Salzburg Cutler Fellows Program » Overview


Jared Genser - "Failure is not an option"

Salzburg Global Seminar President Stephen L. Salyer sits down with Jared Genser to discuss Freedom Now and what advice he has for young lawyers

Jared Genser, human rights lawyer and founder of Freedom Now speaking at the fifth annual Cutler Fellows Law Program

Jared Genser, human rights lawyer and founder of Freedom Now speaking at the fifth annual Cutler Fellows Law Program

During the fifth annual Salzburg Cutler Law Fellows Program, Salzburg Global Seminar President Stephen L. Salyer sat down with guest speaker Jared Genser, human rights lawyer and founder of Freedom Now, for a one-on-one interview.

Genser spoke about his organization, his advice for young lawyers, and how he comes to terms with the different challenges he faces.

This year's Salzburg Cutler Laws Fellow Program, Future of Public and Private International Law, included 56 representatives from 26 countries - the most diverse group the program has had so far.

During the two-day program held in February, Cutler Fellows and practitioners explored cutting edge issues in international law.

In addition to Genser, Cutler Fellows also heard from Kristalina Georgieva, Salzburg Global Fellow and newly-appointed Chief Executive Officer at the World Bank.

Read what Genser had to say in a condensed transcript below. Alternatively, listen to the full interview on Soundcloud.

This transcript has been edited for length.

Stephen: Hello. I’m Stephen Salyer, President of the Salzburg Global Seminar. I’m here with Jared Genser who is a well-known human rights lawyer and the founder of Freedom Now. Jared has been talking with the Salzburg Cutler Fellows, a group of about 55 law students from top US law schools interested in careers in public and international law and also public service. Jared in founding Freedom Now, what set it apart from some of the other human rights organizations?

Jared: I founded Freedom Now coming from an experience I had helping to, as a law student, free James Mawdsley, a British national who had gotten a 17-year prison sentence and solitary confinement in Burma for handing out pro-democracy leaflets. And in founding Freedom Now, we’re different from other human rights groups in a couple of key ways.

The first is, we represent our clients as lawyers, and that puts you at the center of the case and enables you to most effectively advocate on their behalf. Second, we combine political and public relations advocacy efforts that are strategically designed to maximize pressure on the government so that the cost dramatically outweigh the benefits. And lastly, we focus on cases that are representative of broader views around the country and different geographies around the world. We are looking for prisoners of conscience, people who are detained for who they are or what they believe.

Stephen: You’re here today with a group of very bright and dedicated young men and women just at the beginning of their careers. If you think back, what do you wish you would have had the chance to learn more of in law school and what’s your advice to young lawyers just starting their careers interested in fields like human rights?

Jared: As a law student, you learn about international law and how to apply international law in situations, but you don’t learn a lot of other skills that are necessary for becoming an international human rights lawyer, including the fact that I spend half my time with any of my human rights victim clients really providing personal support and helping them survive what they are going through.

You need to be able to engage governments and inter-governmental institutions and persuade them that this is an important enough cause that they should be engaged in and be involved in. And you learn really nothing about engaging the media. To really raise a cause to a government on any human rights issue requires not just merely knowing the law, but being able to speak intelligently to press. Engaging in pro bono work in the field of human rights provides a lot of freedom. But one has to seek out these opportunities proactively. You can’t just sit back and wait for them to come to you.

Stephen: There are more prisoners of conscience in the world than you can come to the aid of. One of the students asked you earlier how you make decisions about the selection of your clients. Would you say a bit about that?

Jared: We look for a range of different things when adding cases. First, the person has to be a prisoner of conscience, someone who is detained for who they are or what they believe. Then, we are looking for cases that are representative of broader abuses in the country. We are not just looking for a particular case of a person, let’s say, arrested for protesting, but we might look for the leader of that protest. By helping that one person, you help a broader bus of people. 

Stephen: As you look to the future, how do you see the client-based approach that you’re taking affecting that broader climate? Do you think that these are the handles that people can grasp to actually have an impact on that broader cross-current of political forces, or is there another whole range of democratic responses that are going to have to be marshaled?

Jared: Our take on it with Freedom Now is to represent a cluster of cases that can help transform societies. Cases that I’ve worked on have played an important role in contributing to help transform societies. I spent five years representing Aung San Suu Kyi as her international lawyer in Burma. Her freedom was critical to advance the situation there. I was her only international lawyer.

One of the things we were able to do when I was representing her was to get all the current groups in the world together to agree to do a single letter to Ban Ki Moon from former presidents and prime ministers, pressing for him to travel to Burma to seek her freedom. We were able to get 112 former presidents and prime ministers across 50 countries to sign into one letter by having a rising tide lift all above us. Every NGO involved was able to put up a press release on the same day saying they were part of the letter. So we worked collaboratively.

Everybody opened up their respective Rolodexes to make this happen, and Ban Ki-moon went a few months later. He didn’t secure her release, but it advanced the campaign in a dramatic way. And ultimately getting her out, which we prevailed in doing, started to move a process forward in the country that has led to her and her party winning a substantial majority in the last elections, and now she is the leader of her country. These kinds of cases can help transform societies, so that’s our small part of the much bigger problem.

Stephen: You’ve talked about the dimension of your work, of being there for your clients and sometimes explaining things, but also providing a kind of emotional support in some of the darkest moments that they may face in their lives. How about yourself? When you hit a moment of particular challenge or fatigue or doubt, how do you deal with that in your own terms?

Jared: It’s a great question. The work is incredibly hard, and all consuming, and one cannot easily just put up emotional barriers and not feel the pain that one’s clients are going through. So you emotionally are taking your work home with you whether you like it or not. I think for me, every day I am inspired by my clients. Seeing their perseverance, their resilience, disputing the enormous burden on their shoulders, really kind of makes the problems that I might have seem very first world in comparison.

Frankly, all these cases that I work on are must-win situations. Failure is not an option. When does one have the luxury of being demoralized or sitting back and taking a break for very long? I think how I help keep perspective is by working with my clients. I know that my struggles and my challenges, they aren’t much relatively speaking to what they’re going to.

I aspired to be a human rights lawyer before I went to law school. I had no idea what that was going to be like from an experiential standpoint. It has been so incredibly enriching and fulfilling for me in my career that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Stephen: I’ve been talking with Jared Genser, the founder of Freedom Now. A man who has been effective in so many ways across the world. I think the inspiration of “failure is not an option” is something we will all take away from today. Thank you for being with us.

The Salzburg Cutler Fellows Law Program is held under the auspices of the Lloyd N. Cutler Center for the Rule of Law. The annual program collaborates with eleven of the leading U.S. law schools. This year's program was sponsored by NYU Washington and Arnold & Porter. More information on the session is available here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the #cutlerfellows hashtag.

06.03.2017 Category: 70th Anniversary-Stories, FACES OF LEADERSHIP, JUSTICE, LAW ACADEMY, SALZBURG IN THE WORLD
Salzburg Global Seminar