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Sonia Rosen

1990 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship Site: Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Geneva, Switzerland

By Pat McGroarty


“My career in human rights was defined by my time at the University of Minnesota, but it was really an interest that I always knew was there,” recalled Sonia Rosen while discussing what inspired her work in the human rights arena. Born in Virginia outside of Washington D.C. during the 1960’s, Rosen has vivid childhood memories of her parents’ involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

“My parents were very involved in political and social justice issues. We were always going to civil rights and anti-war demonstrations. I was also raised with a strong religious background and my religious education played a strong role in my interest in international issues,” Rosen explained.

This fascination with human rights and international issues took time to develop into a plausible career path. After graduating from Union College in 1982, Rosen worked a variety of jobs before being hired by the International Human Rights Law Group in Washington D.C. as assistant to the program director: “I lied and told them I knew how to type because I wanted the job, and I would sit at home and practice typing. Within six months I had hired my own secretary.”

The International Human Rights Law Group was a small organization that worked with the full spectrum of human rights issues. Its activities included trial observation, policy discussion, the drafting of Americus briefs, and some work in partnership with the United Nations. The Law Group also had a long roster of young lawyers eager to do pro bono work as their needs dictated.
Rosen described the role the job played in her development: “It was a small office, so I really soaked up everything they had to offer. I especially remember a report we did on human rights abuses by the Contra in Central America. That work really made us persona non grata with the Reagan administration, which was in office at the time. My position with the Law Group directed my interests in the human rights sphere, and I knew I needed either regional studies training or a law degree to advance in that field.”

Prof. David Weissbrodt, whom Rosen had met while taking a class at the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, urged her to study human rights at the University of Minnesota Law School. Rosen agreed and moved to Minnesota. She was attracted to the University by Prof. Weissbrodt’s expertise in the field of human rights. She felt that his guidance could give her the balance between academics and activism that she was looking for in a law program: “I really worked as David’s research assistant while I was in Minnesota. I worked on grant proposals, worked on his “International Human Rights” textbook, and helped him found the Human Rights Center. I even baby-sat for him. Being from the East Coast and coming to Minnesota was difficult for me, and David made me feel comfortable in a personal and professional way. I really appreciated that.”

After graduating from law school in 1989, Rosen was hired by Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, where she had been volunteering for several years. While working for Minnesota Advocates in 1990, Rosen took advantage of the Human Rights Center’s Fellowship Program and traveled to Geneva, Switzerland as the Minnesota Advocates’ representative to the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

In Geneva, Rosen worked as an intern, conducting research and writing speeches for Working Group delegates. She also had the opportunity to meet people integral to the international human rights community and gain some valuable insight into the structure of the United Nations and human rights diplomacy: “The sub-commission allows people from around the world to come to Geneva and participate in a discussion of their own rights. I felt privileged to see that. My time in Geneva made Human Rights work less academic and more real, gave it a shape and a form. It showed me that I liked advocacy work, and that I was good at it.”

After returning from Geneva and leaving Minnesota Advocates, Rosen became the Midwest director of Amnesty International’s Chicago office. Several years with Amnesty International was enough to convince Rosen that where she really wanted to be was on the East Coast near her family and near Washington D.C.

In 1993 she was hired by the U.S. Department of Labor to work in a new international division as an assistant to the Secretary of Labor: “I was working with child labor issues. At the time, it was an area very few people were working in and I knew nothing about. Taking that position was the best thing I ever did, and I really believe I made a difference at the highest levels,” said Rosen of her work in Washington. Her work with child labor issues took her around the world on diplomatic missions, and her office filed six major reports on international child labor laws during the course of the Clinton presidency. Her office organized a presidential initiative on child labor concerns, and was central to the foundations of the anti-sweatshop movement.
Rosen credited her experience in Minnesota with giving her the background she needed to effect real change: “My work in Washington was really influenced by my time with Prof. Weissbrodt and in Minnesota. He taught me to always get your facts straight, to listen, and to analyze effectively. Good facts drive good policy.”

In recent years, Rosen’s career has shifted from child labor policy to full-time motherhood, but she hopes to return to advocacy work again soon, possibly with overseas. As she looks for a new arena in which to pursue the improvement of human rights conditions around the globe, she has valuable advice for those searching for a career related to human rights issues: “You need to find work in the field, to get an internship. The profession has really blossomed since I started. There are more opportunities to find your niche in this field than when I started. More than anything, I think it’s just crucial to understand that success will come in baby steps. To avoid being frustrated, you have to be able to identify those steps.”

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