Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights was created in 1968 to carry on the legacy and forge ahead with the unfinished work―all in pursuit of the dream of a more just and peaceful world.
The scope and reach of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has expanded substantially over the years, yet since its inception the organization has remained focused on the protection of civic space―the freedoms of assembly, association, and expression; the right to dissent without fear of reprisal or persecution; the most basic of rights upon which all others are based.
RFK Human Rights partners with frontline advocates in all corners of the globe to ensure freedom of civic activism, hold leaders accountable, and speak truth to power at every turn. Over the years, we have launched human rights education and engaged the business community in pursuit of our goals. We have fought for racial justice, economic justice, and criminal justice reform. And we have protected women from violence and helped young people who might otherwise be overlooked become the leaders of tomorrow.
As you scroll through the first fifty years of our history, you will see some of the work we have done to bring about lasting and essential change.
“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”—Robert F. Kennedy
The Kennedy Family Shares Their Vision
Our story begins here… October 29, 1968. On the lawn of Hickory Hill, Ethel Kennedy and Sen. Edward Kennedy—joined by his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Kennedy Lawford and Mrs. Jean Kennedy Smith—announce the Kennedy family’s plan to create a ten-million dollar Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation. The goal: to build on RFK’s legacy by continuing to advocate for a more just and peaceful world.
Ethel Kennedy, Leading the Way
Throughout Ethel Kennedy’s marriage to Robert F. Kennedy, the couple shared a passion for politics and a commitment to social justice. And she has never faltered from this path. She led the organization from its very inception, and she has played a vital role in its growth and development, for more than half a century. A political force in her own right, Ethel Kennedy has stood with human rights defenders around the globe. She has earned many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and her vital work has garnered worldwide respect and admiration.
“Bobby brought us all along with his enthusiasm and his love of life and his curiosity. And he made everybody feel a part of this battle, that we're going to do better, that America can stand for something.”—Ethel Kennedy, interviewed by Tom Brokow, 1988
RFK Fellows Program: The Future of Civil Rights
The RFK Fellows Program was the organization’s first major endeavor. The program sent young professionals to American locales in need of strategies and operations to combat poverty, disillusion, and injustice. In September 1969, thirty-seven young people, ages 19 to 33, dispersed across the country to work for civil rights, design and implement programs for underserved communities, and advocate for changes in public policies that had historically contributed to hardship and discrimination.
Over the years, hundreds of RFK Fellows served in nearly 200 community-based organizations and agencies—from the inner cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to Appalachia’s rural hollows and the Mississippi Delta. They worked in education, legal services, mentoring, journalism, job training, community building, after school programs, and the arts. In the 70s, the National Street Law Institute was founded by an RFK Fellow. This visionary movement, now called Street Law Inc., is at work in every state and 40 countries. Another RFK Fellow started the first Spanish language radio station run by and for immigrant farm workers in California. And the first Native American-run school in the United States was started by a Fellow, as well.
RFK Fellows have gone on to serve the nation, fulfilling the promise that was made at the start—to make life qualitatively different for the disenfranchised and the oppressed. 1970 Fellow and attorney Peter Welch was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and has been serving Vermont’s at-large congressional district since 2007. B.J. Stiles, another early alumnus, is an award-winning journalist and pioneer in AIDS/HIV advocacy who co-founded the National AIDS Fund. And, Jerry Hildebrand developed and directed the first rural Economic Development Corporation in the U.S. to finance community-based business enterprises in a chronically depressed region of the country.
In the early 2000s, after being chosen as an Americorps partner, RFK Fellows implemented mentoring programs in underserved areas of Washington DC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The college-aged Fellows worked in schools and community organizations with at-risk youth and, over the years, hundreds of students and mentors participated in the program.
The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award: The Courage to Overcome Injustice
Robert F. Kennedy believed that individuals hold the power to invoke change. A single voice can declare an iniquity, and “each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lives of others, or strikes out against injustice,” there is a ripple of hope.
