Brittany Benowitz


What do you do?

I run a programme at the American Bar Association (ABA) that provides pro bono assistance to human rights advocates who face retaliation for their work.

How did you get into it?

I've done a lot of different human rights work focused on other countries, as well as on the United States. I realised it was the best role for me as an American lawyer who wanted to promote international human rights and to support people on the ground, in their own countries, who are fighting for those rights under considerable pressure. They need support and solidarity from the international community in order to do that safely.

Could you give us examples of the kind of defence you do?

My current work is focused on human rights defenders outside the US. I do a little bit of work on US national security policy and on trying to bring that into compliance with international human rights law, but that's not my main focus. The programme I run provides assistance to human rights defenders, which we define as anybody who is defending human rights (as per the UN definition). It might be a pro-democracy activist, a labour rights advocate, a women's right activist and so on. 

Unfortunately, in the last 10 - 15 years, there's been a global crackdown on civil society organisations and on non-governmental organisations as they have grown more sophisticated in their calls for good governance and democracy. Oppressive regimes around the world have responded by passing laws, by cracking down on civil society, by making it harder to form organisations and harder to register them, by accusing activists of being foreign agents or terrorists, by seizing their funds, by accusing them of defamation or inciting riots, and by throwing them in jail or worse. The ABA realised that as these governments are increasingly using the law as a way to delegitimise and silence dissent, we in the global legal community needed to respond. The purpose of our Justice Defenders programme is to mobilise the global legal community to help human rights activists who are facing that type of retaliation.

What's your favourite thing about the job?

I get to work with the leading human rights activists in all these countries around the world.

And your least favourite?

The challenges in confronting the difference between the words and the deeds of governments that purport to support human rights. For example, the people we support might be facing trouble with an American corporation or a government that's backed by the United States. We would like to help them in those types of situations, but I'm not always able to get my own government or US corporations to be responsive.

How did you get to work with the ABA?

I had previously worked in the Senate for a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which gave me a broader awareness of foreign policy in the United States. I got the job with the ABA because I had background doing on-the-ground human rights investigations and criminal litigation and working on civil liberties issues, but then I also had that foreign policy perspective. The ABA needed someone who could do both the legal advocacy in the court and develop the political strategies because more often than not, in these countries, there's very little rule of law. Being a political strategist is oftentimes necessary to secure these people's release.

What did you do at the Senate?

I was a military legislative assistant. My job was to review legislation and draft legislation related to national security matters, such as the Defense Authorization Act, the Defense Appropriations Bill, legislation related to veterans and to US war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and non-proliferation and arms control treaties.

Do you have any military background?

I don’t. My background is in national security law. Prior to attending law school, I did some work in post-conflict settings. I then studied national security law and foreign policy in law school and had a fellowship after I graduated from law school that was focused on national security law.

What are the specifics of national security law?

National security law focuses on the president's war powers and surveillance authorities and international law related to armed conflicts.

Why did you choose this path?

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened my first year of law school.

I had an interest in national security law prior to that because I had lived and worked in Latin America where the US Government had been very influential in the civil wars throughout the 20th century because it argued it was concerned about 'communist infiltration' in the region. I was interested in how US national security policy was aiding or impeding the emergence of democracy in the Americas. That formed a backdrop for my thinking when the 9/11 attacks happened and how the United States was likely to respond to those attacks.

What would you recommend to someone who would like a similar career path?

International human rights in general is a very competitive field and even more so for the intersection of human rights and US national security policy. You have to be very committed and you have to stay very focused on that goal. My law degree has served me well, but that's not the only path. For instance, experts in the Middle East are doing a lot of this work. The primary challenge is that you need to stay focused on exactly what you want to do and get a lot of practical experience and a lot of international experience.

 When you hire lawyers, what do you look for?

