Minna Schrag

The Difference Maker

As a passionate advocate for the burgeoning field of transitional justice, Minna Schrag ’75 is adding new chapters to a diverse and distinguished career

By Aisha Labi

Fall 2013

In 1994, after years of serving as a federal prosecutor and time spent working at a large Manhattan law firm, Minna Schrag ’75 received an offer that would change the course of her career, and, more broadly, her life. “I got a call asking if I’d be interested in going to The Hague,” Schrag recalls in discussing how she became a senior trial attorney for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “At the time, I didn’t know much about international law and had no formal training in human rights, but of course I went.”

Her work as a prosecutor had given Schrag the criminal law experience sought by the then-new court, which was set up to address allegations of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity that took place during the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s. She took a leave from Proskauer Rose and relocated to the Netherlands for 18 months to help set up the prosecutor’s office, where she joined a group of lawyers drawn from a diverse mix of countries and ultimately brought to indictment three cases involving the murder and torture of civilian populations in the towns of Vukovar, Brčko, and Bosanski Samac.

The career detour was nothing new for Schrag, who had enrolled at Columbia Law School a decade after earning an undergraduate degree in history from Radcliffe College. At the time, she had three young children and had begun an Ed.D. program at Teachers College but was drawn to the law, she says, by the extent to which the legal profession was being used to drive social change in the early 1970s.

After graduation, Schrag clerked for Judge Whitman Knapp of the Southern District of New York, and, following six years as an assistant U.S. Attorney at the Southern District, she joined Proskauer Rose. After several years of working on a wide range of litigation matters, Schrag answered the call from the International Criminal Tribunal, and she has been involved in human rights work ever since. 

Schrag, who retired from Proskauer in 1997, may be even busier now than she was during her mid-career years. She serves on several nonprofit boards and is a regular patron of the New York City Ballet. Just weeks after retiring, she was asked to consult for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Schrag continues to provide legal advice to the organization on issues related to international criminal tribunals. From 1997 to 2000, she was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the treaty conference in Rome that established the International Criminal Court.

Her international work has sparked within Schrag a passion for transitional justice, the burgeoning field that deals with judicial and non-judicial remedies for redressing human rights violations. She helped establish the New York City–based International Center for Transitional Justice—the motto of which is “Justice, Truth, Dignity”—and serves as a member of that organization’s board of directors.

Schrag’s colleagues in the transitional justice movement assist victims groups and communities in efforts to address human rights violations and encourage healing. Those efforts sometimes lead to truth and reconciliation commissions. In other instances, healing comes in the form of smaller-scale—but no less important—efforts like the recent establishment of a memorial museum by survivors of the killings in the Bosnian town of Brčko, the perpetrators of which Schrag helped bring to account. “They wanted the story of what happened there to be told,” she says, “so people wouldn’t forget.”

Aisha Labi has written for Time and Businessweek, in addition to other publications.