Portraits

They fight alongside us. Discover here the portraits of FIDH's current defenders and historical figures.

Portraits of Defenders
Our Historial Figures
"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
It is with this deep conviction that the people making up FIDH’s network of 192 member organisations fight for the rights of us all. Day in, day out. From Europe to Africa, from Asia to the Americas: everywhere they stand up, organise themselves, fight. And they join our Federation to act on a global level.
It is their voices that we would like to share with you here.
FIDH has its origins in European pacifism born out of the carnage of 1914-1918 and in the protection of victims of injustice or miscarriage of justice. However, in the first third of the 20th century, its activists found little resonance in a context dominated by radical political forces.
Caught between bolshevism and fascism, law, humanism and democracy would have to wait to embody a new, credible – albeit imperfect – model. The idea that human beings are part of the same society and deserve the same guarantees of treatment without any possible discrimination; the idea that states will no longer have an absolute right to life and death over their citizens but will have to account for their actions, under well-defined conditions, "to the whole of legally organised mankind", as René Cassin emphasised, remain ideals to be achieved.

Aina Shormanbayeva - Kazakhstan

“In the next hundred years, I hope that human rights will be the unique platform to unite people, communities, societies, and nations.”

ILI Foundation

Angkhana Neelaphaiji - Thailand

“I hope that our new generation will live in a new world where dignity and human rights of all people are respected.”

Françoise Tulkens - Belgium

“For me, when it comes to human rights, the three most important things are vigilance, the audacity to exist outside the dominant mainstream, and perseverance.”

Ligue des droits humains

Luis Guillermo Pérez

“Let’s free humanity from poverty and free humanity from terror. Let’s promote democracy as a collective fundamental right, and peaceful resistance as being indispensable to confront regimes who oppress their people.”

Mikaell de Souza Carvalho - Brazil

“I would like to have a protected planet. I want our mothers, our children, our forests, our traditional peoples and their cultures to live long lives and not be threatened with extermination.”

Nedal Al-Salman - Bahrain

“My biggest dream is a better human rights situation in the entire world, with respect for freedom of expression, with respect for all other basic rights. My dream is to see women in decision-making roles and to see more women taking their role internationally and in Bahrain.”

Center for Human Rights (BCHR)

Oleksandra Matviychuk - Ukraine

“You can be arrested, you can be beaten, you even can be killed. But there are people who will fight for you who will never leave you alone. And knowing that gives you courage to resist peacefully. Courage to overcome the fear.”

Center for Civil Liberties (CCL)

Patrick Charlier - Belgium

“I had the opportunity to do several missions, especially in Africa, but also to meet people all over the world during [FIDH] congresses. It is the opportunity to observe that the universality of human rights is reflected in the universality of the causes defended by human rights defenders.”

Paulina Vega - Mexico

“I think that the shout of today must be a shout of solidarity and empathy — of solidarity with those who suffer from violence, from abuse, with those on the margins of society, with those who suffer from poverty.”

Tzung-han Tsou - Taiwan

“I hope that 100 years later -not just for people in Taiwan, but people in this region- can enjoy the basic rights that they deserve and to just live a very peaceful life with all the love that they should get.”

Ümi Efe

Vilma Núñez - Nicaragua

“I would like to see human rights no longer as something that humanity aspires to, but rather as a reality for everyone in the world.”

Centro nicaraguense de derechos humanos (CENIDH)

Aline Ménard-Dorian

A woman of influence and networks

FIDH’s first secretary general. Born in 1859, died in 1929.

For those interested in the history of the salons of the Third Republic, Aline Ménard-Dorian is not an unknown figure. For those interested in literature, she is a well-known figure. For those interested in the history of FIDH, she is a leading figure – from 1922 until her death in 1929.

In a context dominated by an extremely rigid patriarchy, in which women had neither the right to vote nor the right to practice a profession without their father’s or husband’s permission, Alice Ménard-Dorian assumed an exceptional political position.

In this family of Protestant stock and republican tradition, when the Dreyfus affair broke out, they were resolutely on the side of the captain as much for lack of anti-Semitic prejudice as for hatred of nationalism.

