Roberta Cohen’s career has spanned the United Nations, the State Department, think tanks — the Brookings Institution, NGOs and academia where she has been a specialist in human rights, humanitarian, and refugee issues, and a leading expert on internally displaced persons (IDPs), human rights in foreign policy, and human rights in North Korea.
Internal Displacement/UN: Cohen was a leading voice in bringing onto the international agenda the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs), those forcibly uprooted by conflict, human rights violations and disaster within their own countries. With a group of NGOs (1989-1992), she successfully advocated for the creation of the position of Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and from 1994-2010 served as Senior Adviser to the Representative (RSG), Francis M. Deng. Together with Deng, she co-founded the Brookings Project on Internal Displacement (a UN-think tank partnership) and co-directed it for more than ten years. Cohen and Deng co-authored the first major study on internal displacement, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement (Brookings Institution Press, 1998), cited in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 54/167 of 2000 (para. 5); and she organized and participated in the process leading to the development of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the first international standards for IDPs, introduced by the RSG to the UN and endorsed by the World Summit in 2005.
Cohen also served as principal adviser to the second Representative of the Secretary-General for the Human Rights of IDPs (2004-2010), Walter Kaelin. In the Forced Migration Review (2006), Kaelin wrote:“The creation of the mandate of the Representative of the Secretary General on Internal Displacement in 1992 and the adoption of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998 would not have happened without Roberta Cohen’s vision, dedication and persistence.” (https://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/brookings/kalin.pdf )
In support of the RSG, Cohen initiated programs with international organizations, regional bodies, governments, NGOs and civil society to promote a more effective national, regional and international response. The Assistant High Commissioner for Refugee Protection (UNHCR) commented in 2006: “Roberta Cohen has encouraged, cajoled and even shamed the UN into assuming a more effective role to protect IDPs.” (https://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/brookings/feller.pdf)
In 2005, RSG Deng and Cohen were awarded the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order (http://grawemeyer.org/2005-francis-deng-and-roberta-cohen/)
At the Brookings Institution (1994-2016): Cohen became a Senior Fellow and, after retirement in 2007, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow, specializing in humanitarian and human rights issues, with special focus on internal displacement and the humanitarian consequences of international crises and disasters, e.g. Afghanistan (https://www.fmreview.org/september-11th-has-anything-changed/cohen), Iraq (http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2002/11/20iraq-cohen), Darfur (https://www.c-span.org/video/?195446-1/international-policy-darfur) and the tsunami in south Asia (http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2008/06/disaster-standards-cohen). In 2002, Brookings President, Strobe Talbott observed that Cohen made an “extraordinary contribution to the search for a solution to a problem of global importance. Largely due to her work, the issue of internally displaced persons is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves from national governments, international institutions, NGOs, and the public” (https://www.brookings.edu/news-releases/brookings-senior-fellow-roberta-cohen-receives-award-for-exemplary-writing-on-foreign-affairs-and-diplomacy/). In “commemoration” of her work on internal displacement, Brookings and Oxford University co-published a special issue of the Forced Migration Review, “Putting IDPs on the Map” (December 2006)(http://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/FMRpdfs/BrookingsSpecial/full.pdf ). In 2017, Oxford University announced its acquisition of the Brookings Project archive on IDPs, see p. 23 in (https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/about/rscannualreport2016-17.pdf) and last item below.
State Department, British Parliament, NGOs, International Organizations: During the Carter Administration (1977-1981), Cohen worked to institutionalize human rights into American foreign policy. She became a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Department of State’s first human rights bureau, encompassing security and economic assistance, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the UN, and NGOs. She also earlier served as senior adviser to the US Delegation to the UN, as the Department’s first liaison with human rights NGOs and as human rights officer for the Southern Cone of Latin America.
In London (1985-6), she became Honorary Secretary of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, an all-party group in the British Parliament.
Earlier in New York (1971-1977), Cohen served as Executive Director of the International League for Human Rights and as UN Representative of the Paris-based Federation Internationale des Droits de l’Homme. She also served as Co-Chair of the NGO Human Rights Committee at the UN.
Cohen has had extensive experience working with governments, international organizations, and civil society around the world. In 2003, she served as Public Member of the US Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and in 1998 as Public Member of the US Delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights. In the early 1990s, she was a consultant to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the Refugee Policy Group, governments and NGOs. For UNHCR, Cohen led a team to refugee camps and settlements throughout the world to evaluate and report on the implementation of UNHCR policies on refugee women (1993).
While in Africa for five years with her husband (David A. Korn), Cohen received USIA’s Superior Honor Award for reopening US educational, cultural, and information programs in Ethiopia during a difficult political period (1982-1985) — see https://adst.org/2021/03/a-typical-roberta-cohen-operation-establishing-usia-programs-in-addis-ababa/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=a-typical-roberta-cohen-operation-establishing-usia-programs-in-addis-ababa. In Togo, she helped establish the country’s first National Human Rights Commission (1987) and was described as “la mere de la Commission.”
