International human rights lawyer Jared Genser ’95 has been awarded the 2020 Tällberg Eliasson Global Leadership Prize, given annually to exceptional leaders from any nation and any discipline, who meet today’s challenges ethically and with innovation and courage. This year the prize was given to three of the 2,165 nominees from 135 countries.
Genser is the founder and managing director of the public interest law firm Perseus Strategies, Special Advisor on the Responsibility to Protect for the Organization of American States, and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. His client list includes such luminaries as Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Desmond Tutu, Liu Xiaobo and Elie Wiesel, along with a host of clients whose names have not appeared in international headlines, but whose bravery and conviction in the face of oppression serves as inspiration and motivation for Genser.
“I wake up every morning excited to hop out of bed and get to work, because the people I work with are the human rights heroes of our times,” Genser said. “To have had the honor to represent political prisoners, for example, who have the courage that few people do to put their lives at risk for the sake of the future of their community and their country. These are extraordinary people who are willing to stand up to dictatorships in order for others to be free.”
One reason so many of his clients do not get the international attention sometimes associated with political prisoner cases is that Genser first and foremost takes a servant leadership approach to his work, focusing on the needs of his clients, which often involves working quietly to get them released.
“It's very important, especially in the work that I do, to not just be a hard-charging, Type A personality, but to listen carefully to the people I'm trying to help,” Genser said. “I only take cases where I'm asked to assist. Certain human rights groups, in my view, have wrongly decided to take up cases that can end up being adverse to the interests of the people in prison, or their families.”
Genser has been so effective at securing the release of the arbitrarily detained and prisoners of conscience worldwide that when he travels to places like Maldives, Kazakhstan or China to work with a client, local human rights lawyers and activists familiar with his work will often request pictures with him for physical evidence--if their government detains them, they have a connection to someone who knows how to step in and help. It would be all too easy for Genser’s reputation alone to overly-influence his client’s decisions.
“Servant leadership is all about having an open mind, listening closely and acting in solidarity with people who need your help, by providing the help that they want and need.”
Genser arrived at the College of Human Ecology (CHE) to study in the human service studies department that would later become Policy Analysis and Management, with years of public service already under his belt. The son of a medical doctor and a clinical social worker, he was encouraged from a young age to see the value in serving others. In high school, he volunteered in a soup kitchen and was the youngest volunteer with his regional hospice, among other service activities, but he described his volunteerism and high school academic life as completely separate.
At Cornell, Genser said, all of that changed. “Attending CHE enabled me to integrate those experiences in public service into my coursework and to learn from those experiences and reflect on them, and at the same time, take what I was learning in the classroom and apply it in practical ways in the real world. It was a transformative experience.”
During his time at Cornell, Genser founded the Into the Streets volunteer program, which continues to be Cornell’s largest day of service, and the Cornell chapter of Best Buddies, which matches student volunteers with developmentally disabled adults in the community.
He said volunteering early in life, “was a really a great way to get outside of my own little narrow world and to get a better sense of some of the issues that people were facing.”
Genser’s recent work includes three books on human rights topics, including his latest, The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention: Commentary and Guide to Practice. When he found out the book would be sold for $150 a copy, he raised $30,000 to pay the publisher to make it available free online, because he knew too many of the people around the world who needed a practitioner’s manual could not afford the hefty price tag.
Genser is currently co-editing another book about the future of human rights with the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, as well as teaching law, running his “small, but scrappy law firm,” continuing his pro bono efforts with NGOs focused on human rights and women’s rights, and collaborating with Orlando Bloom to develop a series for Amazon Studios based on a fictionalized portrayal of Genser’s life and work.