In the spirit of these ideals, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award was established in 1984 to honor courageous and innovative individuals—those who are striving for social justice throughout the world, often in the face of great personal risk.
Each year, the award recipients are chosen through an extensive selection process. Internal nominations of courageous groups and individuals are carefully reviewed, and the recipients are awarded based on their dedication and accomplishments toward social justice and the non-violent tactics used to achieve their goals.
The Human Rights Award laureates receive a cash prize, but what sets this award apart is that they also receive ongoing support for their important work. RFK Human Rights forges strategic partnerships by working in coordination with the human rights defenders. A rights-based approach and innovative tools are used to achieve sustainable social change—this includes strategic litigation; technical assistance; fact-finding delegations; public awareness campaigns; and advocating to governments, the United Nations, regional bodies, and other international entities and NGOs. As the ranks of RFK Human Rights Award laureates expand, so does our domestic and international support.
In 1984, the first award was given to the CoMadres for their role in helping to end politically motivated forced disappearances in El Salvador. Since then, RFK Human Rights has honored and worked with 56 outstanding activists and organizations from 30 countries, all of whom embody Robert F. Kennedy’s belief that the power of individual moral courage can overcome injustice.
A Bold Delegation to Kenya
Kerry Kennedy began partnering with her mother and, over time, followed in Ethel’s footsteps to head the organization. In 1989, she led an RFK delegation to Kenya where their efforts resulted in the release of two dozen political prisoners. Mirugi Kariuki, a Kenyan lawyer who was arrested without charge in 1986, wrote: “…my most sincere appreciation for your efforts and concern for the human rights situation in Kenya, which, in my opinion, led to my release. …your bold step drew the ire of our local leadership and is a testimony to your commitment to human rights.”
The Mothers of El Salvador Unite
In the late 1970s, a number of women’s groups in El Salvador sought the same truth—the whereabouts of relatives who had gone missing or been assassinated during their nation’s civil war. From this came CoMadres, the mothers of the disappeared. In 1989, RFK Human Rights secured $2 million in food, medical, clothing, and construction supplies, and organized a caravan to bring these supplies to victims of the Salvadoran Civil War. The Center also engaged the help of high-profile celebrities to assist with the aid drive, helping to raise awareness of the situation in El Salvador. CoMadres was the recipient of the 1984 RFK Human Rights Award.
Political Prisoners Finally Freed in South Korea
The South Korean government's commitment to human rights and democratic reform seemed to weaken steadily throughout 1990, as restrictions on freedom of expression and association increased. That year, RFK Human Rights released a scathing report on human rights abuses in South Korea, and then tirelessly advocated for the release of 22 prisoners of conscience. A few months later, all 22 political prisoners were freed, some after decades of incarceration.
Realizing the Dream of Democracy in Malawi
From age 21, Chakufwa Chihana pursued his dream of democracy and workers’ rights in Malawi, in spite of exile, imprisonment, and torture...
In early 1994, RFK Human Rights lobbied then-Vice President Al Gore to intervene for Chihana’s release, as well as for fair elections—the U.S. threatened to cut off aid unless reforms took place and exceedingly high tariffs were imposed on Malawian tobacco. After six months, Chihana and his prisoner of conscience colleagues were freed, and within hours, the people of Malawi went to the polls for the first time in 30 years. They voted overwhelmingly for free and fair elections. Chihana, a 1994 RFK Human Rights Award recipient, passed away in 2006.
Freedom for Vietnamese Prisoners of Conscience
In 1998, following a compelling three-year campaign waged by RFK Human Rights, Vietnam released two prisoners of conscience: journalist, educator, and activist Professor Doan Viet Hoat, who had been shuttled from prison to prison for 22 years, and Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, an endocrinologist and outspoken promoter of democratic ideals who has been called Vietnam’s “most renowned dissident.” Hoat and Que are both 1995 recipients of the RFK Human Rights Award.