On North Korea: From 2011 to 2015, Cohen co-chaired the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), the leading US-based organization working on human rights in the DPRK, and is now Co-Chair Emeritus. She has authored numerous articles and
op-eds on UN and US policies toward North Korea, provided testimony at Congressional hearings, testified before the UN Commission of Inquiry, and has been a frequent panelist and moderator, most recently at the Brookings Institution (https://www.brookings.edu/events/thinking-the-unthinkable-war-on-the-korean-peninsula/) and at the National Endowment for Democracy (https://www.ned.org/events/beyond-pyongyang-connecting-with-the-people-of-north-korea/), and introduced government defector Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador to Britain, on his first visit to Washington at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9mhId6WHKhE)
See also zoom programs — on the Role of the UN, HRNK, July 1, 2021: https://youtu.be/vmtlcMa_MOQ, and on Accountability, Stanford University, April 12, 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oH-icKR_xqQ
On October 20, 2021, HRNK honored Cohen for her “major role” on human rights in North Korea at its 20th anniversary gala dinner.
In addition to co-authoring Masses in Flight (with Francis M. Deng), and co-editing two additional books, Cohen has published more than 150 articles on human rights and humanitarian issues, and in 2002 was awarded the DACOR (Diplomatic and Consular Officers Retired – State Department) Fiftieth Anniversary Award for Exemplary Writing on Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy, in particular on “refugees and internally displaced persons” (https://www.brookings.edu/news-releases/brookings-senior-fellow-roberta-cohen-receives-award-for-exemplary-writing-on-foreign-affairs-and-diplomacy/). She received the Washington Academy of Sciences Award for Distinction in the Social and Behavioral Sciences in 2005. (For books, chapters, articles, testimonies, opeds and statements, see PUBLICATIONS section at robertacohenhumanrights.org)
SOME BIO HIGHLIGHTS
- Cohen (with Andrei Sakharov below) plays pioneering role at the International League for Human Rights in drawing attention to international human rights standards and governmental lack of compliance. She is described by Aryeh Neier as “then probably the country’s most experienced human rights professional,” and is featured in the New York Times (1977) NYT Article.
- During the Carter Administration, Cohen is invited to serve in the State Department’s first human rights bureau; standing below with Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patt Derian, 1981 —
- The British Parliament’s Parliamentary Human Rights Group publishes Cohen’s book-length article, People’s Republic of China: The Human Rights Exception (1987), initiating a public debate. The article was also published by Johns Hopkins University’s Human Rights Quarterly and the University of Maryland School of Law, (http://digitalcommons.law.umaryland.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1085&context=mscas)
- US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, President of the UN Security Council, holds up the Cohen-Deng study, Masses in Flight, to urge international action on IDPs (2000) — (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2010/12/14/around-the-halls-remembering-richard-holbrooke/)
- UN General Assembly resolution (Protection of and assistance to IDPs) “welcomes” the Cohen-Deng study, Masses in Flight (opera. para. 5, A/RES/54/167, 25 February 2000) — https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/54/167
- Oxford University’s Forced Migration Review publishes the special issue, “Putting IDPs on the map: achievements and challenges” to commemorate Cohen’s work (2006) –(http://www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/FMRpdfs/BrookingsSpecial/full.pdf)
- Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre announces acquisition of the Brookings archive on internal displacement (2017), see below and p. 23 (https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/files/about/rscannualreport2016-17.pdf).
ADDITIONAL ACTIVITIES AND AFFILIATIONS
Cohen is an Administrative Council member of The Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights (JBI), co-chair emeritus of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), on the Editorial board of the Global Responsibility to Protect, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Cosmos Club and the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS).
Cohen served on the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on North Korea (2016) and on the Task Force on the Global Forced Migration Crisis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) (2018).
Until 2017 Cohen was a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, and from 2010-2014, adjunct associate professor on vulnerable populations (IDPs) at American University’s Washington College of Law.
From 2011-2017, she was a member of the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She also was former chair of the United Nations Association DC Task Force on human rights, vice-chair of the International Human Rights Law Group (now Global Rights), Board member of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, an Advisory Council member of Human Rights Watch/Africa, a member of the international editorial advisory board of the Journal of Refugee Studies (Oxford), an Advisory Board member of the Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law of the Washington College of Law, and a member of the Fund for Peace Human Rights and Business Roundtable (Washington DC).
B.A., Barnard College, 1960 (History and Political Science); awarded the Distinguished Alumna Award in 2005 (given to an alumna “who has achieved considerable public or professional distinction and recognition in her chosen field of endeavor”)
M.A., School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, “with distinction,” 1963
Awarded Honorary Doctorate, University of Bern (Faculty of Law), 2006 (for contribution to the development of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement)
ORAL HISTORIES, NEWS STORIES AND OTHER ACCOUNTS (see section on oral histories and news stories at robertacohenhumanrights.org)
From OXFORD UNIVERSITY Refugee Studies Centre’s annual report 2016-2017: RSC Oxford 2016-2017 Annual Report IDP Archive
 International Human Rights Movement: A History, p.345, note 9.