Michael Posner (lawyer)
Michael H. Posner
Born November 19, 1950 (1950-11-19) (age 61)
Chicago, IL
Education B.A., University of Michigan
J.D., University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law
Occupation Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

Michael H. Posner (born November 19, 1950 in Chicago, Illinois) is an American lawyer, the Founding Executive Director and later the President of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), and the current Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) of the United States.


Early years

Posner received a B.A. from the University of Michigan. He received his J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley Law School (Boalt Hall). He is a member of the California Bar (inactive)[1] and the Illinois Bar.[2] After graduating, Posner spent a year documenting atrocities committed in Uganda. His work in Geneva for the United Nations earned him esteem as a human-rights advocate.[3]

Human Rights First

In 1978, Posner was recruited by Jerome Shestack and James Silkenat to become the founding executive director of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization with offices in New York and Washington, D.C. that works on a range of domestic and international human rights issues. He focused on refugee protection, advancing a rights-based approach to national security and combating discrimination.[4] The organization was renamed to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and, in 2003, renamed again to Human Rights First. In his role, Posner built the organization from a staff of two, a few volunteers and a budget of $55,000 to its current staff of 60 and an annual budget of almost $9 million.[5]

At Human Rights First, he facilitated the growth of the largest and most successful pro bono legal assistance program in the United States for asylum seekers.[citation needed] Today Human Rights First represents more than 1,000 clients from 85 countries, with an average success rate of over 90 percent.[citation needed] In 1980, Posner 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.[citation needed]

Torture Victim Protection Act

Posner has also focused efforts to strengthen systems of accountability in countries where human rights violations occur, especially for crimes like torture, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. He proposed, drafted, and campaigned for the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which was adopted by Congress and signed into law in 1992.[6]


Also in 1992, Posner helped musician/activist Peter Gabriel found Witness (human rights group), an organization that uses video and online technologies to shed light on human rights violations around the world. In its first few years, WITNESS was based at Human Rights First. WITNESS has since received numerous awards for their work including, the National Academy of TV Arts & Sciences Humanitarian Award and the New York Times Company Nonprofit Excellence award [7]

Role in the International Justice System and the International Criminal Court (ICC)

Posner has continuously fought for strengthened systems of international justice. He played an instrumental advocacy role in setting up the ad hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (established 1993) and Rwanda (established 1994) and the International Criminal Court (established 2002).[citation needed] In 1998, Posner led the Human Rights First delegation to the Rome conference at which the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted.

McCain Amendment / End Torture Now Campaign

Human Rights First launched its End Torture Now Campaign in 2004. Michael Posner and 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. The amendment won broad bipartisan congressional support and was signed into law in December 2005.[8]

Academic career

Posner lectured at Yale Law School from 1981 to 1984, and has been a visiting lecturer at Columbia Law School since 1984.

Other organizations

As a member of the White House Apparel Industry Partnership Task Force, Posner helped found the Fair Labor Association (FLA) in 1997, a multi-stakeholder initiative between apparel and footwear companies, universities and non-governmental organizations aimed at protecting the rights of workers in the apparel industry’s global supply chain. He sits on the FLA’s board of directors. Since 2006, Posner has worked on another multi-stakeholder initiative called the Global Network Initiative (GNI), which was launched in October 2008. He also serves on the board of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.

Human rights advocacy

Posner has testified dozens of times before the U.S. Congress on a wide range of human rights topics including the protection of refugees, anti-Semitism,[9] human rights within the business community[10] and human rights violations in the Philippines,[11] China,[12] Northern Ireland,[13] Uganda,[14] El Salvador and many other countries. He is a frequent public commentator on these and other issues, regularly speaking at conferences and events in the U.S. and abroad. His opinion essays have appeared in publications including the Boston Globe,[15] Jerusalem Post[16] Washington Post,[17] and International Herald Tribune.[18]

Obama administration

On July 7, 2009, President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Posner to serve in the State Department as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.[19] He was named to the position on September 23, 2009.[20] Posner and Harold Hongju Koh represent the U.S. to the United Nations Human Rights Council


In his statement as the nominee for Assistant Secretary of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 28, 2009, Posner affirmed that "[s}ince the late 1970s, I often have looked to the U.S. government as a key ally in the struggle to protect human rights around the world. As a non-governmental advocate, I have witnessed and often benefited from the incredible power and moral authority of the United States to lead on these important but often complicated issues. The U.S. Government's potential to provide leadership on human rights democracy and the rule of law is part of what Secretary Clinton has referred to as the smart power".[21]