“And I always believe that truth, justice, and compassion will prevail, no matter how strong the dictators are, no matter how bad the situation might be.”—Doan Viet Hoat
Global Outcry Against Child Labor in India
RFK Human Rights has long put labor issues at the forefront, with child labor understandably rallying especially strong opposition efforts. The Center was a founding member of the Fair Labor Association and, in 1998, partnered with Indian engineer and activist Kailash Satyarthi to help facilitate the Global March Against Child Labor that Sathyarti conceived of and led. The Global March was one element of a worldwide grassroots campaign to raise awareness of child bondage in India. Kailash Satyarthi is a recipient of the 1995 RFK Human Rights Award and Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
“Child slavery is a crime against humanity. Humanity itself is at stake here. A lot of work still remains, but I will see the end of child labor in my lifetime.”—Kailash Satyarthi
Bearing Witness to Chinese Labor Camp Atrocities
In 1999, RFK Human Rights hosted the largest-ever gathering of Laogai survivors—twenty-two men and women who gave voice to the brutal human rights abuses of China’s forced labor camps. Kerry Kennedy delivered remarks entitled “Ending the Silence,” and former President of Costa Rica and Nobel Peace Prize winner Óscar Arias Sánchez shared his thoughts “On Freedom.” Survivors gave testimony, and activist and actor Richard Gere delivered the keynote address. These survivors, who had endured such unthinkable violence, came together to bear witness, on the record, to the ongoing Chinese Gulag.
Speak Truth to Power: The Launch of Human Rights Education
Speak Truth to Power is dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world so that the next generation is inspired to end and prevent global human rights abuses.
The initiative started with Kerry Kennedy’s book, Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World, which she wrote in 2000. It includes the words and deeds of courageous men and women who have risked their lives to build a better, safer future. She spent two years interviewing more than 50 defenders—from Desmond Tutu and Elie Wiesel to Marian Wright Edelman and the Dalai Lama—from nearly forty countries, across five continents.
The book led to the founding of the human rights education program, Speak Truth to Power (STTP). In partnership with Discovery Education, STTP reaches millions of students and teachers, creating a global citizenry to ensure lasting change. The program uses lesson plans, teacher training, photo exhibits, music and video contests, and more, to bring the defenders, their ideas, and their stories to life. Human rights education expands the way young people think about society and their role in it, so that they too can become champions of justice.
The book also inspired a play, Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ariel Dorfman. It premiered in 2000 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC and was broadcast as part of PBS’s The Kennedy Center Presents. It has reached audiences in Athens, Barcelona, Cape Town, Florence, Madrid, Paris, Stockholm, and more, and has featured actors such as John Malkovich, Sigourney Weaver, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Kline, and Meryl Streep. In 2014, members of the European Union performed the play at the EU in Brussels.
“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’ve listened to them speak about the quality and nature of courage, and in their stories I have found hope and inspiration, a vision of a better world.”—Kerry Kennedy
Liberia’s Powerful Voice for Peace
In the wreckage of Liberia’s first civil war, Archbishop Michael Kpakala Francis became a voice for reconstruction, and ultimately, democracy. In 2003, RFK Human Rights led a campaign on behalf of Archbishop Francis—congressional support for Liberia was enlisted, leading to $200 million in appropriations towards reconstruction and $245 million for continued United Nations peacekeeping there. Francis, who passed away in 2013, was the recipient of the 1999 RFK Human Rights Award. His cry for peace and his visionary leadership live on in Liberia and echo throughout the world.
