Dr. Shirin Ebadi receives a warm welcome from conference attendees
New York, April 9, 2013—Setbacks and obstacles should not deter advocates for human rights around the world, said Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the exiled Iranian human rights lawyer who won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for tirelessly defending her homeland’s most marginalized and vulnerable populations.
“Any failure can be an introduction to victory,” she said, through a translator. Ebadi was Iran’s first female judge, thriving professionally until she was demoted to clerk in her own court after the 1979 revolution. “I wanted to prove that they had made a mistake by demoting me. Had they not expelled me from the court, would I have worked this hard?”
Ebadi came to Morningside Heights April 2 for the 39th annual Wolfgang Friedmann Conference, sponsored by the Columbia Society of International Law, in partnership with the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. Held in memory of noted scholar and beloved Columbia Law School Professor Wolfgang Friedmann, the conference brings distinguished scholars and practitioners to campus each year for wide-ranging discussions of international law. This year’s topic, Human Rights in Domestic and International Legal Frameworks, was inspired by Dr. Ebadi’s remarkable career, for which she was awarded the Wolfgang Friedmann Memorial Award by the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law at an evening reception at The 21 Club in midtown Manhattan.
Dr. Shirin Ebadi and Professor Lori F. Damrosch
In conversation with Lori Damrosch, the Hamilton Fish Professor of International Law and Diplomacy and Henry L. Moses Professor of Law and International Organization, Dr. Ebadi discussed some of her most noteworthy cases.
In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Iran changed its child custody laws to systematically favor fathers, with little recourse for mothers. After a 9-year-old girl was beaten to death in her father’s custody, Ebadi worked to amend the law and sparked a movement that resulted in the law being changed to give mothers more of a voice.
“The real murderer of the child was the law,” Ebadi said. “Now it is still not a good and complete law, but it was a big step forward.”
In another case, Ebadi defied state intimidation and defended members of Iran’s persecuted Baha’i minority who were accused of espionage. She had to lobby intensively and cultivate international pressure in order to even see her clients’ files. Then, the Iranian government accused Ebadi, a practicing Muslim, of converting to Baha’i, an offense punishable by death. In the wake of such threats, Ebadi has spent the last several years in exile.
Dr. Shirin Ebadi
“I am a Muslim, but I believe in freedom of religion, and freedom of religion is in the Quran,” she said. “My issue is, why interpret Islam so badly?”
The Friedmann conference continued with two panel discussions on important topics in human rights law.
In the first panel, moderated by Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute and Lecturer-in-Law Risa Kaufman, advocates discussed the implementation of international human rights standards through the United States’ legal system and within the U.S. Maria Foscarinis ’81, Founder and Executive Director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, talked about her work supporting international standards of minimal housing in the United States, while Katie Gallagher, Human Rights Litigator at the Center for Constitutional Rights, addressed the importance of the Alien Tort Statute of 1789 in allowing foreigners to pursue cases within the American justice system. Yasmine Ergas ’94, adjunct professor of International and Public Affairs and associate director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights associate director of the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia, explored the importance of advocacy to create movements and momentum for political change.
The second panel examined the many complex considerations of American and international sanctions on Iran, including human rights and regional security. Sarah Cleveland, Louis Henkin Professor in Human and Constitutional Rights and faculty co-director of the Law School’s Human Rights Institute moderated a discussion of whether the benefits of the sanctions are worth their toll on the Iranian people. David Mortlock, Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the U.S. Department of State, explained the design and purpose of the sanctions, while Trita Parsi, Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council, talked about how they impact ordinary Iranians. Carla Robbins, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, examined how the sanctions are affecting Iran’s volatile political situation.
“We are honored to have a legal scholar and activist of such distinction accept the Friedmann Memorial Award,” said Geoffrey Walter, ’13, Editor-in-Chief of the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. “Dr. Ebadi’s participation in the Friedmann Conference gave Columbia students the opportunity to witness first-hand her passionate dedication to the cause of international human rights—it was an inspiring day.”
# # #
Columbia Law School, founded in 1858, stands at the forefront of legal education and of the law in a global society. Columbia Law School combines traditional strengths in corporate law and financial regulation, international and comparative law, property, contracts, constitutional law, and administrative law with pioneering work in intellectual property, digital technology, tax law and policy, national security, human rights, sexuality and gender, and environmental law.