Founding Executive Director, 1978-2006,
Michael Posner has been at the forefront of the international human rights movement for nearly 30 years. As Human Rights First’s founding Executive Director he helped the organization earn a reputation for leadership in the areas of refugee protection, advancing a rights-based approach to national security, challenging crimes against humanity, and combating discrimination. In that role he was frequent public commentator on those and other issues, and his opinion essays have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and many other papers. Michael has also testified dozens of times before the U.S. Congress. In January 2006, Michael stepped down as Executive Director to become the President of Human Rights First. In that position, he focused more on public outreach, writing, and public advocacy, to advance the organization’s core mission.
Since its founding in 1978, Human Rights First has supported and partnered with frontline rights activists around the world – in places like Guatemala, Russia, Northern Ireland, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Indonesia. It has also been a leading advocate for the rights of refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. In 1980, Michael played a key role in proposing and campaigning for the first U.S. law providing for political asylum, which became part of the Refugee Act of 1980. Human Rights First runs the largest program providing volunteer legal representation to asylum seekers in the U.S., representing more than 1,000 clients from more than 80 countries.
While it protects those who flee persecution, Human Rights First has long fought to strengthen systems of accountability in countries where human rights violations occur, especially for the worst human rights crimes like torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Michael proposed, drafted, and campaigned for the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) – a U.S. federal statute that was designed to give victims of the most serious human rights crimes anywhere in the world a remedy in U.S. courts. The TVPA was adopted by Congress and signed into law in 1992.
In 1998, Michael led the Human Rights First delegation to the Rome conference at which the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted. He participated actively in these negotiations as well as the ensuing phase of insuring signatures and ratification. The ICC is the first international tribunal to prosecute violations for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Michael has also been a prominent voice in support of fair, decent, and humane working conditions in factories throughout the global supply chain. As a member of the White House Apparel Industry Partnership Task Force, he helped found the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an organization that brings together corporations, local leaders, universities, and NGOs to promote corporate accountability for working conditions in the apparel industry. He continues to sit on the FLA’s Board.
In 2004, Human Rights First launched its End Torture Now Campaign, a public education and advocacy effort that challenges the framework of U.S. policy and practice that allows coercive interrogation techniques and unlimited, secret detention of those in U.S. custody in violation of U.S. and international law. As part of the campaign, Human Rights First led the advocacy efforts in support of the McCain Amendment which bans U.S. soldiers and officials from engaging in cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Human Rights First organized a group of retired admirals and generals to speak out publicly on this issue. The McCain Amendment won broad congressional support and was signed into law in December 2005.
Before joining Human Rights First, Mike was a lawyer with Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago. He lectured at Yale Law School from 1981 to 1984, and has been a visiting lecturer at Columbia University Law School since 1984. A member of the California Bar and the Illinois Bar, he received his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley Law School (Boalt Hall) in 1975, and a B.A. with distinction and honors in History from the University of Michigan in 1972.