Ensuring Legal Rights for the Women of Chad
Human rights attorney Delphine Djiraibe is one of only a handful of female lawyers in Chad, and she has worked to ensure that revenues from oil are used to help the people of her country and not for the purpose of war. In 2004, RFK Human Rights secured the grants needed for Djiraibe to open the first Public Interest Law Clinic (PILC) in her country to provide low cost or pro bono legal services to poor Chadians. RFK Human Rights then supplied staff on the ground to help set up operating systems and provide guidance. Today, PILC is a vital resource in the lives of Chadian women dealing with issues of child custody, domestic violence, spousal support, rape, defamation, and wrongful termination. PILC also trains these women to “know your rights.” Djiraibe is the 2004 recipient of the RFK Human Rights Award.
Fighting for the Rights of Migrant Farmers
Lucas Benitez is a field worker and co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a group of migrant farmers in the tomato industry. In 2005, RFK Human Rights helped Benitez, his organization, and their allies, in their successful fight for the first wage increase in two decades. Pressure was placed on fast food giants, the largest purchasers of Florida grown tomatoes, and awareness was raised across the country. Due to relentless pressure from RFK Human Rights, momentum continues to grow. A watershed 2005 compact signed with Taco Bell paved the way for future victories, and RFK Human Rights was able to facilitate successful negotiations with McDonalds and other fast food and supermarket chains. Included in the agreements: a wage increase to nearly double the existing wage, a code of conduct that bans forced labor and other abuses, and transparency in the supply chain. Lucas Benitez is a 2003 recipient of the RFK Human Rights Award.
“Taking on the fast-food Industry has not been easy, but with allies like the RFK Center, together we have not only confronted the industry, but we are, in fact, continuing to harvest victories. We have created a voice for those of us who’ve never had a voice in an industry that was reaping benefits from the exploitation of thousands of farmworkers.”—Lucas Benitez
Hurricane Katrina: Relief and Recovery
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, RFK Human Rights and community organizer Stephen Bradberry co-founded the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign—a partnership of local community, faith, student, labor, and human rights organizations, and their national allies. The Campaign advocated for federal legislation to create living wage jobs, rebuild neighborhoods, and restore the environment in communities still struggling to recover from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike. After President George W. Bush announced that no additional funds would be sent for Gulf Coast recovery, Bradberry and RFK Human Rights organized a bus caravan of hurricane survivors who went to Washington to lobby Congress. Within days, the White House decision was reversed, and an additional $19 billion was allocated for recovery relief.
In addition, the New Orleans City Council agreed to plans that would turn much of the Lower Ninth Ward, a traditionally African American community, into a golf course. RFK Human Rights facilitated a public relations campaign, featuring Stephen Bradberry, which directly led to overturning the ordinance. Bradberry is a 2005 recipient of the RFK Human Rights Award.
As a result of intervention and advocacy efforts by RFK Human Rights, the BP Oil settlement with Gulf residents included a $105 million commitment to build and strengthen health clinics across four states of the Gulf coast. Clinics included toxicity analysis and care, as well as community organizing components to help ensure neighborhood involvement and leadership. Nearly a dozen clinics were funded with the initial July 2013 disbursement. Bradberry’s community-based Alliance Institute administered the funds.
Food and Water for Haitians in Need
In 2008, RFK Human Rights, Haitian NGO Zanmi Lasante, and New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) responded to the U.S. government’s halt on Inter-American Development Bank loans—loans that included $54 million in life-saving water and sanitation improvements for Haiti. As a result of pressure by RFK Human Rights on IDB officials, and following the report which outlined devastating consequences, the stalled water project was resumed. This ended the cholera epidemic and brought water to the people of Port-de-Paix, Haiti, after a nearly ten-year wait.
In 2009, RFK Human Rights, Lasante, and CHRGJ assessed the impact of U.S. food aid in the Haitian Central Plateau and found that the food was often spoiled, many recipients received food that was unfamiliar to them and didn’t know how to prepare it, and the donated food undermined local farmers and the Haitian agricultural sector. When these findings were published in 2010, the report was used to inform current policy making in the region.
