A.N.N. Article

Felice Gaer, Director, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights


2010 National First Freedom Award Recipient
Video courtesy of First Freedom Center, Richmond, Virginia (USA)
Felice Gaer and His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama
“I speak out against severe violations of human rights, I name names, and ask for thorough investigations.   I seek to find ways to ensure accountability of perpetrators and redress for victims… I want to end violations, treat treaties as the binding law that they are, and see results” –Felice Gaer, Director, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights
If your daily activities take you anywhere near the professional human rights orbit, then you know that Felice Gaer and the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI) are household names.  If, on the other hand, your knowledge of human rights affairs consists of the occasional web article that catches your eye, then this feature will introduce you to one of the true human rights heavyweights of the 21st century.

JBI was established in 1971, under the aegis of the American Jewish Committee, to advance human rights worldwide, primarily through programs created by the United Nations and other international organizations.   Under Gaer’s leadership, it has become a premier center for research, policy analysis and human rights advocacy with an ambitious multi-platformed agenda that ranges from genocide prevention, the eradication of torture and combatting religious intolerance including anti-Semitism, to the promotion and protection of women’s human rights and human rights defenders worldwide.

For the last twenty years, Gaer has been an indomitable force at the JBI helm.  In addition to Gaer's role as JBI Director, she has served on U.S. bi-partisan federal commissions and United Nations expert-Committees, which has complemented and further advanced the mission of JBI — to “narrow the gap between the promise of the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the realization of those rights in practice.”

And she has focused like a laser on that mission.

Gaer’s gutsy resolve to keep truth and human dignity at the forefront of the human rights conversation has been commended by the Encyclopedia Judaica, and leaders in the human rights field.   In addition, she has twice been cited in The Jewish Forward’s annual “Forward Fifty” list of Jewish leaders making a difference, which called her, “the American Jewish community’s in-house international human rights expert,” who “delves into human rights issues long before they bubble to the surface.”
What follows are excerpts of my conversation with Felice Gaer.  She had a gracious ease about her that invited questions and conversation – hence, the broad ranging Table of Contents you see below.   As the reader will see, she gave me quite an insider’s education on the state of human rights relative to these issues today.


  1. Who is Felice Gaer and what makes her tick?
  2. On the Work of JBI and Demanding Accountability
  3. On Genocide
  4. On the UN Committee Against Torture
  5. On the U.S. Role in Abu Ghraib
  6. On Human Rights Abuses in Iran
  7. On the Role of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran
  8. On the Recent Presidential Election in Iran
  9. On the Plight of the Jewish Community in Iran
  10. On the Plight of the Baha’i in Iran
  11. On Pastor Nadarkhani’s Release from an Iranian Prison
  12. On Ending Violence Against Women
  13. The Essence of JBI

Felice Gaer meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
in her capacity as Chair, U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (2009)
In the world of international human rights, Felice Gaer is one of the gold medal quadrathalon athletes.  A scholar, a prolific author, a sought after public speaker and an unrelenting advocate, she traverses the globe in her capacity as Director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, to serve as a leading U.S. voice on national and international bodies that define human rights policy worldwide. 

For someone who has reached the pinnacle of her profession, it is ironic that Felice Gaer never intended to make a career in human rights.  In fact, in her college days, she says that human rights as a career track did not exist.  But armed with her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, and her advanced degrees (M.A. and M.Phil.) from Columbia University, the opportunities she encountered tapped into her Jewish identity in a way that drew her into the rarefied world of high-level human rights advocacy.   
If one wonders how Gaer fills her days, one need only turn to her distinguished biography and curriculum vitae.
Currently, she serves as Vice Chair of – and is the first American on – the U.N. Committee Against Torture, a treaty monitoring body composed of independent experts who review government compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture, which has been ratified by 153 countries.   She also now chairs the Leo Nevas Task Force on Human Rights of the United Nations Association of the USA , and in March 2012 completed 11 years of service as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom  (including three terms as Chair, and three as Vice-Chair).  USCIRF is a bi-partisan federal commission that advises the President and Secretary of State on U.S. policy on freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief around the world.
So, what is Felice Gaer all about?
In the two decades she has served as JBI Director, Gaer has been deeply inspired by Jewish ethics, and especially, by the particular, universal and realist values in the teaching first articulated by the 1st century Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Hillel[1], “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am not for others, who am I?  And if not now, when?” 
In an article she published in The Review on Faith & International Affairs, Gaer describes how the universalist perspective was interpreted and adopted by Jewish leaders after the Holocaust, as they advocated that the religious rights and physical security of Jews could be preserved only if the human rights of all persons could be secured. 
It is notable that this underlying philosophy has been restated by our country’s greatest spiritual leaders in the last 80 years on diverse fronts, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech, during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, to Rabbi Harold Schulweis in Los Angeles, describing our responsibility as Jews to speak out against genocide and mass atrocities that occur in our lifetime. 
It is this universalist perspective, she says, that has underscored the advocacy work at JBI, both in the protection of international religious freedom, and by extension, toward the goal of building an environment of tolerance and respect for universal human rights, that will bring greater freedom and prosperity to everyone.
The JBI 40th Anniversary report outlines JBI’s many areas of concentration:  Genocide and Torture, Human Rights Defenders, Religious Freedom, Women’s Rights, Jewish Issues–an enormous breadth of material.  Can you talk about your work with the Jacob Blaustein Institute.

