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After stories of abuse and torture at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility began seeping out in 2003, human rights groups demanded basic rights for detainees. But when lobbying government officials, organizing protests, and drafting reports proved ineffective, Widney Brown ’94, senior director of international law and policy at Amnesty International, made a bold choice. “There are times when the top decision makers aren’t interested in change,” Brown says. “That’s when you need to be more aggressive.”
Brown’s solution was to help create the hard-hitting “Close Guantánamo” campaign. Amnesty unfurled the effort in 2008 to capitalize on the presidential race. The cornerstone of the initiative was putting a 10-by-6-foot Guantánamo cell on tour across the United States, inviting passersby to enter. In some cases, volunteers were asked to assume the stress positions detainees had been subjected to. “People were saying, ‘Wow, this hurts,’” says Brown. “And we were like, ‘That’s the point.’” Public sentiment shifted. One of President Obama’s first official acts was to sign an executive order to close Guantánamo. Although it remains open, conditions have reportedly improved.
In her 14 years as a human rights advocate, Brown has learned how to strategically rabble-rouse to get things done. That willingness to act sets her apart from other policy directors, who traditionally produce reports. “A lot of rights activists come from an academic research background,” says Joseph Saunders ’93, deputy program director at Human Rights Watch, where Brown worked for nine years before moving to Amnesty in 2006. “Widney’s instincts have long been those of an advocate, and that’s one reason why she doesn’t just focus on researching reports but keeps her eye on the broader issue—namely, figuring out how we can actually change policies to improve lives.”
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Brown’s career has been trying to stretch the human rights agenda so that it addresses the challenges that make life for the most vulnerable so difficult. “People in many parts of the world,” she says, “live daily with fear and want, and as a human rights organization we need to address both issues.” Officially, her portfolio at Amnesty covers issues that cross transnational boundaries; she’s responsible for everything from refugee and immigrant rights to advocacy before international bodies such as the United Nations. But Brown sees her mandate—and Amnesty’s— more expansively. To her, issues like access to basic health care and food security are part of the human rights community’s bailiwick.
That conviction stems in part from her international travels. As she visited places ranging from Saudi Arabia to Uganda, Brown was struck by the fact that the most marginalized citizens were suffering from a lack of services such as potable water and consistent electricity, and governments were unable, or unwilling, to provide the infrastructure to deliver them. On her own time, she convened a group of civil engineers in London to discuss how they could tap technology to improve conditions in the most deprived regions of the earth. “The idea,” she explains, “is to find something like the cell phone that’s done more to improve the lives of the world’s poor than any other modern invention.” Members of the group are now attempting to raise money from the corporate engineering private sector to pay to dispatch an Iraqi engineer to install solar panels in his native country, with an eye toward providing sustainable electricity to communities there.
Brown decided to attend law school 13 years after graduating from George Washington University because she knew a J.D. could provide the entry to the human rights work she coveted. In 1997, after representing gay victims of hate crimes in New York City for three years, Brown joined Human Rights Watch. There, she started authoring reports on human rights abuses, and her work quickly garnered attention. “Hatred in the Hallways”—an investigation into the harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth in U.S. high schools— has been cited by multiple U.S. courts since its publication in 2001.
Now that she does more conceptualizing rather than writing of reports, Brown has made a point of coaching junior colleagues in how to showcase their research. When Esther Major, a researcher in the Central America division at Amnesty, presented arguments against Nicaragua’s total ban on abortion at the U.N.’s Committee Against Torture, Brown guided her through every step of the process. “She was permanently on the phone with me,” says Major. The researcher succeeded in convincing the committee to issue a “strong recommendation” in 2009 that Nicaragua reconsider its abortion policy.
Brown emphasizes the importance of matching the technique of persuasion to the target Amnesty is trying to sway. As “Close Guantánamo” proved, she doesn’t shy away from confrontation, but she is also a believer in subtle persuasion—something she says she learned at the NYU School of Law.
In 1992, Colorado passed a constitutional amendment that excluded gays and lesbians from antidiscrimination laws in the state. Brown and Glenn Greenwald ’94, now a blogger at Salon, responded by urging the Law School to boycott Colorado. The pair met with individual members of the faculty to encourage them to sign on. Brown says she “learned not to ask up front if someone was going to vote our way” but to begin by making her case instead. “You need to give people room to change their minds.” A majority of faculty agreed to boycott conferences in that state, which admittedly was more a statement than an economic blow. And four years later the Supreme Court struck down the amendment, in Romer v. Evans. Brown now credits those hours in faculty offices with teaching her the skills she uses today to coax foreign ministers and U.S. policymakers to support a human rights agenda. “It was,” says Brown, “the best training for what I do now.”