In her salon, Aline Ménard-Dorian received Emile Zola, Georges Clémenceau, Anatole France, Jean-Jaurès and Lucien Herr, some of the great figures of the Dreyfus Affair, as well as Léon Blum and sometimes Marcel Proust, who made her one of his models in La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

A critic of czarism, she participated in the founding of the Society of Friends of the Russian People and Oppressed Peoples after Red Sunday on 9 January 1905. With a radical-socialist, anti-clerical sensibility, Aline Ménard-Dorian moved towards socialism and joined the SFIO after the First World War. In the early 1920s, she joined the Central Committee of the French League of Human Rights (Ligue des droits de l’Homme, LDH).

At the end of the First World War, “she (…) encouraged her visitors to create a league in their own country, which would be part of a federation of human rights leagues,” writes Lidia Campolonghi, daughter of Luigi Campolonghi, president of the Italian League, in a memorandum found in LDH’s archives.

She received all the political immigrants in Paris: Italians, Armenians, Romanians, Russians, etc. and, in parallel to her tenure as secretary general of FIDH, she was active in the French associations for the League of Nations. She frequented the same circles as a brilliant young man, a humanist and a war veteran, who was destined for a great career: a certain René Cassin.

Aline Ménard-Dorian: a woman of influence, a woman of networks and fighting for good causes.

Boris Mirkine

An intellectual in exile

Law professor. Born in Kyiv in 1892, died in Paris in 1955.

Russian, Jew, Mason, member of the exiled Russian human rights league. Refugee in Paris in 1920.

1940: In occupied France, the Gestapo searched his flat.

But before the political police of the Nazi Reich, there was the Cheka, the political police of nascent Soviet Russia, which sentenced Boris Mirkin-Getzevich to death in 1919. And even before that, there was the Okhrana, the political police of the Tsarist regime, which sentenced him to deportation to Siberia in 1916.

Mirkin-Getzevich was persecuted by three ideologically opposed police forces, all of which saw him as an enemy. A Jew, a humanist, and a human rights activist, he was a natural enemy of dictatorships.

He left Odessa in 1920 to reinvent himself in France.

The man was gifted with a remarkable vital energy that he put at the service of others, starting with the Russian League for Human Rights in exile, which participated in the birth of FIDH in 1922. Knight of the Legion of Honour in 1932, he obtained French citizenship in 1933.

In 1940, when the Wehrmacht and, in its wake, the Gestapo, arrived in Paris, he managed to escape and set off for the United States. There again, exile was not an obstacle to his activism. He wrote, published, and made his voice heard.

Mirkin-Getzevich was one of a handful of universalist visionaries who, from the 1920s onwards, put human rights forward as a subject of international law, a right that he placed at the centre of his thoughts as a jurist. Familiar with the states of Central and Eastern Europe and with constitutional law, he, who came from imperial Russia where the Jews were oppressed, also worked on the development of minority law.

In a life upended by political violence, law and universalism provided a cohesive framework. From his successive escapes, from his moves from one culture and language to another, and from his admiration for the 1789 revolution, Boris Mirkin-Getzevich cultivated an openness to the world that is apparent in all of his writings.

Daniel Jacoby

Organising the rise of FIDH

Lawyer. Born in 1933 in France. Died in 2020.

If Michel Blum ceaselessly innovated and invented new ways to defend human rights during his tenure at the head of FIDH, Daniel Jacoby, his successor, stood out for his sense of organisation, which brought structure to the Federation.

After Daniel Jacoby took over the reins in 1986, the Federation began to grow rapidly, culminating when organisations from the former Eastern Bloc countries joined the movement after the fall of the USSR.

He remained president of FIDH until 1996.

After studying literature and law, Daniel Jacoby became a lawyer in 1956. In the 1970s, he shared an office with Henri Leclerc and Michel Blum. He actively participated in the judicial observation missions set up by the latter in Greece. Daniel Jacoby and Michel Blum had a long history of friendship, activist camaraderie, and professional collaboration.

