Broadening support for human rights

By Jane Savitt Tennen

Broad-based humanitarian change requires not just the work of human rights organizations, but of people helping people, says Larry Cox.

As the new executive director of Amnesty International USA, a human rights advocacy organization, Cox plans to drum up that grassroots support to affect even greater change.

“Today, most organizations rely on professional organizers and lobbyists,” says Cox, a veteran human rights advocate and activist.  “It’s time to mobilize greater public pressure, expanding what Amnesty International has demonstrated can produce victories.”

Involving regular people in the fight for human rights is critical, especially during this time of heightened concern about terrorism, is important for human rights groups and currently is their greatest weakness, he says.

“Human rights offers a different vision of how you can protect people, and that is to bring to justice those who are guilty of violent attacks while working to ensure all human rights, including economic, social, and political rights,” Cox says.  “The fulfillment of these rights protects us all by addressing the forces that typically attract people to become terrorists.”

To create such change, Cox envisions a renewed emphasis on traditional grassroots organizing to bring about changes in public policy.

Amnesty International is particularly qualified to do so, he adds, because it has always reached out to people “from all walks of life.”

Cox hopes to grow the group’s membership of 360,000 people by calling on members to reach out into their communities.

And by using its network that extends into virtually every Congressional district in the U.S., he hopes Amnesty International can work in cooperation with other community groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to evangelical church organizations.

This shift in focus will probably lead to some changes of organizational and budget priorities within the organization, he says.

Cox was an Ohio working-class kid whose commitment to social justice developed early, “from growing up in a family that was poor and didn’t have enough money for security.”

In college and then as an antiwar worker in Paris in the 1960s, he learned first-hand many of the organizing techniques he envisions reviving at Amnesty, such as letter-writing and phone campaigns, engaging community groups, and organizing protests and marches.

After returning to the U.S. he continued his organizing and, in a transition not unusual for the time, became news director of the progressive New York City radio station WBAI.

From there he joined Amnesty International USA where spent 14 years, ultimately rising to deputy director before returning to Europe to serve in London as deputy secretary general of the Amnesty International Secretariat, which conducts research, supports, and leads the international Amnesty movement.

By the time he left in 1990, he had helped lead Amnesty to win the Nobel Peace Prize. 

However, Cox had begun to yearn for a broader approach to human rights that would address more than the group’s then-mandate of fighting torture, unjust imprisonment, and execution, and in 1990 became executive director of the Rainforest Foundation, headquartered in New York City.

Working with the indigenous people of the Amazon basin, Cox discovered the link between people’s dignity and freedom and their “ability to generate an income and hold onto their property,” he says.

Larry Cox

Job: Executive director, Amnesty International USA, New York City

Born: 1945, Lakewood, Ohio

Family: Wife, Nicole Cox, psychologist, New York City Health Department; son, Justin, 26

Education: B.A., history, Mount Union College; graduate work, University of Geneva; master’s candidate, religion and human rights, Union Theological Seminary

Career: 1967-76, antiwar organizer, U.S. and Europe, then news director, WBAI-FM; 1976-1985, communications director, director of program against death penalty, deputy director, Amnesty International USA; 1985-1990, deputy secretary general, Amnesty International General Secretariat, London; 1990-1995, executive director, Rainforest Foundation; 1995-2006, senior program officer, human rights unit, Ford Foundation

Interests: Walking; engaged in two-year project to walk the entire length of Hudson River

Favorite movie: Casablanca, “It’s all about love and fighting Fascism”

Just read: “Ghost Wars,” by Steve Cole

Currently reading: “The End of Poverty,” by Jeffrey Sachs

Professional reference point: International Declaration of Human Rights

Little known fact: Originally wanted to be a minister; went to Paris to work in antiwar church program and “ended up an aspiring, if naďve, revolutionary.”

In 1995, he joined the Ford Foundation and became a catalyst for a strengthened and increasingly influential global human rights program. At Ford, he supported the enforcement of international human rights laws, the creation of an international court, and seeded and accelerated “an explosion” of human rights groups focusing on poverty, housing, health, and other issues. He also developed a new priority: ensuring the United States adheres to international human rights standards, which became increasingly important in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the controversy involving Iraqi prisoners at Guantanamo.

“I helped change the way people at the foundation thought about human rights,” Cox says of his 11 years at Ford.  “An effective program does not consist of putting out reports on civil and political rights.  It devises ways of addressing these issues.”

Indeed, Cox says, human rights now command the largest budget of any unit at the Ford Foundation.

Now back at Amnesty International, which he officially rejoins on May 1, Cox plans to continue his lifelong fight for human rights.

“Amnesty is more than an organization,” he says.  “It is a broad movement of volunteers, throughout the country, who work community by community” in the interest of human rights.

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