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Home / Press Release / Human Rights First to Rename Annual Award after William D. Zabel
September 24, 2018

Human Rights First to Rename Annual Award after William D. Zabel

New York City—Human Rights First today announced that it will rename its annual award honoring frontline activists after its board co-chair Bill Zabel. The William D. Zabel Human Rights Award celebrates Zabel’s unwavering commitment to human rights and the organization.

“Bill has been a lifelong leader on human rights. From his work on Loving v. Virginia to his fact-finding missions in the Soviet Union, Chile, and beyond, Bill’s decades of work are a testament to his fervent belief in the power of equality, freedom, and the rule of law. I can think of no one more deserving of this recognition,” said Human Rights First board co-chair Tom Bernstein.

For more than 30 years, Human Rights First has presented its annual Human Rights First Award to courageous activists on the frontlines of the struggle for freedom and dignity. The activists honored often face great personal risk to advance human rights, and benefit significantly from enhanced protection as a result of the award’s publicity. Previous recipients include: Friar Tomás González, founder of a group to protect vulnerable migrants on the Mexican border; Yazidi human rights activists Khaleel Aldakhi and Ameena Saeed Hasan; European antisemitism activists Jane Braden-Golay, Siavosh Derakhti, and Niddal El-Jabri; Dr. Dennis Mukwege of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng of China.

Zabel’s passion for human rights began before he went to law school. As an undergraduate at Princeton in the 1950s, he and his roommate petitioned the FBI to look more deeply into the acquittal of the killers of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old tortured and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. After attending Harvard Law School, Zabel traveled to Mississippi to support civil rights workers challenging racial bigotry. He later anchored the legal brief in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, Loving v. Virginia, which ended all bans on interracial marriage in the United States.

Zabel traveled the world on behalf of Human Rights First, participating in fact-finding missions investigating abuses in the Soviet Union, the Philippines, China, and Chile. In Pinochet’s Chile, Zabel investigated the disappearances of lawyers and judges and met Judge Carlos Cerda, who was under attack by the regime. Zabel secured safe haven for Judge Cerda in the United States. Zabel was instrumental in helping Human Rights First build its network of law firms that take on asylum cases. Under his leadership, Human Rights First’s pro bono work has grown to provide over $60 million in free legal services from volunteer attorneys. In 2017, he established a professorship in human rights law at Harvard Law School.

In 2014, Zabel was honored by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law with the inaugural Robert F. Kennedy Justice Prize, which recognizes an individual who has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to advancing racial and social justice. Human Rights First honored Zabel with its highest award in 2003 for his dedication to global human rights. 

For press inquiries contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319. For information about the William D. Zabel Legacy Fund contact Gina Taglieri at TaglieriG@humanrightsfirst.org or 212-845-5252.