RFK Compass Investors: New Approaches to Investing
“The power to act is the power to command resources.” —Robert F. Kennedy, 1964
Robert F. Kennedy advocated partnering the best of community action with the best of private enterprise. And this is precisely what the RFK Compass program was created to do—connect the people with the ideas to the people with the resources.
When it was launched in 2009, RFK Compass Investors was the first and only human rights program to talk with the world’s largest institutional investors about the direct links between protecting human rights and optimized investment returns. These discussions have shed light on how racial and economic justice are deeply intertwined. Over time, they have helped uncover best practices to harness the private sector’s considerable influence and enlist it in the cause of racial and economic justice.
Each year, Compass convenes a powerful network of institutional investors, fund managers, and investment consultants, representing almost $7 trillion in assets under management. With the help of industry experts, human rights professionals, political leaders, academics, labor representatives, and the RFK Human Rights leadership, they explore investing approaches that actively prioritize the “S” in ESG (environmental, social, and governance). The social factor is frequently overlooked because its impact on society is often hard to measure but, as recent worldwide protests show, it’s often what stakeholders care about most. The “S” is about ensuring that a company is respecting human rights in the way it makes money, up and down the supply chain. It’s about women and minority-owned firms. It’s about promoting equity in the investment community, both in access to capital and access to career opportunities. In short, the “S” in ESG is about considering human rights violations as risk factors when making investment decisions.
In the years to come, RFK Compass Investors will continue to build on this framework through continued discussion and greater action in support of racial and economic justice—for the investing community and for society at-large.
Obama Honors Zimbabwe’s Voice for Women’s Rights
At the White House, President Barack Obama presented the 2009 RFK Human Rights Award to frontline leader and women’s rights campaigner Magodonga Mahlangu and the organization she leads, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). This presentation marked the first time the U.S. administration made public comments about the volatile human rights situation in Zimbabwe, bringing worldwide attention to these women and these issues as a priority.
“By her example, Magodonga has shown the women of WOZA and the people of Zimbabwe that they can undermine their oppressors' power with their own power -- that they can sap a dictator's strength with their own. Her courage has inspired others to summon theirs.”—Barack Obama
The Gandhi of Western Sahara
Aminatou Haidar, a 2008 recipient of the RFK Human Rights Award, is often known as the Gandhi of Western Sahara and the Sahwari people. When Moroccan forces prevented her from reentering her country, she launched a 28-day hunger strike in protest. RFK Human Rights engaged European governments and the international diplomatic community to end the Moroccan government’s denial of Haidar’s right to travel. She was finally permitted to return to Western Sahara in the fall of 2009, bringing world-wide attention to the struggle of Western Sahara’s indigenous population.
“Just imagine many children instead of drawing toys they draw a policeman with a gun and a stick beating people and people behind bars. I am scared that they will become violent and incite violence. . . because practicing violence, one day will incite violence. . . It is our role as human rights defenders to call for peace.”—Aminatou Haidar
RFK Juvenile Justice Collaborative: Renewed Opportunity
The Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps was founded in 1969 to promote child welfare and juvenile justice. In 2009, this Massachusetts-based organization partnered with RFK Human Rights to form the RFK Juvenile Justice Collaborative (RFK JJC).
RFK JJC was the first DC-based, national project focused on the issues of youth reentry, and its accomplishments are many. It co-founded a federal policy group that develops strategies and recommendations to improve educational opportunities for reentering youth, while educating policy makers in the process. In 2011, RFK JCC co-sponsored a conference on juvenile justice at Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform. And in 2012, the organization collaborated on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization bill in Congress and secured changes in the Senate bill that would ultimately improve access to education for these young people.
In 2013, RFK JJC co-wrote and released a policy paper at the Correctional Education Summit co-hosted by the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. The paper outlined recommendations for youth in the juvenile justice system and those reentering. It was signed by 128 organizations, including the National Education Association, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the American Probation and Parole Association, and widely circulated to advocacy groups. RFK JJC continues to meet with federal policy makers at the Departments of Justice and Education in ongoing efforts to implement the important recommendations.
