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Lisa Kois

1995 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship site: UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Colombo, Sri Lanka & Beijing, China

By Pat McGroarty
August 2, 2004


1. What drove you to a career in human rights advocacy?

“To some degree, my decision to work on issues of violence and human rights is wrapped up in personal experiences and political awakenings, traced back to that time when a girl first experiences violence. When is that? Who knows. I suppose my conscious decision to devote time and energy to issues surrounding violence against women came somewhere during or soon after university. I was pissed off and being eaten by my anger, and I knew it. I started volunteering for a rape crisis center and working at a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. But I found myself quickly frustrated by the limits imposed by the state and its policies – by power as it was expressed by law and the abuse of such power – and so I found my way to law school. This was after spending some time in Asia, where I had gone after applying for law school, with the belief that freedom as I knew it was coming to an end. I bought a one-way ticket to Calcutta and spent time volunteering at an orphanage, where at least 90 percent of the orphans were girls, and a “home for dying destitutes,” where all the women had experienced violence of some kind in their journeys to this place, where they eventually would die. My time in Calcutta helped me understand the issues I had been working on at the local and national levels within an international framework. Law school enabled me to continue to grapple with issues of violence and abuse of power within an international human rights framework. Since then, I have focused on various issues: violence against women, what might be called traditional forms of political violence, war-related violence, and the death penalty. In my mind, all these things are linked and get at larger issues of power and the state. Human rights provided a framework for expression – to some extent, it gave me a language.”

2. How did you learn of the Human Rights Center and the Fellowship Program?

“The Human Rights Center and its fellowship program were deciding factors for me in accepting the offer for admission at University of Minnesota Law School. This, coupled with tuition reciprocity and the promise of a manageable debt burden, seemed to provide me with the greatest chance of being able to do the work I wanted to do.”

3. What was the structure of your Fellowship?

“My fellowship was with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. The post had just been created. We learned about it in Prof. David Weissbrodt’s human rights class. I remember sitting in the library, preparing for human rights and reading about the position. I stopped my reading and turned to a friend, another fellow - Michael Reed Hurtado - and said, ‘I know what I want to do next summer. I want to work for the Special Rapportuer on Violence Against Women.’ I think I might have been half joking at the time. But he said, ‘so why don’t you write her?’ and it suddenly somehow seemed like a real possibility. So I quietly researched the post, learned that the Special Rapporteur, Radhika Coomaraswamy, was based at an NGO in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and then sent off a letter and my CV. I don’t think I told anyone else. Then, one fine day I received a letter in the mail with the UN insignia – in those days, this was quite exciting and maybe even a bit glamorous. I ripped it open and found a lovely letter from Radhika, who is now a dear friend but was then this larger than life character, offering me an internship. I dashed back to the law school with the letter in hand. I was so excited. One of my first stops was Professor Weisbrodt’s office…. I remember just quietly handing him the letter. He was a bit shocked, since he had no idea I had even approached her.”

“My fellowship was quite interesting. Although I was technically there to work for the UN SRVAW, I was at this local NGO – the International Centre for Ethnic Studies – and there were all kinds of things happening. Radhika was then co-director, along with the late Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was the intellectual, spiritual, moral and creative force behind the institution. He was a whirlwind of a man and quickly had me engaged in all kinds of interesting work specifically related to Sri Lanka. The deadlines for the UN work were not pressing, and both Radhika and Neelan encouraged me to be very actively involved in what was happening. On my third day in the country, Neelan sent me with a team of lawyers and academics on a fact finding mission. I later found myself in a working group on fundamental rights that was drafting language for a new constitution. I was commenting on chapters, researching multiculturalism, drafting editorials on a proposed marital rape law. And in between it all, I was researching and writing a report for Radhika on domestic violence which became the basis of her second report to the UN. I only finished the report for Radhika after I left Sri Lanka. My internship seemed to take on a life of its own. It was brilliant… exhausting, but brilliant. I was thoroughly challenged and engaged.”