Daniel Jacoby had a knack for organising. He hired a small team for the preparation of the bicentenary of the French revolution; he took care of the bequest of Louise and Michel Leiris, which allowed FIDH to emancipate itself symbolically from the French League of Human Rights by buying its own premises, which it still occupies.

The upheaval that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 shook the planet well beyond Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Throughout the previous decade, FIDH had established links with clandestine organisations in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Official and unofficial missions took place. A number of dissidents opted for political tactics rather than direct struggle for human rights, yet many organisations from former Eastern Bloc countries joined FIDH.

For the Federation, winds of change were blowing from the African continent. Democratic opposition groups organising; sometimes concessions were won from dictators in power. And sometimes these led to democratic transitions. Restless popular movements emerged, and new leagues joined FIDH.

In the 1970s and 80s, African and South American organisations joined the network and energised it under the presidency of Daniel Jacoby. At the same time, thanks to its global impact, FIDH became established within international institutions. FIDH gained consultative status with the UN, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe, as well as observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The era was not lacking in conflicts: civil war in Algeria from 1991 onwards, the break-up of Yugoslavia in June of the same year, massacres and then genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. FIDH was present on all fronts. It warned, denounced, reported. The work carried out at that time is used still today to convict murderers. Thanks to Daniel Jacoby, FIDH’s influence had reached a new level: its impact was now global.

Daniel Mayer

Moral compass

President of the French League of Human Rights from 1958 to 1975. Born in 1909 in Paris. Died in 1996.

Politician, socialist activist, journalist.

Raised in a pro-Dreyfus environment, Daniel Mayer became involved in the fight against the death penalty and for human rights. In 1927, the Sacco and Vanzetti affair – two Italian anarchists sentenced to death in the United States – was the decisive catalyst. He became involved with the French League for Human Rights, which, along with many other organisations, tried to spare the two defendants from the electric chair. Without success.

Fifty years later, he became president of FIDH. In the meantime, he had experienced many political and moral undertakings. He was a Resistance fighter and a member of the Socialist Party. He did not hesitate to leave his party, the SFIO, and to resign from his mandate as a parliamentarian to protest against torture and the Algerian war. In 1958, he became president of the French League of Human Rights, which led a resolute fight against torture and colonisation.

At FIDH, he brought a social approach to human rights – a dimension that had been somewhat absent until then in the history of the Federation. Access to a salary that allows for a dignified life, access to education, and access to health care are all part of the commitments of this witness of the Popular Front, Minister of Labour and Social Security from 1947 to 1949. Gradually, economic and social rights became as important as civil and political rights in the Federation’s work.

As a moral compass, Daniel Mayer exerted great influence on many human rights defenders. On 21 February 1983, French President François Mitterrand appointed him to head the Constitutional Council, responsible for ensuring that laws adhere to the principles of the French Constitution.

Daniel Mayer, a man of unwavering persistence.

Giuseppe Modigliani

Living angainst fascism

Member of the Lega Italiana dei Diritti dell’Uomo (LIDU) – the Italian League for Human Rights. Born in Livorno, Italy in 1872, died in Rome in 1947.

Exiled in France in 1926, then in Switzerland in 1941.

In the Modigliani family, the worldwide fame of Amedeo, the youngest child, now eclipses that of the eldest, Giuseppe Emmanuele, lawyer, socialist, pacifist and anti-colonialist activist. A trajectory struck by fascism, political violence and exile; a trajectory in which the law once again remained a compass and FIDH, of which he was a member of the legal commission, served as a place of reflection as well as a platform to denounce fascism.

A respected socialist figure, the lawyer Modigliani had his first encounters with the royal authorities in 1898. At regular intervals, his life was disrupted by prison, threats, attacks and exile. An anti-colonialist, he opposed Italy’s invasion of Libya.

A convinced pacifist, he denounced Italy’s entry into the war alongside the Austrian monarchy and Germany. In 1915, he took part in the Zimmerwald conference of the Socialist International. In 1917, before the Turin war tribunal, he denounced the Italian military hierarchy and the inhuman discipline it imposed on soldiers.