“Robert F. Kennedy Juvenile Justice Collaborative was formed in 2009 to improve federal youth reentry policy through advocacy, coalition building, and giving voice to youth who are directly impacted by the justice system.”—Kerry Kennedy
Rallying After the Earthquake in Haiti
After the catastrophic 2010 Haiti earthquake, RFK Human Rights and a team of organizations established an aid accountability project to ensure that foreign assistance to Haiti would have a positive, long-term effect. The project's guiding principle states that humanitarian aid is not charity—instead, it mandates an obligation for donors to prioritize Haitians’ needs and rights in recovery and reconstruction efforts.
Zamni Beni, located in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, is a facility for vulnerable children—both those displaced by the earthquake and those with disabilities—and run by Haitian healthcare expert and 2002 RFK Human Rights Award recipient Loune Viaud. In 2011, the RFK Learning Center was opened at the facility. RFK Human Rights partnered with New York State United Teachers to fund and equip the Center which houses art and music programs and computer labs.
The Fight to End Untouchability in India
In 1950, India's constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste. And yet, despite real progress over the decades, there remains a residue of discrimination, especially in rural areas. Dalits, or “untouchables,” still suffer atrocities and subjugation. In 2010, dalit Martin Macwan, who fights India’s caste discrimination practices, released a groundbreaking study with his organization, Navsarjan. This grassroots organization, dedicated to human rights for all and the end of discrimination based on untouchability practices, is one of the largest in the state of Gujurat and active in more than 3,000 villages. The data collection and study were done in partnership with RFK Human Rights and documented the reality of caste-based discrimination in India. This project is the most extensive data gathering effort ever conducted on the topic and has been a crucial tool to those advocating for Dalits’ rights. In 2000, Macwan received the RFK Human Rights Award.
A Voice for LGBTI Rights in Uganda
Frank Mugisha, a 2011 recipient of the RFK Human Rights Award, is one of the most prominent advocates for LGBTI rights in his country of Uganda. Since 2011, supported by efforts of RFK Human Rights, Mugisha’s personal safety and the impact of his work have been greatly increased—and his compelling voice has been amplified. RFK Human Rights linked Mugisha to an international network of human rights allies working on LGBTI issues around the world, and it has offered strategic counseling. These actions have helped Mugisha implement strategies to engage Ugandan Parliamentarians, involve international media advocacy, and provide an international human rights analysis of Uganda’s anti-homosexuality bill.
RFK Human Rights pushed back on pending Ugandan legislation that would punish homosexuality with the death penalty, and these efforts helped keep such an unthinkable bill from becoming law. In addition, RFK Human Rights secured an agreement with the national police of Uganda to train all forces in gender rights. Police agreed to create a desk officer in charge of LGBTI issues.
“We are driven by the conviction that we are part of a larger story of global human rights, and we will not give up until we have built the future that we all deserve.”—Frank Mugisha
In 2011, RFK Human Rights partnered with Health eVillages to improve urgent health care delivery by clinicians and educate patients in underserved, remote areas of the world. Initially operating as a program of RFK Human Rights, Health eVillages is now an independent, robust organization dedicated to advancing global health care. Currently active in eleven countries, they facilitate access and empower providers by using cutting-edge apps on mobile devices. This means that medical practitioners working with few resources and little access to healthcare data have life-saving information at their fingertips.
Western Sahara and the Push for Peace
The United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) was established in April 1991. MINURSO’s mission was to monitor the cease-fire brokered in 1991 and conduct a referendum in accordance with the Settlement Plan—a plan which would enable the Sahrawi people to choose between integration with Morocco and independence. In October 2012, RFK Human Rights hosted a screening at the U.N. of their documentary Sons of the Clouds, along with its award-winning producer and actor Javier Bardem. The film makes a powerful demand for human rights in Western Sahara.