Posner later recalled the personal lessons of the Holocaust that helped shape his vocation as a human rights advocate. Posner was raised with a consciousness of the horrors of the Holocaust and "internalized two important lessons. The first is that governments that fall into the hands of dictators and demagogues are capable of unspeakable brutality and horror. The second, more hopeful lesson is that courageous people can and often do stand up to oppression and it is our duty to help them".[22]

During his testimony, Posner gave a brief synopsis of his previous involvement with the U.S. government in their mutual effort to promote and protect human rights. His first appearance before the Senate was in 1978 when Posner testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding the trade sanctions against Idi Amin's Uganda. Posner commented that "this was the first of many instances where I have seen and been part of efforts to harness the political, diplomatic and economic power of the United States Government as a force for good.".[23] Congress passed a total ban on trade with Uganda and the people regained control of their country within the year. He went on to describe other shared successes including "the work we did with Andrei Sakharov and other dissidents in the former Soviet Union, especially through the Helsinki process. I experienced it in the 1980s when President Reagan stood behind Philippine "people's power" and ensured a successful transition of power from Marcos to Aquino. I saw it in Northern Ireland where George Mitchell and the Clinton Administration provided a roadmap for peace through the Good Friday Agreement. And I witnessed it as the Bush Administration, working closely with Congressional leaders like Senators Cardin and Voinovich and Congressman Chris Smith, took a leading role in challenging European anti-Semitism and other racial and religious persecution through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe".[24]

Posner closed with an affirmation that "[t]he promotion of democracy and human rights here, and around the world, helps define us – and who we are as a people".[25]

Posner's confirmation by the 111th Congress was welcomed by the international human rights community. Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox issued the following statement: “Michael has been a brilliant advocate on behalf of protecting the rights and dignity of people the world over. At this time of great opportunity to advance the rights of those whose freedoms are denied, it is invaluable to have an advocate of Michael’s accomplishment in this role,” said Cox. “Amnesty International looks forward to continuing to work with now-Secretary Posner on crucial issues concerning the global protection of human rights for all people.”.[26]

At his Swearing-in Ceremony at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commented that "as soon as [his confirmation] was completed, literally, he was on a plane, going to lead the first ever U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Council. Our team there under Mike’s leadership not only made significant progress on women’s rights and human security issues, but co-sponsored a successful resolution with Egypt upholding freedom of expression and freedom of religion. And Mike went on to Warsaw to present the Obama Administration’s proposal for advancing the “Human Dimension” of the Helsinki process. I think I only talked to him two times during that period, because I had great confidence that he would indeed be successful as we rejoined the Human Rights Council and it exceeded our expectations".[27]

U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue

In May 2010, Posner was a key negotiator in a "U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue" in Washington, D.C. On May 14, Posner gave the press conference after the event, where he described the U.S. approach to the meeting as, "Part of a mature relationship is that you have an open discussion where you not only raise the other guy’s problems, but you raise your own." To that end, he said the American side had brought up the United States' "treatment of Muslim Americans", as well as Arizona's recently-passed Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which Posner said had been brought up "early and often", "as a troubling trend in our society."[28]

Posner's comments proved controversial in the United States. Arizona's two senators, Republicans Jon Kyl and John McCain, wrote an open letter to Posner that stated, "To compare in any way the lawful and democratic act of the government of the state of Arizona with the arbitrary abuses of the unelected Chinese Communist Party is inappropriate and offensive", and called for a retraction and apology.[29] The conservative New York Post called the comments "misguided moral equivalence" and "despicable", citing China's treatment of its own Muslim population, the Uyghurs, as well as its policy of sending back refugees who arrive from North Korea, "where certain, agonizing death awaits them."[30]

The State Department defended Posner's actions. Spokesman P.J. Crowley disputed the notion Posner was apologizing to China when he was actually "standing up" for America by demonstrating how debate works in a "civil society." Crowley also reiterated the Obama administration's concerns about the Arizona law, stating, "There is, as many have said, real concerns about -- that this Arizona law will inevitably devolve into racial profiling. That would be a fundamental challenge to human rights around the world."[31]

Internet Freedom

As Assistant Secretary of State, Posner has played a leading role in implementing Secretary Clinton’s vision for Internet freedom. [9] In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Human Rights and the Law Subcommittee in March 2010, Posner said, “the defense of a free, open and interconnected Internet is in our national and global interests and is important for commerce, for diplomatic and political relations, and for building sustainable democratic societies.” [10] Posner frequently speaks on the topic of Internet freedom and the role of the Internet in advancing human rights and helping people build sustainable democracies. [11]