Well, you cannot be interested in human rights in late 20th century and 21st century – and not be concerned about genocide and the history of the Jews– that includes the issues of ill treatment, torture and of religious intolerance. 

How do you deal with those if you do not address doing something about them?  Destiny is not just something that happens to you but something that you can shape through your own actions. 

I feel that the growth of human rights advocacy, through the actions of human rights defenders of this country and worldwide is really the change factor – it is the agency that makes the difference.   These are the professionals who are able to look at a problem and gather data to describe what the problems are, and to use legal and other public advocacy techniques as needed.  They demand that when you identify these problems as violations of human rights, there has to be some accountability for it.  
There have been many genocides in the 20th and 21st centuries, including the genocide in Darfur, and others around the world.  How does JBI advocate in the case of a genocide?

There have been a variety of ways.  When I first started at JBI, the Bosnian conflict was swelling.  We were involved in documenting things that were happening that nobody else seemed to understand.  First, the abuse of women, and second, the so-called “ethnic cleansing” – we maintained that “ethnic cleansing” did constitute a form of genocide.   I remember having arguments with leading human rights advocates here in New York who were saying, “they were not trying to kill the people, they were just trying to get them to move.”  They really missed the point.

At JBI, we not only speak out when we see that genocidal acts are taking place, but we are actively trying to address ways to prevent atrocities and genocide.  We look at the early warning signs – the risk factors that reveal violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, evaluate what can be done and whether a strategic preventive intervention can be made.  

Can we make all the strategic interventions needed?  We do not know.  But we do know that we are not free to desist.
You are serving your fourth term of the UN Committee Against Torture.   You are Vice Chair of this Body, one of ten independent experts who monitor the compliance of governments with the terms of the UN Convention Against Torture. 
You are the only American that sits on this Committee – and unmistakably, an American who happens to be a Jewish woman as well.  How does it feel to work with this Committee from your unique vantage point? 
There are many identity elements here at play.  When I was first elected to the committee, I was the only woman on the committee.  It was a struggle because other members of the committee did not see things the way I saw them.  I brought up issues of abuse against women, including policies of forced abortion and sterilization – issues that clearly included gender-based violence and abuse that rose to the level of violations of the Convention against Torture.  Did I raise this because I was a woman?  Or because I was a Jew who knew how the Nazis had used forced sterilization against Jewish women?  Or because on-the-ground victims reported abuses happening today?  Obviously, I saw these abuses and understood them as abuses.  That is what motivated me. 

I think that my strong support for human rights is indistinguishable from my being Jewish and American.  The Committee members have always treated me as just another member of the Committee – I am more an American member of the committee than I am a Jew as far as the Committee members are concerned.  But a member of the UN Secretariat once pointed out to me that I would not be elected Chair of the Committee because of three wrongs – wrong country of origin, wrong religion, wrong sex.  So I may not feel others treat me differently, but some international figures obviously do!

I speak out against severe violations of human rights, I name names, and ask for thorough investigations.   I seek to find ways to ensure accountability of perpetrators and redress for victims.  For many non-Americans, this is too much – too thorough.  But I want to end violations, treat treaties as the binding law that they are, and see results.  Very American.

Felice Gaer, Chair of the UNA-USA Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force, talks during the Human Rights panel at the U.S. Department of State. (Photo courtesy Stuart Ramson). 

In the mid-2000s when documentation about Abu Ghraib became public, it was more difficult as an American to address such issues with other countries in the Committee.  I felt that the legitimacy and credibility of the American experience in upholding human rights and longstanding American outrage against the practice of torture had been dealt a very severe blow. 