In 1924, he spoke out in Parliament against the murder of his fellow socialist deputy Giacomo Matteoti, who had been kidnapped and assassinated by fascist militants. The affair began and Modigliani was involved. Banned from entering Italy – like all the parliamentarians in opposition to Mussolini – he went into exile in 1926.

In Paris, as a member of the Italian League of Human Rights in exile founded in 1922, he spoke at the FIDH Congress on 14 July 1927 about fascist political legislation. His paper was published in the Cahiers de droits de l’Homme a few weeks later. He denounced the legislative cynicism of the fascist constitution, attacks on personal freedoms, and persecution of political opponents through the establishment of a special tribunal, which was also used by the Nazi regime and later by the Vichy regime.

At FIDH, we knew what we were dealing with long before 1940…

Giuseppe Modigliani, a life dedicated to peace, against fascism.

Hellmut von Gerlach

The Pacifist

Chairman of the Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte (German League for Human Rights) from 1926-1929. Born in 1866 in Silesia, in central Europe, and died in 1935 in Paris.

Politician and journalist. Exiled in France in 1933. 

At the core of FIDH’s being is the idea that people have the right to live in peace, that war massacres the human beings’ rights as much as their bodies and minds. As early as 1915, pacifism, anti-militarism, and the demand to think and act in a democratic society formed a political and intellectual current that flourished in the Weltbühne, a Berlin weekly to which Milly Zirker and Hellmut von Gerlach were among the hundreds of contributors.

    “Son of Prussian gentry. Raised in a reactionary and anti-Semitic environment.”

Biographical note on Hellmut von Gerlach, Milly Zirker’s archives, La Contemporaine.

His convictions made von Gerlach the most prominent pacifist of his time in Germany, a man who shifted from the right to the left, as the title of his autobiography indicates. These convictions made him a prominent member of the Bund Neues Vaterland, which in 1922 gave birth to the Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte, a founding member of FIDH – of which he became president in 1926. In 1919, he was on the Council of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva, which had been campaigning since 1891 for a permanent international court of justice.

Once the war ended, this Francophile established solid relations with his counterparts in the French Human Rights League, the elder “sister” who championed human rights. Through the activities of the two leagues, political and amicable links were established.

Delegations working for Franco-German rapprochement organised conferences and public meetings on both sides of the Rhine.

In 1933, fleeing Nazism, von Gerlach naturally found refuge in France. The French League organised tours for him on the theme of European peace “with a collection at the end of the meeting in favour of the victims of injustice and arbitrariness,” according to an invitation. On 9 August 1935, at his funeral at Père Lachaise cemetery, the two sister leagues paid tribute to “one of the men who had most gloriously fought Hitler’s fascism.”

 

Michel Blum

Michel Blum: FIDH's man on a mission

FIDH’s president, 1983-1986. Born in France in 1935.

France in the 1960s was flourishing and enjoying growth, while the nascent Fifth Republic afforded reassuring political stability. In the international sections of the newspapers, one could read a few articles on “Salazar’s Portugal,” “Franco’s Spain,” or Greece’s “Regime of the colonels.” Behind these familiar labels lay terrible realities: arbitrary imprisonment of opponents, disappearances, unfair trials, torture, and summary executions. Although this was happening not very far from France – a few hours from Paris – widespread indifference seemed to prevail.

Michel Blum, however, did not sleep at night. The young left-wing lawyer, who had gained political consciousness during the Algerian war, clearly felt concerned and would not hesitate to act. FIDH, which he joined in 1962, gave him the opportunity.

Michel Blum was an organiser, an orchestrator, a visionary capable of innovation.

Dictatorships wanted to give themselves a false veneer of the rule of law? Very well. Michel Blum sent lawyers to observe trials. This method paid off: in Madrid, where he went on his first observation mission, the trial he was supervising on behalf of FIDH was constantly postponed. A strange coincidence…

Without institutional funding for this type of mission, Michel Blum found creative creative solutions. He called on his extensive network – on Greek, Spanish or Portuguese political refugee associations. More and more lawyers joined the ranks of the observers: in 25 years, hundreds of missions were carried out.