Under Posner’s leadership, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor has played a leading role in supporting democratic activists in their use of new technologies, particularly in the Middle East. Posner led efforts described as “uncharacteristically cool” [12] to fund millions of dollars in technology development meant to aid pro-democracy activists around the world. In describing a ‘panic button’ designed to allow pro-democracy campaigners wipe out their phones’ address books and emit emergency signals to other activists, Posner said, “We’re operating like venture capitalists. We are looking for the most innovative people who are going to tailor their technology and their expertise to the particular community of people we're trying to protect." [13] Digital activists commended Posner’s bureau in this approach in an open letter to Congress in March 2011, saying, “The State Department, and particularly the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), has taken significant interest in supporting technologies that enhance Internet freedom, and reached out to leading organizations in a collaborative and open approach.” [14]

Strategic Dialogues

Posner has participated in a number of strategic dialogues since joining the State Department. Both Clinton and Posner have placed great emphasis on building partnerships beyond the state, and giving civil society a stronger voice in shaping the political decision-making process. In her July 2010 speech in Krakow Poland, Secretary Clinton said, “…markets and politics usually receive more attention. But civil society is every bit as important. And it undergirds both democratic governance and broad-based prosperity.” [15] In February 2010, Posner and Clinton launched a Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, an endeavor to help streamline and strengthen dialogue with non-governmental organizations and other members of civil society. Clinton and Posner engaged in a town hall style discussion with over fifty civil society representatives, domestically and internationally.

In the summer of 2010, Posner participated in the U.S.-Russia Civil Society Working Group of the Bilateral Commission, which focused on prisons and migration, as well as the Civil Society to Civil Society Summit, where Secretary Clinton told participants “we need creative, committed, courageous organizations like you and yours to find innovative solutions, to expose corruption, to give voice to the voiceless, to hold governments accountable to their citizens, to keep people informed and engaged on the issues that matter most to them.” [16]

Economic and Social Rights

Posner has been a vocal proponent of the Obama Administration’s integrated approach to human rights and the inexorable relationship between national security and economic, social, and political rights. On March 24th, Posner delivered a keynote address, “The Four Freedoms Turn 70: Ensuring Economic, Political, and National Security in the 21st Century,” at the American Society of International Law. The speech took place on the anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedom speech. Posner’s speech re-examined the Four Freedoms, or “moral cornerstones,” and discussed the important intersection between political and economic rights, which he said are “inexorably linked.” According to Posner, “Human dignity has a political component and an economic component.” Posner highlighted the turmoil in the Middle East as evidence that the shaping of U.S. national security must include the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that only if the two are interlinked will peaceful societies flourish economically, socially, and politically. The unrest in the Middle East, according to Posner, “once again demonstrates the fallacy of trying to divide America’s “hard” strategic interests from our “soft” interests, including our commitment to human rights.” Posner stated, “The recent protests demonstrate the centrality of human rights to those interests and the links among civil, political, economic and social rights.” [17]

Voluntary Principles

Since March 2010, Posner has been involved in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights. Established in 2000, the Voluntary Principles—an initiative by governments, NGOs, and companies—provides guidance to extractives companies on maintaining the safety and security of their operations within a framework that ensures respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Voluntary Principles are the only human rights guidelines designed specifically for oil, gas, and mining companies. On March 22nd and 23rd, 2011 Posner chaired the 11th annual Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Plenary Meeting in Washington, a multi-stakeholder forum where human rights issues in the extractives sector, particularly in areas of conflict and civil strife, were addressed. Posner also participated in the March 2010 VPs Plenary in London. The United States is a founding member of the VPs and 2011 marked the 11th anniversary of the Principles. Currently there are seven member governments to the VPs—18 companies, nine NGOs, and three observers.

Human Rights Reports

Posner has been actively engaged in reporting on global human rights situations through the State Department’s annual Human Rights Reports, submitted to Congress by the Department of State in compliance with Sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended. The report offers a comprehensive record of human rights situations of over 180 countries worldwide, and uses information from nongovernmental and international organizations, U.S. embassies and consulates and government officials, and other sources. According to Posner, “It’s…the single most comprehensive report on human rights produced by anybody in the world—194 countries, 2,200,000 words, 7,000 pages.” At the most recent Human Rights Report roll-out in April 2011, Posner highlighted three trends identified in the 2010 report—1) Ongoing conflicts that continue to disproportionately affect vulnerable populations; 2) Greater access to connective technologies that has helped to both promote human rights, “but also has given governments greater energy in curtailing freedom of expression;” and 3) “the use and misuse of national security legislation and emergency legislation to apply broad curtailments on basic civil liberties.” [18]