The way I dealt with it was actually to double down and work harder.  I became the Committee’s specialist addressing follow-up – to ensure that after governments are reviewed by the Committee, they take action to remedy their abuses. 

In the Committee, you cannot work on your own country.  When the United Kingdom came up, I was one of the two principal investigators who would examine U.K. compliance with the Convention.  When the review took place, the diplomats based in Geneva who knew me were a little surprised that I asked so many questions of the British representatives regarding their forces in Iraq.  Afterwards, one diplomat told me he was convinced I was asking tough questions about Iraq and detainees from the “war on terror” so that when the U.S. came in, the same tough questions would be asked again.  I thought it was very interesting that they saw it that way.

The UN has passed Resolutions that condemn human rights abuses in North Korea, Syria and Iran.  According to news reports, the vote on North Korea was approved by consensus for the first time, a larger number of countries supported the vote on Syria, but the condemnation of Iran was more contested.
How does the international community view the abuses that are taking place in Iran?  And since these UN resolutions are non-binding, what is the impact you see them having internationally?

Well, it was very disappointing to see that the numbers were reduced at the General Assembly from 2011 to 2012, but you have to put it in context. 

Several years ago a UN General Assembly Resolution on Iran was adopted by only one vote!  Then, as Iran turned against its own citizens after the failed 2009 election, the numbers (voting against Iran) increased.  In 2011, there were 89 in favor, 30 against, and 64 countries abstained.  In 2012, there were 86 in favor, 32 against and 65 countries abstained.  Imagine 65 countries had no point of view!  

Why?  First of all there are some countries that say they will not vote in favor of country-specific resolutions and that they want to eliminate these resolutions from the UN altogether.  Therefore, they say they will abstain on everything.  They say they are not there to make enemies – and that they do not want to be criticized by country-specific resolutions either!

Second, many of the abstaining countries view this as a North-South issue – a great power game – fearing that the Europeans and Americans are ganging up on these third world countries, and they, too, fear that they will turn against them next about their own rights abuses.  

Third, Iran is a very sophisticated country with an extremely sophisticated diplomatic corp.  They work the room, so to speak – they go from country to country, make their argument and convince many countries to vote with them, against the resolution, or at least to abstain so that the number needed to defeat the resolution becomes smaller.  They have been very successful at doing this. 

Fourth, the 2012 General Assembly vote also surely had something to do with the fact that Iran is Chair of the Non-Aligned Movement.  And therefore, to some, voting against Iran is harder to do – it is like voting against the Non-Aligned Movement itself.  So conflicted countries simply abstain. 

The vote at the General Assembly did not go down by that many.  Still it is the wrong direction if you look at what actually happened inside the country.  What we have seen is further crackdowns, further repression, unfair trials, and more death penalties carried out – more than in any country except China.


One piece of good news is that the 47 member U.N. Human Rights Council voted, in 2011, to reestablish the post of a principal UN investigator of human rights abuses in Iran – called a Special Rapporteur — on the situation of human rights in Iran.  Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, the former Foreign Minister of the Maldives, was selected to fill the post. 

Special Rapporteur Shaheed has addressed the widespread systemic and systematic violations of human rights in Iran.  His reports have brought attention in the main UN human rights bodies – the Human Rights Council and General Assembly – to the scope and severity of human rights violations in Iran.  That is very significantSpecial Rapporteur Shaheed wrote the first comprehensive UN report on the human rights abuses surrounding and following the 2009 elections, and this was highly regarded.  It is also good news that support for this mandate increased in 2013. 


Do you think the recent Presidential election will have an impact on human rights in Iran?

Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani took office in early August 2013.  During his campaign, Rouhani repeatedly pledged to restore and expand freedoms for all Iranians.  The international community will be watching closely to see the extent of Rouhani’s commitment to and ability to implement such promises. 

Signposts for change under Rouhani are many.  One of them would be curtailment of Iran’s repression of the human rights of its own citizens.  Measures to watch for could include releasing all prisoners of conscience and other jailed critics (including 2009 presidential candidates Mousavi and Karroubi, leaders of the Baha’i faith, and lawyer and women’s rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh); opening the House of Cinema (closed since January 2012); conducting fair impartial investigations into and implementing accountability for the violent crackdown surrounding the 2009 flawed presidential elections; allowing the return and free movement of Iranians who fled after the 2009 crackdown; increasing protection of women’s human rights; ending discrimination against and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, student and labor union activists, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers and women’s rights advocates.  It could also include ending anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric and Holocaust denial.

