Alum Speaks on Human Rights in Sudan


Before a standing-room only audience on Monday, Bill Saunders ’80 told the story of his experiences working to end religious oppression in the Sudan. The talk was jointly sponsored by the Harvard Federalist Society and the Black Law Student Association.

“The Federalist Society always strives to sponsor engaging, thoughtful talks and debates that promote intellectual diversity on campus,” said Federalist Society President Dan Sullivan ’07. “We thought students would benefit from hearing the reflections of an HLS alum who has spent many years working to defend the freedom, particularly the religious freedom, of persecuted peoples in Sudan and elsewhere.”

Saunders urged students to have confidence that they have the ability to create change and not to doubt the power of their own influence. He started the talk describing his initial entry into human rights: after reading a Boston Globe article in 1979 on the genocide in Cambodia, he decided to write his 3L paper on possible effective international responses. But when working on the topic, he soon became disheartened with the prevalence of politics and the reality that nothing was going to be done quickly.

After graduation, Saunders worked for the D.C. firm of Covington & Burling for several years. But while watching television when recovering from an operation, Saunders saw a documentary about Sudan refugees. That film re-engaged his interest in international human rights. Since then, Saunders has worked in a variety of legal and public policy positions related to human rights, ranging from the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights to the Family Research Council, working on religious freedom around the world with a focus on the oppression in Sudan.

Saunders offered the audience two practical points about working in international human rights. First, he offered that all international law is politics. “Politics isn’t a dirty word, it’s the way things are.” Saunders urged students to work to understand political forces and use them to advance international human rights issues.

“The key to human rights work is coalitions” was Saunders’s second main point. He cited as an example his own work in Sudan, the coalition for which encompassed the Catholic Church, secular human rights activities, the Family Research Council, and the US government. The goal of preserving religious liberty and ending oppression is a goal that can be shared by many constituencies, Saunders argued.

In response to audience questions on the current discussion at Harvard on divestment, Saunders opined, “I think that divestment is a pretty good strategy,” because of the pressure it places upon governments. In response to further questions, Saunders argued that President Bush’s policies in Sudan were quite commendable and worth of praise.

Students found the talk inspirational and evocative. “It is heartening, in this time of such political partisanship, to see people crossing the political spectrum to help stop the tragedies in the Sudan,” said 1L Chris Thomas. Fellow 1L J.B. Ward agreed: “He is firm that ideological disagreements in other areas shouldn’t keep people from uniting to fight injustice, which is probably a message we all need to hear a little more often.”

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