Saturday, October 4, 2003

RFK center strives for human rights

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Retired federal Judge Nathaniel Jones, co-chairman of the Freedom Center, knows firsthand the work of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

In 1991, the center asked Jones and Drew Days, a Yale University law professor who later became U.S. solicitor general, to visit Kenya and examine that country's troubled judicial system.

"We met with the (Kenyan) attorney general, with judges, with members of the legislature, with persons who'd been victimized by police abuse, with people who'd been tortured," Jones said. The team found that political interference made justice impossible.

"We wrote a report that severely criticized the interference that came from the highest (government) levels, namely the president of Kenya," Daniel arap Moi.

But the human rights center does more than issue reports denouncing human rights abuses. Much of its work revolves around its support of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureates. To date, the center has recognized 31 people around the world for standing up to government oppression in the nonviolent pursuit of human rights.

"We look for people who have displayed a certain amount of creativity and courage, and who are actually making a difference improving a bad situation. And we add our effort to theirs," Todd Howland, director of the human rights center, said.

In Kenya, that person was Gibson Kamau Kuria, a lawyer and rights advocate who was named a Kennedy laureate in 1988. He was not allowed to leave Kenya to accept the award, so Ethel Kennedy and her daughter, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, traveled to Nairobi to present it.

The Kennedy center assists laureates in a number of ways. If laureates are in need of funding sources, the Kennedy Center helps find them. Almost always, it assembles an advocacy team.

"We're always looking to make contacts for (laureates) and to some degree use the Kennedy (Center) network to help augment their ability to achieve change," Howland said. Kuria, for example, has a support team of U.S. college professors, judges and others who serve as sources of information on legal and justice issues.

The center works with laureates as long as necessary. In Kuria's case, it's 15 years and counting, which includes a two-year period in which he was exiled.

But late last year, a new president took power in Kenya. "There's been an absolute political change," Jones said. Human rights are being restored. Kuria and the Kennedy human rights center deserve some of the credit, he said.

Kuria will attend tonight's International Freedom Conductor Awards ceremony.

The human rights center grew out of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, which was started by the Kennedy family after Robert was slain while running for president in 1968. The nonprofit RFK Memorial administers a number of programs aimed at keeping alive Kennedy's vision for social justice.

Kerry Kennedy Cuomo founded the Center for Human Rights in 1988 as a means of supporting Kennedy laureates. Over the years, laureates have fought India's caste system, started a medical clinic in Guatemala, worked for multiparty democracy in Poland, South Korea and Malawi and helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.

The most recent laureate, Loune Viaud, is fighting for citizens' right to health care in Haiti. She directs a medical complex that has provided care to hundreds of thousands of people, many with HIV and AIDS.

In January, Ethel Kennedy and a U.S. congressional delegation visited Haiti to investigate how the withholding of foreign aid has affected the poor nation.

"We recognize that the social change people seek doesn't happen quickly," Howland said. "The right to health in Haiti is a tall order. But we'll keep working with them for years."


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