UN Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and as a crime of genocide at the Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) (see especially Copelon, 1994c; Green et al., 1995a, 1995b). This work and the practices of those two tribunals have led to the inclusion of a broad spectrum of gender-based and sexual crimes into the Rome Statute9 of the International Criminal Court (ICC) (see Copelon, 2000, 2003).

None of those analyses would have had any effect on international law had it not been for Copelon's tireless advocacy and activism. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s she became a prominent member of different global networks of feminist lawyers and activists struggling for the recognition of women's human rights, and for bringing the perpetrators of sexual violence against women in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to justice. Copelon participated in the global campaign for women's human rights that led to the UN Vienna Conference in 1993, which finally officially recognized women's rights in its Declaration (Bunch and Frost, 2000). However, what was to ensure that her feminist interventions into international law would have a lasting impact was, above all, her engagement in and leadership of two organizations.

The first was the International Women's Human Rights Law Clinic at the CUNY Law School.10 Copelon co-founded the Clinic with Celina Romany in 1992, and directed it until 2009. It was the first human rights Clinic that was explicitly concerned with women's rights and linked to both national and global feminist human rights movements. From its inception, the Clinic adopted intersectionality of gender, race and class as its core framework, focusing on the reproductive, sexual and economic rights of women. In so doing, the Clinic also challenged conventional meanings of legal practice and law. Speaking at the Clinic's 17th anniversary, in 2009, Copelon underscored the relevance of this embeddedness in grassroots experiences:

It was 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. They have won recognition of, and begun redress for, violations of international law committed against women and on the basis of gender. It is important to remember that, while legal scholars and practitioners have helped to build the theoretical, legal foundations, the fundamental impetus came from women's creative, urgent and culturally rooted demand for equality and human rights. (Quoted in Gallagher, 2009: 16)

The work of the students and associates of the Clinic — together with the CCR and a number of other US and international feminist lawyers and activists — was crucial in producing evidence for the individual court cases brought before the US courts and the ICTY and ICTR. More importantly, under Copelon's leadership, the Clinic helped develop the body of arguments that ultimately helped define sexual violence against women in war in international law.

The second important organization Copelon founded (in 1997) was the Women's Caucus for Gender Justice (WCGJ). WCGJ was a global network of individuals and groups/organizations working towards greater incorporation of women's human rights and gender justice issues in the International Criminal Court (ICC), the permanent war crimes court established by the UN in 1998, and officially opened in 2003. Copelon was a founder of the WCGJ, and between 1998 and 2003 a member its six-person executive committee. As a founder and activist of the WCGJ, Copelon worked on influencing crucial formulations of the Rome Statute's Articles to assure the recognition of rape and other gender-specific violence in war as separate war crimes and as legitimate grounds for prosecution. Beside this, during the preparatory years for the ICC, WCGJ held world-wide campaigns for the election of women as feminist judges and to other posts at the ICC. WCGJ would, for example, regularly send ICC job advertisements through global networks, urging women to apply for the positions. In 2003, as the ICC commenced its work, the WCGJ transformed into the Women's Initiative for Gender Justice (WIGJ) and moved offices from New York to The Hague. The WIGJ operates as an ICC watchdog, advocating women's human rights and gender justice and the prosecution of gender-based and sexual violence against women. Furthermore, the WIGJ works on gender advocacy within the Court and conducts gender training of the ICC personnel, including judges. Rhonda Copelon served as an active member of WIGJ's international Advisory Council until her death.


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Feminist analysis of rape in peacetime is indispensable to feminist analysis of rape as a war crime. Through the 1980s, feminists asserted that the rape of women is, first and foremost, a matter of asserting male power within the gendered hierarchies of domination. This knowledge has been crucial in understanding that rape during wartime has nothing to do with sexual urges of men, but is a part of gendered and sexualized systems of defining and asserting power over the ‘enemy’. Many feminists have also drawn explicit links between continuities of gender-specific violence in peace to that in war. Few have, however, looked at violence the other way around and used the insights gained in theorizing war to explain violence in peace. Here, again, Rhonda Copelon made an inroad for others to follow.

In 1994, she argued for so-called ‘domestic violence’ to be redefined, legally recognized and treated as torture (Copelon, 1994b). The UN Convention Against Torture (1984)11 and different international laws almost invariably linked torture to war, political violence and a state of emergency. Copelon, however, established another way of looking at it. She compared four aspects of violence and their effects that defined torture in international law, to those in ‘domestic violence’, namely: (1) inflicting severe physical and/or mental pain and suffering; (2) intentionality of violence against the will of the victim; (3) specific purposefulness of violence (such as control and power, destruction of integrity, security and dignity); and (4) different forms of official involvement (be they active or passive) (Copelon, 1994b). Copelon also showed that racism, sexism and classism of the ‘judicial machinery’ of the state in effect allowed and condoned the violence against women (Copelon, 2009). Applying such an analysis, she was able to draw parallels with ‘domestic violence’ and show that — following the UN Torture Convention definitions —‘domestic violence’is torture.

