Saying Hello... And a Word About the Cause of Human Dignity

Dear Colleague,

As you may have heard, I recently joined the American Bar Association as the Associate Executive Director for Global Programs after almost four years as a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. In this new role, I will direct ABA’s global Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), oversee the ABA’s Center for Human Rights (CHR), and coordinate the ABA’s relationship with the United Nations. To me, this set of challenges is the perfect way for me to help realize the aspiration we all share: that of defending human dignity by fostering freedom under the rule of law.

My journey to the ABA started when I was young. Many of my earliest childhood memories taught me lessons about a government’s ability to impose cruelty and damage its citizens. I am the son of a Hungarian mother and Cuban father who were exiled, collectively, three times. Although I was born in Boston, my childhood was spent in Cuba. The earliest memory I can date was also my first lesson in injustice and human suffering. I was four years old and seated on the floor of my parents’ bedroom at our house in Havana watching mother straighten up the room; the radio was reporting the news of the fighting in Budapest as Soviet forces intervened to crush the Hungarian Revolution. As mother silently and methodically went about the chore of straightening up the bed linens, tears were streaming down her face. That first lesson in suffering was quickly followed by a second as the joy experienced by my family at the triumph of the Cuban Revolution converted to the trauma of exile when the revolution turned to tyranny rather than the promised democracy. My father would never see his father or his country again, two wounds which never healed in him.

The lessons I took from these experiences were lessons about human happiness and dignity and how, in the end, both can pivot on the recognition — or not — of human rights under the rule of law. These lessons crystallized early. They shaped my view of my duties as an American citizen and influenced my decisions to enter the legal profession and to pursue a career that included a large measure of public service. More than 40 years after first making those decisions, the pride I have always felt as a lawyer and former public servant derives from the fact that the nation we serve and the laws that define us are grounded on the core principle of defending human dignity, always. This is, quite simply, who we are and what we do.

This is why on 9/11, while serving in the Pentagon as General Counsel of the U.S. Department of the Navy, I would not have wished to have been anywhere else other than supporting our Navy and Marine Corps as they deployed forward to defend our country. And this is why I felt privileged, too, at being able to participate in the internal Pentagon debates on detainee interrogation and detention policies and to be able to challenge the legality and wisdom of decisions that authorized the use of torture against real or suspected enemies and then sought to ensure that those responsible would not be held accountable. For me and the many other military officers and civilian officials who opposed such abuses, this was another way of defending our country.

Since World War II, the cause of freedom and human dignity has made great advances overall. In our country alone, the level of legal and social discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals has been greatly reduced. Still, as the U.S. decision to use torture and our continuing failure to come to grips with the consequences of that decision demonstrate, the maintenance of our human rights and of the rule of law is neither a linear process nor guaranteed. The increase in the harassment of and discrimination against Muslim individuals and communities and the current rise in hostility towards refugees are further evidence of this.
Overseas, the strain on the rule of law is severe and appears to be on the rise. The independence of the Polish Supreme Court is under threat; the continuation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the joint UN-Guatemala effort to combat official corruption, is in jeopardy; global corruption continues to undermine governments and courts alike; in Russia, independent journalists and political opponents of the regime appear to be targeted for assassination; the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is underway. This list could go on much longer.

That’s why I’m delighted to join ABA ROLI and the Center for Human Rights, which have been promoting justice, economic opportunity, and human dignity through the rule of law for almost 30 years around the world. ABA ROLI currently has programs in more than 50 countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa working to strengthen governance and the justice sector, improve human rights and access to justice, mitigate conflict, and ensure inclusive and sustainable development. Representing the ABA’s vast membership of more than 400,000 attorneys and judges, ABA ROLI and CHR are well positioned to help the ABA accomplish its core mission of protecting the rule of law at home and abroad.

Today, the challenge to protect human dignity through the advancement of human rights, the rule of law, and our democratic principles is more compelling than ever. ABA ROLI and CHR are recommitted to this undertaking, and we look forward to working together with you in the service of our shared values.

Alberto Mora
Associate Executive Director, Global Programs
Rule of Law Initiative and Center for Human Rights