What It Takes: A persistent voice for human rights

Jared Genser, human rights attorney, at his firm's office.
Jared Genser, human rights attorney, at his firm's office. (Jeffrey MacMillan - For Washington Post)
By Avis Thomas-Lester
Monday, June 7, 2010

Jared M. Genser was a law school student working for a human rights organization in London in 2000 when he got involved in the case of a British citizen, James Mawdsley, then 27, who had been given a 17-year jail sentence in solitary confinement in Burma for passing out pro-democracy leaflets. Genser took the case to the United Nations, persuaded five U.S. senators and 18 members of Congress to write letters to the Burmese junta urging Mawdsley's release and was at London's Heathrow Airport when Mawdsley was reunited with his family after 416 days in jail. That case hooked Genser and a year later, he co-founded Freedom Now, a nonprofit organization that works to secure the release of international "prisoners of conscience." He is a partner at DLA Piper, where he specializes in public international law and human rights cases. On Monday, June 7, he will be awarded the Charles Bronfman Prize, which recognizes young Jewish humanitarians involved in values-inspired work. Genser, 37, is married to Lisa, a clinical social worker; they have a son, Zachary, 2, and live in Bethesda.


Genser's clients have included Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who has been held under house arrest for 15 of the last 19 years, and Ayub Masih, a Pakistani Christian unjustly sentenced to death for blasphemy. "I think the character trait that I've developed over time, probably from failure as well as success, has been persistence ... The work also requires substantial capability to work with people all across the political spectrum and all parts of society, from nonprofit groups to government to media to business leaders, and to be able to build coalitions of people who can collectively view what you are doing as important and to get behind those efforts."


The Freedom Now case of Chinese dissident Yang Jianli, who was blacklisted by his government for testifying to the U.S. Congress about Tiananmen Square. "He went back to China to observe labor unrest and was caught and accused of being a spy for Taiwan. Going up against China is not an easy task ... It required a level of persistence that was beyond what I ever thought was possible. It was a five-year odyssey."


He volunteered with a home hospice program as a teenager and worked at a McDonald's on Rockville Pike from ages 15 to 17 while attending the Landon School. "My parents had an interesting deal with me, which was that if I was working, I would get an allowance, and if I wasn't working, I wouldn't. I learned later that's what many of us would call the earned income tax credit ... I did the Saturday morning breakfast shift for two years."


His current position at DLA Piper. "Because I am working in the area of public international law and human rights in my day job, and because it provides me with such a strong platform to support my voluntary opportunities and activities, it's really been a phenomenal place for me to be."


Taking a year off from undergraduate work at Cornell University to work in Maryland on the first statewide community service requirement for high school graduation. He later earned a master's at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Michigan. "I was on the road working with high school and middle school students and trying to inspire them to get involved with community service ... To have that at 20 years old kind of gave me a sense that if I had a chance to unleash my potential, that I might actually able to make something of myself and have an impact on the world."


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