FIGHTING FOR DIGNITY. Kerry Kennedy is President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, founded in 1968 after the assassination of her father. She has devoted more than 40 years to the pursuit of equal justice, the promotion and protection of basic rights, and the preservation of the rule of law.
Kerry Kennedy, what are the big challenges that the coronavirus pandemic now brings to a changed world?
Things have changed for RFK human rights and things have changed for the world. And in many ways, things have not changed for the world. Vaccines are widely distributed and used across the United States, throughout Europe and in wealthy countries. Italy has 81 percent of the population over 12 years old vaccinated, and they’ll soon be at 90 percent. The rest of the world has almost no access to vaccines. Across the developing world generally, less than 2 percent are vaccinated. Until those numbers get to close to 90 percent this disease is going to continue to develop. There will be more and more versions of it and it is going to be a long time before we are safe.
Why do the developing countries have such low levels of vaccination?
The vaccines are developed and then hoarded in the developed world, which wants to make sure that their population gets fully vaccinated before they make them available to everybody else. This is a worldwide pandemic, and thinking that you can close off your country and everybody will be safe if you get a 90 percent vaccine rate but not vaccinating the rest of the world is not paying attention to the science. We’re one world and where one country is impacted by disease or human rights violations, all of us are impacted.
You are a friend of the Bidens and close to the Biden administration. Are they handling the problems we face well?
I have known Joe Biden my entire life. I love Joe Biden, and I know his values. He cares deeply about people, especially people who are struggling, because he’s been there himself. That’s why he’s trying to pass his legislation, but the divisiveness in Washington is so high that the Republicans would rather deny him a win than pass his legislation, even though it will improve the lives of their constituents. That’s very destructive.
“Human rights groups ask why the children are hungry.”
Kerry Kennedy walks with Human Rights Award winner Guerline Jozef and Wycelf Jean near the US-Mexico border, 2021
Kerry Kennedy, America has withdrawn troops from Afghanistan. Is it becoming more closed?
When my Uncle Jack was president, we had very few troops across the globe. Now we have troops in over 70 countries. We spent three trillion dollars in Afghanistan. We could have built schools, health care facilities, institutions. It would be a different country. Instead we put bombs in. Withdrawing from Afghanistan was the right thing to do. It could have been done better, but it needed to be done. The United States would be a lot stronger if we were sending aid, food, clothes, medical supplies, a chance for people to have better lives for their children. That’s what everybody in the world wants.
Is Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights working on that?
We’re an international human rights organization. Humanitarian groups feed the children, supply clothes, medical care, et cetera. Human rights groups ask why the children are hungry. They try to get governments and investors in huge corporations to comply with the international human rights norms which grew out of World War Two and the Nazi atrocities. Before the countries of the world came together, nobody else had any right to object to how ever a government treated the people within the bounds of that country. After World War Two, the countries of the world said, we can’t allow this anymore, every human being is born equal in dignity and rights, and we need to protect them. They made a list of those rights and all the countries in the world signed up to that list. That’s what we try to enforce at RFK Human Rights. Every single person has a right to food, has a right to water, has a right to a job.
Including those in totalitarian countries like Russia and China?
Absolutely. Because they have signed on to the International Declaration of Human Rights. A Chinese person helped write that International Declaration. It was written by people all over the world and gathered together by Eleanor Roosevelt. They wrote it, and then all their governments signed on to as something that they have said we believe in and will uphold. The job of human rights organizations is to get them to uphold what they’ve signed up to. For example, to stop rounding up journalists and imprisoning and torturing them because they criticize the government and ask questions.
What progress do you see since your mother created this foundation soon after your father’s untimely death?
I have seen change. When I started working at RFK Human Rights in 1981 all of Latin America was under right wing military dictatorships. Today, there’s not one left standing. All of Eastern Europe was under communism. Today there’s not a communist government there. South Africa was under apartheid. Today, South Africa has had a series of freely elected governments elected by a majority of their people. Women’s rights was not on the international agenda. Today, women’s rights is part of every negotiation. All those changes happened, but not because governments, armies and multinational corporations wanted them to. In fact, they tried to stop them. They all happened because of small groups of determined people. NGOs harness the dream of freedom and make it come true. All NGOs start because somebody says, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem and the government’s not fixing it, and no company is going to come in and fix it, it’s not going to get fixed unless we fix it ourselves,’ and they bring together their family, their neighbours and their friends, and start to build something. That’s the heart of real change in our world.
What is your attitude to the Me Too movement?
Me Too is extraordinarily important. One out of every three women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime. In the United States, one out of every five people by age 18. If you know that there’s a one in four chance that your daughter is going to be sexually assaulted if she goes into a room, would you send her in that room?
Well then you’ve just said to your daughter, you can’t go to college in the United States of America and you certainly can’t go to an Ivy League school. Think about that. We have to change this. Me Too is not just about sexual assault, but about treating people with dignity. Corporations should adopt the “summer intern standard” of behaviour to remove the power, sexual and gender dynamic from relationships. So when somebody in power says to themself, ‘Can I do this?’ they should ask, ‘Well, can a summer intern do that? Would it be proper for a summer intern to go up to the CEO and give them a kiss? Would it be proper for the summer intern to go up and say, ‘Hey, you look pretty great in that dress, did you lose some weight?’ If the summer intern can’t do it, then you don’t do it. That will take care of a lot of this behaviour.
“As soon as you’re active, you’re no longer a victim.”
Kerry Kennedy, do your three daughters feel anxious about our world?