These arguments received new relevance when the US administration under George W. Bush tried to defend its policies against international outrage for allowing water boarding and other types of violence against prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and refused to acknowledge them as torture (Kanstroom, 2009). Fiercely opposed to, and openly critical of, US militarism and war-waging politics, Copelon again pointed out the parallels: ‘The most common physical methods of both torture and domestic violence are beating, burning, tying up, choking, threatened asphyxiation (the goal of water-boarding), pulling out nails, stripping naked, mutilating, inflicting rape and other sexual assault, and threatening to kill or attack the victim's children’ (Copelon, 2009). This kind of theorization broke down the neat conceptualization of war and peace, or a state prison and home as separate realms of social relations, and drew parallels ‘between personal, societal and militaristic violence’ (ibid.). Methodologically, this focus on the specific acts of violence and their effects, with the associated attention to sexism, racism and classism, allowed Copelon to link debates about the ‘war on terror’ to issues of everyday violence, and the ways it affects many different groups of women within the US, and elsewhere in the world.

A similar methodology has been employed by authors examining parallels between the sexual torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and the violence within prisons in the USA, arguing that this predominantly affects young black men as the majority of the incarcerated population. They have shown how specific forms of racism, heterosexism and classism leave invisible — or actively obscure — violence within the prisons (Gordon, 2006; Sexton and Lee, 2006).

This is the same methodology that Copelon used while analysing the rapes in former Yugoslavia. She asserted that each instance of rape had its own dimension that must not be taken for granted. However, she also wisely pointed out that specificity did not mean uniqueness, or exclusivity:

The rape of women in the former Yugoslavia challenges the world to refuse impunity to atrocity as well as to resist the powerful forces that would make the mass rape of Muslim women in Bosnia exceptional and thereby restrict its meaning for women raped in different contexts. It thus demands recognition of situational differences without losing sight of the commonalities. To fail to make distinctions flattens reality; and to rank the egregious demeans it. (Copelon, 1993: 214)

This is, then, a methodology that does not allow us to conceptualize violence as confined to disparate and distant social-spatial realms, but rather seeks similarities between apparently dis-similar realities, refuses exceptionality of violence as much as its normalization, and remains acutely aware of the conditionalities of peace, in relation to war. It is also a methodology that calls for advocacy and engagement as constitutive elements of conceptualization, and for embeddedness in everyday lives of women across the globe.

Copelon was acutely aware that gender justice would not come about without a long-term struggle. However, she believed that social change remains not just possible, but also inevitable. When speaking about ‘domestic violence’, she stated:

Simply recognizing domestic violence as torture will not solve the problem of domestic violence. But, combined with feminist advocacy against gender violence and the growing human rights movement in the U.S., it will help make domestic violence a front burner issue, hastening both the impartiality, adequacy and appropriateness of official responses and the cultural revolution that demands absolute and unconditional condemnation of such violence. (Copelon, 2009)

Copelon's legacy has given feminists and human rights lawyers, as well as others involved in human rights advocacy around the globe, sharper tools with which to carry forward the work that she and others begun. Her life's work remains an unfinished revolution.



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Dubravka Zarkov is an Associate Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS, PO Box 29776, 2502 LT The Hague, The Netherlands; e-mail address: She works on gender, violent conflict and the media. Her publications include: Gender, Violent Conflict and Development (Zubaan, 2008), The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity and Gender in the Break-up of Yugoslavia (Duke University Press, 2007) and The Postwar Moment: Militaries, Masculinities and International Peacekeeping with Cynthia Cockburn (Lawrence & Wishart, 2002).

Jeff Handmaker is a Lecturer in Law, Human Rights and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague (e-mail address: and an honorary research fellow in the School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand. He specializes in socio-legal studies and critically explores interactions between civic actors and states.

Helen Hintjens is a Senior Lecturer in Development and Social Justice, and Convenor of the MA specialization in Conflict, Reconstruction and Human Security at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague (e-mail address: She has published on genocide and post-genocide politics in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region, on social movements, and on advocacy for asylum rights, among other things. She is currently working on human rights and surveillance in relation to undocumented people and their supporters in the EU. Her main areas of teaching are in rights-based approaches, peace and violent conflict, and social movements and global justice.