How does JBI view Iran’s apparent mission to eradicate Israel and probably world Jewry as well.  

The Jewish community in Iran has been rather quiet.   The reason is that they live in fear because they are very vulnerable.  The way the Iranian constitution is set-up, five seats in the parliament are reserved for minority groups, including one for the Jewish community.  Unfortunately, the representative is completely powerless.  

Jews keep a low profile. They are not encouraged to learn Hebrew, other than for religious purposes; opportunities for employment and professional advancement are limited; Jewish sites have been desecrated.  They live in a state of vulnerability.

Jews in Iran are still able to function as a religious community, but we do not know how many there are left. There are unofficial reports that some Jews have left, and others that some Jews have disappeared.  Through 2012, the Jewish population was reported as approximately 25,000.  However, in April 2013 the U.S. Department of State identified the Jewish community as 8,756 residents, as was reported in the 2011 Iranian census, a significant drop from its May 2012 report. Many argue that this number is a gross underestimation.

In recent years, official policies promoting anti-Semitism have risen sharply in Iran. Former President Ahmadinejad, and other top leaders also deny and question the Holocaust, call for the elimination of Israel, and promote government sponsored anti-Semitic propaganda.It creates a climate of fear that contributes to increased concerns about the future security of Iran’s Jewish community.

Why isn’t there an international movement, similar to the one that took place for the Refuseniks, to get the Jews out of Iran to someplace safe where they can at least practice Judaism?

Well, they do not seem to be asking for it in the same way.  In the Soviet Jewry movement there were leaders inside Russia who saw this as the goal – we do not hear that from the Jewish community in Iran.  Despite the degree of fear, despite that they live in hostile atmosphere, enough of them find a way to live their lives and go about their ordinary business.  It is a puzzlement.

You wrote in your article, “If Not Now, When?”: Jewish Advocacy for Freedom of Religion, that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Advocacy efforts focused to some extent on the Baha’i in Iran.  What have those efforts been?
The outlawing of the Baha’i religion in Iran has been extraordinary.  The Baha’i are the largest minority religion in Iran.  This is a religion, a spiritual movement, that followed Islam and according to Islamic clerics there can be no revelation after Muhammad.  Therefore the Baha’i are considered to be heretics and the government wants them stopped.  Sadly, this repressive trend continues.  Just days before the inauguration of President Rouhani, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asserted his power by issuing a religious edictterming the Baha’i faith “deviant and misleading,” and urging Iranians to avoid interaction with Baha’is.  It is dreadful.

We have called for measures to enable Baha’is to exercise basic human rights – such as the right to work – they cannot receive ID cards needed for work because they have to identify themselves as either Muslim, Jewish or Christian.  They have to take exams to attend institutions of higher education, and they have to identify their religion to sit for these exams.  Selecting Baha’i is not allowed.  So they report that they cannot go to higher educational schools.  So, they have created their own informal educational system outside of the official one.  The government cracked down on this and has put their leaders in prison.  We have tried through USCIRF and through JBI too, to draw attention to the fact that this is wrong, dangerous, and needs to be changed.

We called for the immediate unconditional release of the over 115 Baha’is imprisoned in violation of the freedom to practice a religion of their own choice, focusing on the seven prominent social and spiritual Baha’i leaders unjustly imprisoned for over five years – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naemi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli and Vahid Tizfahm – they were all arrested in March and May, 2008.

You have to know what you are doing, you have to be accurate in this work– and you have to act in ways that will make a difference through institutions and instrumentalities that matter to the Iranians.   You can often individualize cases to get results.   What you do not want is to get three people released, but have ten more imprisoned.   It is a constant struggle and you have to have a bit of luck and good judgment about the circumstances of each case.


Felice Gaer comments on International Human Rights Day and advocacy for prisoners of conscience

Can you talk about Pastor Nadarkhani,[2] about the dynamics of his rescue? Why was this successful – why did Iran choose to back down on this case and what might happen to others who are facing prison or death for their religious beliefs.

This was a difficult case because Pastor Nadarkhani was technically born into a Muslim family.  So, even though he did not practice Islam as an adult, in Iran, a person cannot convert from Islam to another religion.  Pastor Nadarkhani was also opposing the fact that his children had to study Islam in school. 

How do you rally support for him?  First – get information – who is he, why is he in prison, what kind of charges is he facing.  In his case, he was facing charges as an apostate, and this potentially caries the death penalty.  This is an important factor in the advocacy because people realized that the government was not merely putting him in prison for a year or a month, but could actually kill him for his personal beliefs.  Information on the charges against him was obtained and circulated. 

