If there’s one thing the new head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor knows, it is human rights. Sworn in as Assistant Secretary October 19, 2009, Michael L. Posner has spent the past 30 years dedicating himself to the improvement of human rights around the world as co-founder and leader of Human Rights First. He has been especially vocal in recent years about abuses committed by the U.S. government under the leadership of President George W. Bush to combat terrorist threats, including the detaining of hundreds of individuals at Guantánamo Bay.
Born November 15, 1950, in Chicago, Posner attended the University of Michigan and earned his Bachelor of Arts in history in 1972. He went to law school at University of California, Berkeley. During his second year at the Boalt Law School, he became involved with the international human rights movement by spending a semester in Geneva, Switzerland, documenting human rights violations in Uganda.
After earning his law degree in 1975, he accepted a job with Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago. But his heart was still set on human rights, and when an opportunity arose three years later to found a new organization dedicated to securing basic legal protections for all people, he jumped at the chance.
In 1978, lawyers Jerome Shestack and James Silkenat recruited Posner to help start the Lawyer’s Committee on Human Rights, which was later renamed Human Rights First. Posner became the organization’s first executive director, and helped build it over the next three decades from a two-member staff, $55,000-budget operation into an organization with 60 employees and an annual budget of $9 million.
While running Human Rights First, Posner helped craft the United States’ first law granting political asylum in 1980, and his organization soon developed into the go-to place for free legal representation for asylum seekers.
In 1981, Posner began lecturing on the side at Yale Law School, and later at Columbia University’s Law School.
In 1997, he helped launch the Fair Labor Association to promote better working conditions in factories across the globe.
In 2004, Human Rights First launched its End Torture Now campaign to halt the Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation techniques on detainees.
Posner stepped down as Human Rights First executive director in 2006 and became president of the organization in order to focus more on public outreach, writing and advocacy.
He has also served as a policy advisor of Common Sense Media, which provides parent-oriented reviews of movies, games, television shows, websites, book and music.
In April 2008, he wrote in The New York Times: “It is up to the American people to keep the pressure on all of our current and future elected officials to demand an end to torture and abuse. Human rights and national security are mutually reinforcing, and that resort to torture and cruel treatment is wrong and counterproductive.”