Speak Truth to Power, Human Rights Defenders Who are Changing Our World, By Kerry Kennedy, human rights attorney, activist and RFK Human Rights President, was first published in the United States and has since been translated into seven languages: Arabic, Greek, Italian, Korean, Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.  It recounts the stories of fifty-one courageous human rights defenders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Wangari Maathai, among others, who are vigorously striving to preserve and protect human rights.

Endorsing the book, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi wrote:

"You cannot kill and idea, you cannot imprison freedom.  The lives of common women and men in the   book, heroes every one, inspire all who believe in liberty and justice.  This book is a tribute to the human   spirit and proof of the capacity of one person of courage to triumph over overwhelming evil." - Nelson Mandela

"Speak Truth to Power gives us insight to the power of the human spirit.  It tells us why and how men and women all over the world struggle against oppression, injustice and cruelty.  There is horror but there is also immense hope in the world where dedicated people translate their commitment into human rights action."  - Aung San Suu Kyi


Speak Truth To Power Introduction by Kerry Kennedy

Open these pages to a world of courage and hope, where students learn about social justice principles and how and where they are grounded in international and domestic law. Beyond theory, students are provided with a tool kit for action, so they, too, can create change in the classroom, community, country, and our shared world. Our aim is for every student who uses this material to abandon the role of bystander and, instead, join today’s heroes as a human rights defender.

In a world where there is a common lament that there are no more heroes, too often cynicism and despair are perceived as evidence of the death of moral courage. That perception is wrong.

People of great valor and heart, committed to noble purpose, with long records of personal sacrifice, walk among us in every country of the world. I spent two years traveling the globe to interview fifty-one individuals from nearly forty countries and five continents. In these pages, and in the play by Ariel Dorfman, you will find people whose lives are filled with extraordinary feats of bravery. I’ve listened to them speak about the quality and nature of courage, and in their stories I found hope and inspiration, a vision of a better world.

For many of these heroes, their understanding of the abrogation of human rights has been profoundly shaped by their personal experiences: of death threats, imprisonment, and in some cases, bodily harm. However, this is not, by any measure, a compilation of victims. Rather, courage, with its affirmation of possibility and change, is what defines them, singly and together. Each spoke to me with compelling eloquence of the causes to which they have devoted their lives, and for which they are willing to sacrifice them—from freedom of expression to the rule of law; from environmental defense to eradicating bonded labor; from access to capital to the right to due process; from women’s rights to religious liberty. As the Mandelas, Gandhis, and Maathais of their countries, these leaders hold in common an inspiring record of accomplishment and a profound capacity to ignite change.

The defenders’ own voices provoke fundamental questions: Why do people who face imprisonment, torture, and death continue to pursue their work when the chance of success is so remote and the personal consequences so grave? Why did they become involved? What keeps them going? From where do they derive their strength and inspiration? How do they overcome fear? How do they measure success? Out of the answers emerges a sympathetic and strength-giving portrait of the power of personal resolve in the face of injustice. These voices are, most of all, a call to action, much needed because human rights violations often occur by cover of night, in remote and dark places. For many who suffer, isolation is their worst enemy, and exposure of atrocities their only hope. We must bring the international spotlight to violations and broaden the community of those who know and care about those who suffer. This alone may well stop a disappearance, cancel a torture session, or even, some day, save a life. Included with each story is a resource guide of contact information for the defenders and their organizations in the hope that you, the reader, will take action, send a donation, ask for more information, get involved. The more that voices are raised in protest, the greater the likelihood of change.

I grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition—we painted our prophets on ceilings and sealed our saints in stained glass. But here on earth, people like these and countless other defenders are living, breathing human beings. Their determination, valor, and commitment in the face of overwhelming danger challenge each of us to take up the torch for a more decent society. Today we are blessed by the presence of certain people who are gifts from God.

They are teachers who show us not how to be saints, but how to be fully human. Indeed, the project, has been developed by educators to whom we are profoundly grateful.


Kerry Kennedy