Roberta Cohen is a specialist in human rights, humanitarian, and refugee issues, and often described as a trailblazer on some of these issues. This site is intended to serve as a repository of her work over an extensive career, spanning NGOs, the State Department, the United Nations, and the Brookings Institution.
- International Human Rights NGO (UN, NY): From the early to late 1970s, she served as executive director of the first international human rights organization based in the United States — the International League for Human Rights (ILHR), founded by Roger Baldwin and chaired by John Carey and then Jerome J. Shestack. The League had consultative status at the United Nations, and Cohen became known for advocating for greater international attention to human rights by governments and for the inclusion of human rights in US foreign policy.
- State Department Human Rights Bureau (Washington): In the late 1970s, the Carter Administration invited Cohen to serve in the State Department’s first human rights bureau under Assistant Secretary Patt Derian where she worked to integrate human rights in foreign policy and became deputy assistant secretary for security and economic assistance and senior adviser to the US delegation to the UN.
- Parliamentary Human Rights Group (London): In the 1980s, as Honorary Secretary of the PHRG, an all-party group chaired by The Lord Avebury, she was among the first to point out the lack of international attention to China’s human rights record. Her book length article, People’s Republic of China: The Human Rights Exception, published by the British Parliament, became widely cited and influential in policy debates.
- Brookings Institution/United Nations/IDPs: In the 1990s, first at the Refugee Policy Group and then as a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, she was a leading voice in pressing for an international system to protect internally displaced persons (IDPs) — those uprooted by war and disaster who unlike refugees do not cross borders but remain in their own countries in refugee-like conditions. She played a prominent role in the creation of the position of Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (RSG) on Internally Displaced Persons, and served as senior adviser to the first Representative, Francis M. Deng, and to his successor, Walter Kaelin, from 1994 to 2010. She co-directed the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement, co-authored with Deng the first major study of internal displacement, Masses in Flight (Brookings), cited in United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/54/167 (para 5, 12 February 2000), and organized and participated in the process leading to the development and worldwide dissemination of the first international standards for IDPs, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement — endorsed by the United Nations. In 2005, she and RSG Deng received the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, and in 2006, the Forced Migration Review (Oxford University) dedicated a special issue to her work.
- North Korea: Since 2007, as a board member and later co-chair and co-chair emeritus of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), Cohen has pressed for the inclusion of human rights in policies toward North Korea and urged humanitarian agencies, governments and the UN to pay greater attention to the tens of thousands incarcerated in political prison camps and to those forcibly repatriated from China.
(For more detailed information, see sections on bio, publications (books, articles, testimony, opeds, statements), oral histories/news accounts, and photos.)