And when the law proved powerless, Michel Blum innovated once again. He called on a political and military man, French admiral Antoine Sanguinetti, to talk to his Argentine counterparts and investigate their crimes. And it worked! The press was interested in the return of these special envoys, and picked up their communiqués and their language. FIDH grew in size and influence, while newcomers emerged on the Anglo-Saxon human rights scene: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In Paris, a solid group of lawyers – with strong expertise and dedication – had been galvanised, and remained mobilised, thanks to Michel Blum.

A visionary, an innovator, a man on a mission.

Milly Zirker

Free Woman

Journalist, member of the German League for Human Rights. Born in Cologne in 1888, died in Miami in 1971.

Born in Cologne in 1888, died in Miami in 1971.

In 1922, at the founding of the FIDH, Milly Zirker represented one of the original member organisations, the German League for Human Rights (Deutsche Liga für Menschenrechte). She was a journalist, a translator, a tireless activist and, at a time when Germany was emerging from the First World War, a pacifist.

In 1933, she escaped the Nazis. A born organiser – with a list of contacts as long as her arm and superb interpersonal skills – Milly Zirker became one of the linchpins of the German-speaking anti-fascist diaspora in Paris. She also served as a bridge between the exiled leagues of FIDH and the French League of Human Rights (Ligue des droits de l’Homme, LDH). Yet Heydrich’s Gestapo did not forget her. She was considered by his agents to be one of the most important members of this German emigration, on par with Thomas Mann. While Milly Zirker knew that she was in danger, her activism never faltered.

“Mail and telephone calls reach me every afternoon at the League office.” (letter of 6 November 1936).

At 27 rue Jean-Dolent, LDH headquarters, she had a second-floor office as the person heading the service for German-speaking refugees and exiles. Discreetly supported by the Popular Front government, this service provided grants and passports and helped those in need find work.

When war broke out, its mission changed abruptly. She went to great lengths and used her famous address book to get the authorities to release German activists imprisoned in internment camps. “Miss Zirker would like to speak with you about the anti-Hitler writers detained in internment camps,” reads a letter dated 11 September 1939, from LDH’s secretary general to one of his ministerial contacts.

Her efforts continued until the day she herself was arrested and locked up in the Gurs internment camp, in southwest France. She managed to escape, and a visa issued by Varian Fry’s aid network enabled her to reach the United States in 1941. She never returned to Germany.

Milly Zirker, an unconditionally free woman.

René Cassin

Man of goodwill and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Co creator of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Born in 1887 in Bayonne (France). Died in 1976.

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to René Cassin on 10 October 1968 recognized a life dedicated to fundamental rights and liberties. The man was known for being one of the pillars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in Paris on 10 December 1948.

Where and when was René Cassin’s commitment sparked? He born in the darkness and turmoil of the First World War – then known as the Great War. The war left him mutilated, and the experience transformed him into a pacifist and staunch humanist.

From that moment on, his activism was prolific. He was involved in founding one of the first associations for war victims, mutilated soldiers, widows, and orphans.

In 1921, he joined the French League for Human Rights. From 1924 to 1938, he was a member of the the French delegation to the League of Nations and actively fought for peace while denouncing, as early as 1930, the dangers of fascism and Nazism. Pacifist, yes; wait-and-see, no.

This die-hard republican didn’t waver for a second in June 1940: for him, it would be London and the resistance. It was he who built the legal institutions of General Charles de Gaulle’s Free France.

From 1943 onwards, he set about rebuilding the rule of law in France, which he hoped to establish as soon as the occupation was over. As a lawyer, it was important for René Cassin to defend the victims of the Vichy regime and to ensure that those guilty of collaboration and abuses to trials where the rights of the defence are guaranteed.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on 11 December 1968, he did not hesitate to present the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a historic event (…) the first monument of an ethical nature that organised humanity has ever adopted.”

While in this text, States’ jurisdiction remains paramount, it is no longer exclusive when it comes to the treatment of their nationals, and may be transferred, under certain conditions, to international bodies “that is to say, to the whole of legally organised humanity.”

This Declaration makes everyone a member of human society – while affirming the power of international law regulating States’ sovereignty. This principle is regularly undermined and must be safeguarded.

René Cassin, giant of peace, man of goodwill.

 

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