“We were also busy preparing for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and, in August, headed to Beijing for the Conference, which was an amazing, if not slightly surreal, experience. You can imagine- thousands and thousands of women from all over the world converged on this little suburb of Beijing, Hairou. It was really amazing. It became all the more exciting when Radhika, at dinner one night with a few of her friends who were also human rights “stars” like Nigel Rodley, told me that she had been approached by a government that wanted to support her mandate and wanted to know in what form that support should come…. Among other things, she told them that she wanted a full-time, UN staff position in Colombo to assist her with her work. She asked if I would return to Colombo in that capacity. I said, of course. I was totally stunned and elated. I have been in Sri Lanka ever since.”

“I worked for the UN at the ICES with Radhika on her mandate until 1999, at which point I thought I would leave Sri Lanka. I hadn’t gotten as far as figuring out what I would do or where I would go. I found myself increasingly estranged from the United States and its policies, but also, for the very same reason, drawn to the US… So, I was just starting to think about what next, when what next hit me in the face.”

“In July 1999, my friend and mentor, Neelan Tiruchelvam, was assassinated outside our offices in Colombo by a suicide bomber. There was no longer a question. I stayed in Colombo and worked with the ICES to figure out what life after Neelan meant. I then left ICES to help start an institution in Neelan’s name – the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust – to ensure that Neelan’s work and legacy continued. After getting the Trust up and running and spending some time in the US working against the death penalty and working at UN headquarters, I decided to de-institutionalize myself for awhile. I moved to a small cottage on a remote beach in Southern Sri Lanka. There, I did some writing and then, gradually, developed an idea for a documentary film on memory and violence. This was two years ago. I am actually now in Delhi in the process of editing the documentary.”

3. What are your thoughts on the field of human rights advocacy as a career?

“I don’t really believe in ‘careers.’ I never set out to have a ‘career’ in human rights or in ‘ending violence against women.’ And, thankfully, I don’t think I do. Is what I have described above a career? I don’t know. It’s just my life. I don’t think I really know what a career is. I am doing what I want. I am doing what I believe in. I am sometimes paid for these things and sometimes I am not. I am lucky to live a life that is not dictated by financial considerations. I am also lucky to have skills for which people will pay if I find myself in need. I have done things because I have wanted to and because I have been willing to take risks and because I have been lucky. Astrologers tell me that I am the plaything of fate.”

“I must say that I am increasingly concerned about the ‘professionalization’ of social justice work. More and more young people are entering the NGO sector or the nonprofit sector, it seems, because of a certain perceived glamour. They are there to do a job. That job involves conferences and international travel. There is no spirit of volunteerism or activism. When did social justice become a job… a career? It scares me. This is not to say that people should not be paid for good work. They should, lest social justice become the exclusive domain of the elite- a scary and rather counterproductive thought. But what are we saying about the status quo, what are we accepting in that status quo, when we talk of social justice as a career?”

4. What advice, then, do you have for young people looking to include social justice awareness into their careers?

“I don’t accept interns or hire anyone whose commitment is driven by their career goals. Either you are there, in the struggle, whatever struggle that may be, or you’re not. That’s my advice.”

5. What human rights issues do you see as most in need of reform in today’s global community?

“United States hegemony and the policy it generates domestically and internationally are two major impediments to the realization of human rights, including women’s rights. Patriarchy, as it continues to be expressed in all our social formations, is of course another major factor. All of us who are committed to rights have a responsibility to constantly examine our actions, our lives, our classrooms, our communities, our countries and our worlds, to understand the ways in which we contribute to inequality and injustice. We are all responsible. If we are not addressing our own place and responsibility in the world, how can we begin to address anyone else’s. We, US citizens, have a particularly great burden. If we fail to accept responsibility, of our own accord, for our role in the perpetuation of violence, oppression and inequality globally, we will be held bitterly accountable through the violence we have spawned. I fear it may already be too late.”


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