As a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, Rhonda’s groundbreaking work in Filártiga v. Peña-Irala (2d Cir. 1980) gave victims of international human rights abuses access to justice in United States courts. This case established that torture was a violation of the law of nations, a principle of which we seem to have lost sight in recent times. Using a hitherto obscure federal statute, the Alien Tort Claims Act, Rhonda’s advocacy paved the way for many high profile human rights cases, including the recently settled suit brought by Ken Saro Wiwa’s family against Shell Oil. Harold Koh has called this case the Brown v. Board of Education of International Human Rights.
Rhonda was also lead counsel in Harris v. McRae (1980), a pivotal case concerning the reproductive rights of poor women. Although successful in the lower courts, Rhonda’s loss at the Supreme Court haunted her for the rest of her life.
As a founding member of CUNY Law School, Rhonda poured her energy into establishing the International Women's Human Rights Clinic. Every year, students in the clinic work to protect the rights of women around the world and in the United States. The CUNY website
In 2009, Rhonda was awarded the M. Shanara Gilbert Human Rights Award by the Society of American Law Teachers. On April 20, 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights honored Rhonda for her life’s work and established the Copelon Fund for Gender Justice.
Rhonda was not just a great lawyer, she was also a generous mentor and friend to students, and young professionals. Her tireless advocacy on behalf of women will never be forgotten.
I've included below just a couple of tributes from women in international law whose lives Rhonda touched, and welcome you to add your thoughts in the comments section.
What a loss to the clinical community and to the ongoing struggle for women's human rights! Rhonda was an amazing, passionate, committed advocate for women's human rights. I first met her when I was at AU. Rather than being territorial towards a newcomer, she was supportive of all persons with a commitment to women's human rights, and worked tirelessly for the cause. She was loved and respected around the world. I saw her in action in Beijing at the Women's Conference in 1995, and had the opportunity to work together on a project with women's rights advocates from throughout Latin America to integrate a gender perspective into legal education. She was universally respected and admired and her legacy will be everlasting.
I am so saddened at the passing of Rhonda Copelon. She was a brilliant lawyer and an inspiring teacher and a warm and generous person. I met Rhonda during the preparations for the Fourth World Conference on Women. I was not yet a lawyer and new to the world of U.N. conferences and human rights advocacy, and she was unfailingly supportive and always willing to share her expertise in navigating complicated issues and institutions. She has served as a model of engagement and accessibility to me and so many others. Her passing is a huge loss.-- Rachel Rosenbloom