I look for people who have a broad perspective based on having lived abroad and worked in different sectors, not exclusively in the non-profit sector. Lots of people have great experience in multilateral organizations or non-governmental organisations, but they've never worked in a government. They've never worked for a firm or the private sector. My view is that if I can get someone who's had experience with more than one sector, it adds a great deal.

Why do you think that's most useful?

Because when you're in a human rights field, what you're fundamentally trying to do is get people in the private and the public sector to respect human rights. It helps to understand what motivates them and how things work. Also, there is a certain pace and a certain discipline that comes from having worked in the private sector or in the public sector. Of course, a lot of folks who've only worked in non-profits are also excellent lawyers.

What are the skills that make you best at what you do?

Two things. First, you have to be able to appreciate other people's perspective. This gives you an awareness of the limitations of your own understanding and of your own inherent capacity for making mistakes. You need to be able to go to another country, to cross linguistic and cultural barriers and find common ground and agreement with people.

Second, you have to be willing to stick to your principles even when they may get in the way of advancing your career. Making it in a foreign policy establishment that really favours what's 'realist' and that views human rights as a secondary social issue at odds with national interests, is hard. To really be successful in a human rights career, you have to have the strength of your conviction.

What are you most proud of in your career?

When I look back, I can think of individual cases that we've won that I think were important. For instance, my first case was against an American who was involved in the torture and killing of individuals in Chile during the days of the dictatorship. We succeeded in finding him, suing him, and collecting judgment for the family members of the victims. It was very unusual to actually collect the judgment in the United States in cases concerning human rights abuses committed in other countries.

We also won some cases concerning people who were the victims of ethnic and religious profiling in the wake of 9/11.

In my work at the ABA, we've been successful in getting pro-democracy activists released from prison early or in commuting sentences.

I'm proud of the individual victories, but the thing that means the most to me is the sense that there is a community in Washington, in the world, that is trying to push public dialogue and US foreign policy to prioritise human rights and to see that human rights aren’t at odds with our national security interest, but are actually essential to it. Right now, we are a minority voice. We're the outsiders, but we are getting stronger, more vocal, gaining more exposure. Contributing to that dialogue is the thing I take the most pride in.

As a human rights lawyer, what worries you most at the moment?

The United States is continuing on a course with a foreign policy that's out-dated and not responsive to current realities. Our counter-terrorism strategy is a tweaked strategy from what we had in the Cold War. It's all about controlling territory and supporting foreign governments with dubious human rights records. My government is not focused on the fact that we need to be sincerely promoting good governance and distancing ourselves from authoritarian regimes.

If we cannot find a way to pursue a lasting peace, the conflict that is currently consuming much of the Middle East is going to expand with a great loss of human life. While the United States is not the sole cause or the sole answer to that problem, as an American citizen, I feel that my priority is to get my government on the right course in order to help bring an end to this conflict.

How do you think that can be changed?

Honestly, it's only going to change when we realise that the current course has failed and is failing and that the potential consequences of that are catastrophic. We need to change course because it's the only thing that's going to work. We need to start talking about reconciliation and get serious about promoting good governance if we want to bring an end to this conflict.

What can people who don’t work in foreign policy do to change that?

Everybody has some way that they can plug in and contribute. Whether it's running a site like Women in Foreign Policy or getting involved in a grassroots organisation, writing to members of the congress, giving money... My goal is to mobilise lawyers, most of whom don't get to work on foreign policy issues, but who contribute their time in order to help defend human rights activists all around the world who are out there calling for a rights-based approach to these problems which is fundamentally a means to address grievances in a non-violent legal manner. I think that just as there's a way for a lawyer to contribute their time to do that, there are ways for scientists do to that, there's ways for doctors to do that, and everyone can contribute in one way or another. 

Brittany Benowitz | Chief Counsel, Center for Human Rights | American Bar Association

CV in brief

Studied at Washington College of Law at American University

Previous worked as Defense advisor for the US Senate 

Find Brittany online ABA profile | LinkedIn 

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Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, March 2016