All over the world people feel crushing anxiety about climate change, about the loss of democracy and the rise of radicalism, but don’t tell me about people’s anxiety today. In 1962 President Kennedy was saying we might have a nuclear war with Russia tonight! In the next five years President Kennedy was assassinated. Then Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, my dad, while he’s running for president. When Martin Luther King died, 117 cities in my country went up in flames, and one of our cities, Dover, Delaware, was under martial law for nine months.
What is the difference between being a victim and a hero?
Activism. When you see a problem, whether it’s a world problem or a problem with your spouse or your child or your sibling, if it’s making you feel badly the answer is to get out there and do something about it. You’re only a victim as long as you’re not active. As soon as you’re active, you’re no longer a victim.
How many people work in Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights?
50 people in the US division, the mothership. Then we have RFK affiliates in the U.K., Spain, Greece, Switzerland and Italy.
Why is the city of Florence your European operations centre?
The chair of the board is Stefano Lucchini, an extraordinarily transformative figure. We started in Italy in the typical way an NGO starts, which is that a group of Italians saw what we were doing and said, ‘We want to do that here. There’s the need for human rights programming in Italy, and let’s partner with you.’ That was about 2002/3, and we have been working there ever since.
Would you like to be in many other countries?
If all we wanted to do was expand, we could be in many countries in the next few months. But we want to have integrity and depth in each place. Also each of our programmes is different in each country, because each country has different needs, interests and abilities.
What are some examples of your activity in these different countries?
In Italy for instance, we are working on getting corporations to hire migrants. Many do not have jobs. 3% of Italians are Muslim and there are a lot of issues with trying to get jobs in companies. We’re doing a programme across the country where we bring in migrants, analyze their skill sets, and then work to align those migrants with the companies that they need and that can hire them. We hone their skill sets so that they’re ready for the new jobs. We also have a headquarters in the former prison in Florence called Le Murate, and in that we have 12 bedrooms. During COVID, those bedrooms were first used as a battered women’s shelter, and then for doctors and nurses who were taking care of COVID patients and could no longer go home because it was too dangerous for their families. Now it’s going to be used for 12 Afghan students who are enrolled in Florence University.
What do you do to hold countries accountable for human rights abuses?
Our legal team hold governments accountable for human rights abuses in specific areas, such as civic space, the right to assembly, the right to free speech and the right to association. We sued the government of Columbia for killing Nelson Carvajal and won the first case in the history of Latin America where a government was held accountable for the assassination of a journalist. A few months ago, we completed a lawsuit that held the government in Honduras accountable for the killing of a LGBTQ person. When Uganda made homosexuality punishable by life in prison without parole we sued the government and overturned the law. At any time we have about 35 cases. We’ve never lost a case, and it’s always holding the government accountable for human rights abuses.
Kerry Kennedy in Mexico, 2017
Kerry Kennedy in Brazil, 2019
Kerry Kennedy visiting students engaged in the Speak Truth to Power Human Rights Education Program
Kerry Kennedy speaking at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding cases of femicide, 2019
Kerry Kennedy at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, 2019
Kerry Kennedy speaks at a pop-up rally outside of the Otay Mesa ICE detention facility, 2021
“We’re always going to have racism because people of colour have no control over the economy.”
Kerry Kennedy, are you able to raise the funds you need for your work?
So far, so well. We’ve gone from a million dollars a year when I started to about 13 million dollars a year now, and we’ll bring it up to 20 in the next three or four years. We’ve grown our endowment from about a million dollars to over 50 million, and we’ll double that in the next five years as well.
Are other Kennedy family members involved with the foundation?
Nobody else works at it full-time. My mother is still on the board, she is 93. My nephew Joe Kennedy is on the board, and so is my daughter, Cara. My siblings, first cousins, nieces and nephews are all engaged. There’s a lot of family enthusiasm and when we go on a mission someplace, often a family member will come along.
You wrote and published a book called ‘Being Catholic Now’. Do you have a relationship with Pope Francis and involve him with your activities?
I had the great privilege of meeting him a few years ago. I was on the board of a programme that was run by the Vatican to talk about the moral implications of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Pope is very interested in environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing.
What has changed for you personally as you come out of this pandemic time?
During COVID I lost four of my family members: my aunt Jean Kennedy Smith who was 93; and then my niece who was 21; and then another niece who was 40 and her 8 year old son. It was a hard time for my family, a lot of mourning and a lot of loss. I went on a sabbatical for nine months, studying Catholic mystics like Julian of Norwich and others. My spiritual life is very important to me. One of the big changes that happened that has nothing to do with COVID was the killing of George Floyd and others. That brought a much bigger commitment to racial justice to the fore, especially amongst leaders in the business community in my country, and has opened up a great opportunity for the work that we do on racial justice.
Is racism an endemic illness which is very hard to eradicate?
There are ways of moving forward, creating change and addressing the parts that we have control of. The investment community gives money to companies that we all use. It controls 70 trillion dollars. Less than two percent of that money goes to women and minority owned firms. Until we address this issue we’re always going to have sexism because women have no control over the funds. We’re always going to have racism because people of colour have no control over the economy. That’s really the crux of the issue.
Is prejudice always there?
Of course, so a large part of our work is on human rights education from kindergarten through law school. We train students in what their rights are, how to advance those rights, and how to do community organised things so that they know how to bring together friends, family and community to create change. Of the 15 people who planned the Holocaust, 7 had advanced degrees, MBAs and PhDs, so education is not enough, it has to be human rights education. It has to be education about the dignity of each and every person, and how you can make a difference.
Is fighting for dignity the mission of your life?
That’s the essence.
To continue to honour your father’s memory and beliefs?
It’s not so much about remembering Bobby Kennedy as embedding his values of peace, justice and compassion for those who suffer. To take his vision and apply it to the social justice issues that we face in our world today.
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