Universal Periodic Review

Posner has been a proponent of the Universal Periodic Review (URR), established by the UN General Assembly in 2006 as a process through which the human rights records of the United Nations’ 192 Member States is reviewed and assessed. In August 2010, Posner traveled to Geneva as part of the U.S. delegation submitting the United States’ first report through the UPR to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Speaking of the UPR at a press conference at the Foreign Press Center in April 2011, Posner stated, “We are very open to the notion that people in this country have not only a right but are well open to be critical of what we do, and we engage them in that criticism.” [19]

International Religious Freedom

Since being sworn in as Assistant Secretary, Posner has engaged on a number of fronts promoting religious freedom, particularly in the Middle East and South Central Asia. Following the release of the 2009 International Religious Freedom Report, Posner discussed religious freedom issues in the Middle East before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. Said Posner, “Religion is a global phenomenon and all nations, including the United States, wrestle with how best to accommodate their religious diversity. We are convinced that the freedom to profess, practice, and promote one’s religion is a basic human right, a social good, a source of stability, and a key component of international security.” [20] Posner has engaged on international religious freedom issues in meetings with Egyptian Coptic Christians, Chinese religious freedom advocates, Vietnamese, Pakistani and Afghan officials, and others since being sworn in as Assistant Secretary.

Honorary degrees and awards

Posner has received honorary degrees from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the University of Hartford and the College of the Holy Cross. He is also the recipient of the Fellows Award for distinguished service, Young Lawyers of the American Bar Association (1990); the Distinguished Service Award, Boalt Hall Alumni Association (1993); the Wolfgang Friedmann Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to the field of international law, Columbia University Journal of Transnational Law (1993); the Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award, Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University (2006); and the Builders of the New New York Award, New York Immigration Coalition (2007).


  1. ^ State Bar of California Membership Records
  2. ^ Illinois Supreme Court Attorney Registration
  3. ^ Who Run's Government Biography | Michael Posner
  4. ^ Who Run's Government Biography | Michael Posner
  5. ^ Human Rights First 2007 Annual Report
  6. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs, 22 June 1990 [1]
  7. ^ WITNESS Awards
  8. ^ Michael Posner | Human Rights First
  9. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on European Affairs, 8 April 2004 [2]
  10. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Congressional Human Rights Caucus, 8 February 2006 [3]
  11. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, 18 September 1984 [4]
  12. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, 20 January 1999 [5]
  13. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, 24 June 1997 [6]
  14. ^ Testimony Before the U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on Foreign Economic Policy, February 1978 [7]
  15. ^ "The Rule of Law," Boston Globe, 18 July 2006
  16. ^ "A Dangerous Continuum," Jerusalem Post, 26 December 2007
  17. ^ "Another chance for Egypt to commit to transparency," Washington Post, 18 December 2010
  18. ^ "Anti-Semitism in Europe," International Herald Tribune, 5 May 2004
  19. ^ July 7, 2009, White House Press Release
  20. ^ [8]
  21. ^ Michael H Posner Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  22. ^ Michael H Posner Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  23. ^ Michael H Posner Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  24. ^ Michael H Posner Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  25. ^ Michael H Posner Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
  26. ^ Amnesty International Public Statement | Support for Michael Posner
  27. ^ Remarks at Swearing-in Ceremony | Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
  28. ^ Briefing on the U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue (transcript), Michael H. Posner, May 14, 2010
  29. ^ US senators blast Arizona-China rights comparison, Agence France-Presse, May 18, 2010
  30. ^ Maligning America -- again, editorial, New York Post, May 18, 2010
  31. ^ "State Department Defends Official Who Expressed Regret to Chinese Over Arizona Law". FoxNews.com. 18 May 2010. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/05/18/state-department-defends-official-expressed-regret-chinese-arizona-law/. 

External links

  • Voices on Antisemitism Interview with Michael Posner from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
  • GE Expert Perspectives, "Practical Human Rights Practices," 2007-2008 [21]
  • Human Rights in China Interview with Mike Posner, "Bringing Together Business and Human Rights," 2008 [22]
  • The Aspen Institute, "Human Rights in the Information Age," 7 July 2006 [23]
  • Carnegie Council, "Ending Torture and Secret Detention in America's Name," 12 May 2005 [24]
  • ABA Human Rights Magazine, "The Effort to End Sweatshops," Vol. 24, No. 4, Fall 1997 [25]
Government offices
Preceded by
David J. Kramer
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
September 23, 2009 – Present
Succeeded by

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