Pioneered Rights Reporting, Advocacy and Justice
May 13, 2013
Cynthia played a central role in establishing the high standards that have come to define Human Rights Watch. She was principled and uncompromising—and played a big part in making Human Rights Watch that way. Cynthia could be tough as nails, and plenty intimidating, but once you got to know her she had a warmth and empathy that made her a great friend and clearly informed her passion for the human rights cause.
Kenneth Roth, executive director

(New York) – Human Rights Watch deeply mourns the death of Cynthia Brown, a colleague, friend and mentor for more than 30 years. She died on May 12, 2013, in New York City, after battling cancer. She was 60 years old.

Few contributed to Human Rights Watch for as long or in as many ways as Cynthia Brown. She began working in 1982, as a researcher with Americas Watch shortly after its founding, when it had a staff of two and a Washington “headquarters” above a garage. In 1990, she went to Chile for two years as the Americas Watch representative.

In 1993, she became the first program director of Human Rights Watch, responsible for ensuring the quality and accuracy of every report published. She left the staff in 1999, but continued to lend her skill and expertise to the organization as an editorial adviser, a member of the Policy Committee, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Women’s Rights Division, which she had helped to found.

“Cynthia played a central role in establishing the high standards that have come to define Human Rights Watch,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who worked with her from his earliest days with the organization and chose her as the organization’s first program director shortly after he became executive director. “She was principled and uncompromising—and played a big part in making Human Rights Watch that way. Cynthia could be tough as nails, and plenty intimidating, but once you got to know her she had a warmth and empathy that made her a great friend and clearly informed her passion for the human rights cause.”

Brown was the archetype of a human rights researcher and advocate with her fierce commitment to the facts, rigorous analysis, keen grasp of the larger political and social context in which human rights violations occur, and uncompromising vision of what governments should do to right terrible wrongs.

To maximize the impact of human rights reporting, Brown insisted on adhering to the highest standards as researchers gathered facts, assessed them, and wrote reports about their findings. She valued clear thinking and encouraged strategic planning. She was a superb editor, marking up a report in her elegant handwriting, always pointing the way to a more succinct, eloquent and thoughtful document.

Because the early days of Americas Watch revolved around the Central American conflicts and brutal military regimes in Latin America, Brown tackled some of the most pervasive and savage human rights violations of the day. When administrations in Washington ignored, downplayed or denied brutal realities on the ground, she helped to shine a light on the facts –and called on the US government to hold its “friends” to account.

Brown helped to create the Human Rights Watch strategy of pairing powerful documentation with advocacy in Washington to withhold military and political support from abusive regimes. She also encouraged investigations of war crimes by all sides in Central America using international humanitarian law, which became another Human Rights Watch trademark.

“It was great to work with Cynthia when Human Rights Watch was a start-up,” said Juan Mendez, the first director of Americas Watch. “We had the sense of trying new things, breaking new ground. I learned that human rights advocacy is about persuasion and that you persuade best when you marshal facts and put them into a strong argument for action. If you can do that with passion and elegance, as Cynthia did, then your work is all the more effective. Not all of us have that gift, but Cynthia’s writing became a benchmark for all of us to aspire to.”

Although she entered human rights work combating “traditional” civil and political rights violations, Brown championed a broader human rights agenda that would include economic, social, and cultural rights. She understood early on that women’s rights are human rights, that children can be victimized in singular ways, and that workers are vulnerable to abuse.

She was key in the creation of Human Rights Watch’s women’s rights division, knowing that effective work on women’s rights would require a separate team to sharpen research and analysis. Brown fought internally to win acceptance of a dedicated women’s rights division, helped to develop the framework for it, assisted in raising the necessary money, and helped to staff it.

“It was Cynthia’s vision and tenacity that persuaded the organization to create our women’s rights division,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, the division’s director.

“One of the things that defined her was her willingness to pick up a fight if a human rights cause was at stake,” said Wilder Tayler, the former general counsel of Human Rights Watch. “She brought that willingness to the internal life of the organization and passionately fought for reports she supervised. That strength was essential to her charisma; it scared the hell out of some and made her friends love her so much. The fact that she could unleash all that powerful energy, and at the same time be so charming and share a smile, a drink, and gossip, made it a phenomenal privilege to be her co-worker and friend.”

During the six years that Brown was program director, Human Rights Watch began rapid growth in size and scope. She insisted that the organization should remain faithful to what made it strong; never shying away from asking and answering tough questions; not letting easy assumptions pass unchecked; and conveying relentless honesty about what Human Rights Watch is, what it is doing and why.

“At first, I found her reputation, energy and fierceness a bit intimidating,” said Holly Cartner, director of Helsinki Watch when Brown was program director. “But it soon became clear that Cynthia was the greatest ally—she had worked in the field and documented the worst abuses, so she understood the responsibility that accompanies doing human rights work. As a result Cynthia was uniquely capable of providing guidance and support through many a difficult day during the aftermath of the Srebrenica massacre and the Kosovo crisis. We occasionally shed tears together during that time ... tears of outrage, of frustration, of exhaustion. Her moral compass never faltered, and her intellectual honesty and sense of unwavering dedication ensured that the victims always remained front and center in our work.”

Brown was an early advocate of translating Human Rights Watch work into many languages and insisted that Human Rights Watch seek to spotlight the work of local human rights organizations whose members risked their lives every day.

“Cynthia believed that real change could only take hold when our work was coupled with demand from the grass roots up,” said Susan Osnos, former associate director at Human Rights Watch. “We had a responsibility to defend human rights monitors, support their work and pressure abusive governments, but ultimately permanent change would come from those on the ground.”

“Even after decades helping Human Rights Watch shine a light on the darkest deeds of which humans are capable, Cynthia could get tears in her eyes talking about a tragedy we were documenting,” said Jamie Fellner, senior advisor in the US division. “For her, human rights violations were never abstract; she never lost sight of the actual human beings who were suffering.”

“Cynthia’s reports became the modus operandi for Americas Watch and, subsequently, Human Rights Watch,” said Aryeh Neier, former executive director of Human Rights Watch and President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations. "One of the first reports Cynthia wrote for Americas Watch was entitled ‘No Neutrals Allowed,’ documenting abuses in Guatemala committed by the Rios Montt regime. The fact that she died almost the same day as a Guatemalan court convicted Rios Montt for genocide says everything about the importance of her work and its long term impact.”

Cynthia Brown had a wonderful laugh. She inspired her colleagues with her humanity, her wonderful sense of irony, her grit, savvy, and passion. She became a close friend and confidant to many in the rights movement. She was open about the challenges being a single mother, of being a woman in the field, of balancing work and life. She was Buddhist and her faith gave her strength and serenity, especially in these last years. She had a great sense of style –and the lucky ones among her colleagues and friends even had the great pleasure of hearing her play her guitar and sing.

Human Rights Watch’s sincerest condolences go to Emilia, Brown’s daughter, and her sisters, Austi and Dede. Human Rights Watch wants her family to know that Brown’s legacy endures: her leadership is forever embedded in the DNA of Human Rights Watch and the impact we achieve.

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Dedication to Cynthia Brown,

who pushed the human rights movement to recognize and defend women’s rights,
who never succumbed to the professional temptations of convention and convenience,
and whose fierce intellect, golden pen, and wise ways inspire us all.

(from The Unfinished Revolution: Voices From the Global Fight for Women’s Rights, 2012)

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