In April 2013, following an RFK Human Rights delegation to Western Sahara, as well as RFK Human Rights advocacy efforts, the U.S. mission to the U.N. proposed adding a human rights mechanism to MINURSO’s peacekeeping mission. The actions put forth by the United States were an unprecedented breakthrough in the arduous struggle to protect human rights in the region. That same year, RFK Human Rights joined Sahrawi activist Aminatou Haidar in an aggressive lobbying push to further cement the rights of the Sahwari people. Their efforts included meeting with the missions of several key countries at the U.N., as well as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.
Mexico and the March to Social Justice
In 2013, RFK Human Rights and 24 volunteers secured donated educational, medical and other supplies and delivered them to Mexico. In addition, over $100,000 was raised, enabling construction to begin on three schools in indigenous communities. This development was part of a broader right-to-education program created in conjunction with 2010 RFK Human Rights Award recipient, anthropologist and activist Abel Barrera Hernández and his organization Tlachinollan. Barrera’s courageous work is focused on realizing the rights of indigenous communities—the right to access to education and health and the right to legal recourse.
“At Tlachinollan, our conviction is to work together, in a new joint project, where human rights are supreme and where we can better honor the memory of Robert Kennedy, whose legacy not only brings us together today and challenges us, but serves as an inexhaustible source of inspiration to continue the long march toward global justice."—Abel Barrera Hernández
Combatting LGBTI Discrimination in Uganda
In March 2013, Kerry Kennedy led an RFK Human Rights delegation to Uganda to confront discriminatory practices against the LGBTI community. On the first day of their visit, the team held a three-hour meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni regarding the anti-homosexuality bill that was wending its way through Parliament—a bill that called for the death penalty for certain offenses and potential criminal sanctions for parents, friends, and doctors who failed to report those suspected of being LGBTI. The delegation also met with political and religious leaders and various members of civil society.
At the time, the situation in Uganda for the LGBTI community was especially bleak. They lived in constant fear of human rights violations, including attacks by police. One evening, following a reception hosted by RFK Human Rights, two LGBTI guests were arrested. The delegation followed the police cruiser to the city jail in Kampala and spent the better part of the night negotiating their freedom. After the intervention of the Inspector General of the Ugandan Police, the top commander of the national force, the two were released at 11:00 p.m. The Inspector General stayed on to meet with the delegation into the early morning hours. Due to his leadership and determination to create a responsible, responsive, and professional force, important actions were put into place. Ugandan police would receive human rights training, a police department desk would be established to service the LGBTI community, and a hotline would be created to offer further support.
During a follow-up trip to Uganda in January 2014, the RFK Human Rights team met again with President Museveni. While there has been incremental progress since then, many discriminatory practices remain in place.
Justice for Pedro Hernandez
In 2017, RFK Human Rights helped secure the release of Bronx teenager Pedro Hernandez by posting his $100,000 bail. Hernandez was an honor student just months from attending college when he was arrested on false charges. He spent over a year incarcerated at Rikers Island. Hernandez is a prime example of a system that discriminates on the basis of wealth, and the decision to post his bail was part of a larger campaign by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to reform New York’s unjust pre-trial detention policies.
“No one should disappear into a jail as notorious as Rikers Island simply because they can’t afford bail. The clear injustice of Pedro Hernandez’s situation breaks my heart, as it should the hearts of all New Yorkers who desire an effective justice system.”—Kerry Kennedy
Justice for Journalist Nelson Carvajal
In April 1998, Colombian journalist and teacher Nelson Carvajal was murdered in Pitalito, Colombia. Years later, in 2015, in what they called a "step of great importance," the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and RFK Human Rights welcomed the decision of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to submit the case of Nelson Carvajal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The hope was that justice would finally be done.
