Human rights advocate keeps up the good fight
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Human rights advocate keeps up the good fight

Paramus resident Felice Gaer, elected this month to a third four-year term on the United Nations Committee Against Torture, has not lost her sense of humor — despite the nature of her work.


Felice Gaer

In a telephone interview with The Jewish Standard, she recalled an incident that occurred when her two sons were boys. "I got a call from ‘Good Morning America’ asking me to appear in a feature they were doing on rape in Bosnia as a weapon of war," she said. "I told them I was glad to do it, but I didn’t know what to do with the kids." Gaer couldn’t ask her mother to watch them because "I never told her that I had visited such a dangerous place. I didn’t want her to worry."

Gaer, who began her service on the U.N. committee in ‘000 — she was first nominated by the Clinton administration — is the only American on that body and, she noted, the only woman. She explained that the position is technical, not political, and she is considered "an independent expert."

While her election was not unanimous, said Gaer — who called opposition votes "a badge of honor" — she noted that this time around she received the highest number of votes among candidates for the position.

"The U.S. played an important role in drafting the Convention Against Torture," said Gaer, adding that it was written in 1988 and ratified by the U.S. in 1994. Basically, she said, "the Convention takes measures to end torture and criminalizes acts of torture. There are no circumstances when it is permitted. The committee tries to get governments to live up to promises they make and treaties they sign," she said.

Gaer said she will not be involved in consideration of torture charges lodged against the United States in the aftermath of incidents at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, noting that committee members recuse themselves when their own country is the subject of an investigation. "We don’t have to denounce or defend," she said.

She estimated that the committee, which meets in Geneva, reviews about 15 to 17 countries each year and resolves about ‘5 cases annually. Decisions are not binding, although some nations, such as Sweden, she said, treat them as such, while others tend to ignore the committee "and do what they want."

Gaer’s interest in human rights began when she was a student, working in the area of Soviet and European Studies and taking an active interest in Soviet dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov. Today, she serves on the board of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation.

"I also did a lot of work on violence against women," she said, noting that she engaged in advocacy through the International League for Human Rights, which she serves as vice president, and the Ford Foundation. That work led to her involvement in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, said Gaer, who noted that she was one of the first to call for the issue of rape in armed conflicts to be addressed by the international war crimes tribunal on that nation.

Gaer’s interest in this area continued after she became director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights in 1993.

The group — which conducts research and advocacy to strengthen international human rights protections and institutions — is "the only international human rights institution in any Jewish organization," said Gaer, who also serves as vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Among other concerns, she said, the Blaustein Institute is involved with the situation in Darfur and "in trying to get the U.N. to function more effectively to protect religious freedom around the world."

A frequent lecturer, and the author of more than ‘5 articles on human rights, Gaer said one of her proudest achievements was "getting the U.N. to address anti-Semitism as a human rights issue," an initiative, she said, that "is making some progress." According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, Gaer "played the key role in assuring passage by consensus of the U.N. General Assembly’s first-ever condemnation of anti-Semitism" in 1998.

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