Then, it was necessary to get people to speak out about him.  Here, we were much more successful than in most prisoner of conscience cases because there were any array of prominent organizations that were prepared to speak out on this issue –Evangelicals and even mainstream Christian organizations spoke out publicly because of the death penalty charges.

But the key factor was that at a certain point, both then-Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama publicly addressed his case by name.  That gave it a visibility and importance that most cases do not obtain.
In the area of women’s rights you have accomplished so much in your efforts to raise awareness of the women’s rights treaty – the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) within the U.S. Congress.   Yet there is so much more work to be done.
How do you view JBI’s role in advocating an end to violence against women generally?

This is a subject on which I am passionate.  Our Institute has done things that nobody else has done, in making clear that gender based violence is an abuse of human rights – that women’s rights are human rights. 

I was on the US delegation to the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing and that was my special focus at the time.  Again information is essential to analysis and to action: knowing that the kinds of things that happen are not just violence but they are inhumane treatment and torture as well, that rape is a form of torture, that abuses against women may take place in a so called private context but it is public officials who allow it to happen.  State officialsdo not prevent it anddo not criminalize it.  You begin with this information

I worked hard to transform an understanding of this so-called private criminal behavior into something that is recognized as a public human rights abuse.   Government officials who ignore such abuse are part of the problem. The Beijing Conference was a huge step forward in working to combat violence against women as a human rights issue. 

We have taken further steps within the UN Committee Against Torture and other UN bodies to establish documentation and analysis showing that gender based violence constitutes an abuse of human rights.  When a government fails to provide protection – when they know about rapes and other abuses, or should know what is happening and take no action to provide protection – then there is a responsibility on the part of public officials who fail to exercise due diligence.  It took quite a while to bring that understanding forward. 

JBI has long been a strong and outspoken supporter of women’s rights both in the U.S. and abroad, and during my years leading it, has urged U.S. ratification of the landmark human rights treaty on women – the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  CEDAW guarantees fundamental human rights and equality for women worldwide. 

Around the world, CEDAW has been used to combat violence against women, sex trafficking, and workplace discrimination; ensure women’s right to vote and access to education; improve maternal health care; end forced marriage and child marriage; and guarantee a woman’s right to inherit. Many of these rights are simply denied to women in many countries.

US ratification of CEDAW would strengthen the US position as a global leader in standing up for women and girls, and continue America’s bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights both domestically and around the world. 

The US is one of only seven countries that have failed to ratify CEDAW.  The others are Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Palau and Tonga.  Very disappointingly, none of the last four Presidents have seen fit to press effectively to have this treaty ratified by the Senate.  Ratifying CEDAW requires two-thirds of the Senate to stand together for women.
What are the three most important things the public should know about JBI?
First, there is an effective Jewish based institute that is devoted to human rights that operates under the aegis of AJC that is credible, active and well respected internationally.  It has access to the highest levels of international discourse.  We call things what they are when they should be condemned.  We try to change things when they can be changed.  We educate others to speak up in the universalist tradition when there are abuses of fundamental human rights. This is at the core of our American traditions.

Second, we are the only such entity in a major Jewish organization.  We were created to make sure these principles were not ignored, and that international institutions promote and protect human rights of everyone, and work for us all – Jews and non-Jews.   

We also want to see that these human rights mechanisms are not politicized and used wrongly for political purposes as they often are against Israel or the US.  We address the most serious issues in the most serious way. 

And everyone needs to know that we will not stop as long as there is injustice anywhere.

Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights
(212) 891-1315

[1] Rabbi Hillel was thought to have lived between 110 BCE and 10 CE.

[2] Youcef Nadarkhani is a Christian pastor who was arrested in October 2009 for allegedly questioning the compulsory Islamic education of his children, providing information to students about Christianity without school or parental consent, converting part of his house to a Church without permission, and offending Islam by his manner of preaching Christianity.  According to the US Department of State, Nadarkhani was sentenced to three years in prison in 2010 for “propagating against the regime” after he was originally sentenced to death for apostasy but later acquitted.  On September 8, 2012 Iranian authorities released Pastor Nadarkhani.  However, Nadarkhani was re-arrested and imprisoned from December 25, 2012 to January 7, 2013 reportedly for time not yet served under his sentence.  Although Nadarkhani was re-released from prison in January 2013, he has not yet served the full three years of his sentence, and could be imprisoned yet again.

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