The IAPA, RFK Human Rights, and the Carvajal family, formally requested that case be submitted since the murder has not been solved by the Colombian government after 17 years. RFK Human Rights led the legal representation. On March 13, 2018, the Inter-American Court issued a judgment declaring the State of Colombia internationally responsible for the death of Carvajal and for failing to guarantee his right to freedom of expression. This marked the first time in the history of Latin America that a country was held responsible for the assassination of a journalist.
“Hand in hand with freedom of expression is the power to be heard. We are honored to take this case to the Inter-American Court on behalf of Nelson Carvajal and the countless other journalists whose voices have been senselessly silenced by violence.”—Kerry Kennedy
From Mass Bail Out to Criminal Legal System Reform
RFK Human Rights stands committed to shrinking the scale, scope, and power of mass criminalization and mass incarceration systems in the U.S. In 2018, over the course of one month, the organization coordinated the release of over 100 people across New York City who had been unjustly incarcerated because they could not afford the price set on their freedom.
The October 2018 Mass Bail Out Action at Rikers Island, inspired by the movement to end bail nationwide, was a collaborative effort of thousands of volunteers, community groups, service providers, public defenders, faith communities, formerly incarcerated people and their families, as well as public officials and activists. The goal: to free women and young people who are victims of a system designed to keep those who lack financial means behind bars pre-trial. It was the largest bail out action that has ever occurred in a single city, posting nearly $1.2 million in bail to free 105 individuals.
The facts are damning. The U.S. cages more people in its jails and prisons than any other country in the world. In addition to costing taxpayers billions, communities of color who are under-resourced and over-policed are disproportionately harmed. Nearly every day, an average of 500 women and 100 minors are isolated from family, school, and community as they endure neglect and abuse behind bars. And most are simply awaiting trial.
Modeling Robert Kennedy’s solidarity approach, RFK Human Rights is continuing to change the narrative for those most directly impacted by the prison industrial complex—Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, and those experiencing poverty. In 2020, we helped push forward landmark New York State legislation that significantly reduced pretrial detention and eliminated cash bail for 90 percent of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies—an important step towards the constitutional promise of presumption of innocence. We are incredibly proud of this effort and the impact that it has already had on the lives of so many. On any given night, there are nearly 7,000 fewer people in jails statewide, which means that they are spared from losing jobs, housing, and custody of their children while they await their rightful day in court.
Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights aims to take action where elected officials have failed to do so. Together with frontline advocates, we continue to leverage our unique platform, resources, and expertise to shine a light on the injustices of pre-trial detention and mass incarceration, and to advance the cause of criminal justice reform.
Fair Labor for Farm Workers
In June 2019, after over a decade of work by RFK Human Rights to empower and improve the lives of New York State farmworkers, the state legislature in Albany passed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act. Farmworkers are the heart of New York’s vast agricultural industry, and this bill gave them collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, disability insurance, and the right to a day off each week.
RFK Human Rights continues to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—an organization founded in the 1990s to end these injustices in the farming industry. The Coalition’s Fair Food Program has succeeded in enlisting the help of major companies like Subway, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods to raise wages and improve conditions for tomato pickers across the United States. The work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a model of Americans standing up for their rights and creating meaningful change.
“You are winning a special kind of citizenship: no one is doing it for you—you are winning it yourselves--and therefore no one can ever take it away.”—Robert F. Kennedy to Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers, 1968
Our Story Continues…
In 1988, Tom Brokaw interviewed Ethel Kennedy to mark the 20th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death. Brokaw noted that many of the issues Kennedy talked about and cared about so deeply were still with us. He asked Ethel if she thought we would have already solved these problems.
“Well, I thought we‘d make a dent, and I think we did. A lot of people have made some sacrifice in their lives to make it a better world, and I think in a lot of ways it is. There’s a lot more we can do.”
In this timeline, we reflect on the first fifty years of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. While much has been done in pursuit of a more just and peaceful world, we understand that the fight to preserve and advance human rights is a long and arduous one. That fight could not be more important, and we remain fully committed to carrying it on for generations to come.
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