Koh’s Human Rights Agenda

“My job is to try to advance and increase human freedom, through reporting, persuasion, criticism, and advocacy,” says Yale Law School Professor Harold Hongju Koh ’80, who became assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in November 1998.

In February Koh presented Congress with the U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights practices around the world, testifying about abuses in China, Cuba, and Sudan, among other countries. By mid-July Koh had visited 25 countries and spoken to victims of human rights abuses from Beijing to Belgrade and from Colombia to Kosovo.

While at Yale, where he began teaching in 1985, Koh directed the school’s Schell Center for International Human Rights, and in the early 1990s, he litigated human rights cases in the U.S. Supreme Court against the U.S. government for its policy of repatriating refugees from Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere. The American-born son of Korean émigrés, Koh has had an eye trained on human rights abuses since he was six years old, when he watched his father, an HLS-trained senior UN diplomat, renounce his homeland for life as a political exile, rather than serve South Korea’s military dictatorship. “And now,” says Koh, “I am assistant secretary for human rights, and South Korea is free and democratic.”

When the Bulletin spoke to Koh this summer, in the midst of a typical day stateside, he had already met with an ambassador to discuss human rights in the ambassador’s home country, planned a trip to Turkey to observe human rights conditions and meet with government leaders, briefed a senator on a major human rights issue, talked with NGO leaders about plans for civil reconstruction in Kosovo, and led a long session about the human rights issues raised by the 16-year Sudanese civil war. That evening he gave a dinner speech to Yale alumni and attended a diplomatic session for international lawyers about the rule of law. “At the end of each day, I try to think about who has been helped by what I have done. If I don’t think I have done enough, I try to do more the next day.”

“One of the exciting things about the job is its global mandate,” says Koh. Another is witnessing “the indomitability of the human spirit. It has been remarkable in Kosovo to see ethnic Albanian refugees reopening restaurants and radio stations and publishing newspapers, just a short distance from bullet-riddled buildings and burned-out homes.”

In Kosovo, Koh is working with NGOs and intergovernmental organizations to document Serb atrocities and to reestablish a civil registry to restore to citizens documents lost or destroyed in the war. He hopes to develop a program through which lawyers can volunteer for short-term assignments in Kosovo, to train new judicial officials and ensure that judicial proceedings comply with international human rights standards.

The tireless Koh says he moves “heaven and earth” to get home to his family in New Haven every weekend. “It’s unbelievably restorative to come back from a war zone and hear your kids talk about Little League and ballet lessons. The quest for human rights is, above all, a struggle to give people a normal life. I am fighting to give other people this kind of normalcy.”