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Lawyers Committee Mourns Death of Arthur C. Helton in U.N. Bombing: Helton, Built LCHR's Refugee Program

by Jill Savitt of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights mourns the death of refugee expert Arthur C. Helton, who died in the bombing at the United Nations in Baghdad on Tuesday.

Helton, a leading authority on refugee and humanitarian issues, worked at the Lawyers Committee for 12 years, from 1982 to 1994, where he led the Refugee Rights Program. Helton's most recent position was with the Council on Foreign Relations, as the Director, Peace and Conflict Studies and a Senior Fellow, Refugee Studies and Preventive Action.

"People now talk about how refugee rights are human rights," said Michael Posner, Executive Director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "Arthur was in the forefront of promoting that idea. He was one of the first people, if not the first, working at a human rights organization with an exclusive focus on refugee protection and the protection of displaced people. He was a major force in building concern for refugees first in the U.S. and then he took that concern international."

When the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights was founded in 1978, one of its programs was devoted to helping win asylum in the United States for those fleeing political and religious persecution in their home countries. Helton took that idea and created an innovative - and now much replicated - pro bono representation program for asylum seekers. His idea was to connect lawyers at the most prestigious firms in the United States with refugees seeking asylum from persecution, many of whom were indigent. The program Helton started now represents more than 1,000 asylum seekers each year, winning more than 90 percent of its cases.

Helton's first breakthrough in refugee advocacy in the U.S. was in 1982 when close to 2,000 Haitian refugees were being held in detention in Florida.

"Arthur persuaded me to promise a federal judge that if these Haitians were released, we would find volunteer lawyers across the country for all 2,000 Haitians," Posner said. "And he did it. He devised a strategy to identify local lawyers in 20 states. Working with the American Bar Association, he recruited lawyers, trained them and connected them with the Haitian refugees. As we now know, 20 years later, he also helped foster a cadre of lawyers who understand refugee issues, care about refugee rights, and fight for refugee protection."

At the same time, in the early 80s, Helton was at the center of virtually every legislative and regulatory battle involving refugees.

"He shaped U.S. national policy regarding refugees," Posner said. "Over the two decades of Arthur's work, in both Washington and Geneva, he helped countless refugees in all corners of the world."

Helton also focused internationally. He led delegations around the world to study the situation of displaced people in Central America and other refugee issues in Southeast Asia, Africa, Russia, and the Middle East. Because of this work, he was one of the leading outside advisors to the United Nations on refugee issues, and pushed the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to adopt strong refugee protection policies.

"Arthur was right in the center of figuring out how the UN should deal with refugee issues," Posner said. "When he'd go to Geneva, he met with everyone who mattered. It was in the context of this work that he met Sergio de Mello."

At the time of the bombing, Helton was scheduled to meet at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad with Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N's chief envoy to Iraq. De Mello was also killed in the bombing.

"Arthur was legendarily hard working and tenacious. He was not afraid to have an audacious idea and he was not afraid to carry it out, which he did successfully," Posner said. "I can remember many times when people - everyone it seemed - would tell Arthur he couldn't do something, and then with his singular grit and determination, he would make it happen. Refugees around the world have lost a tireless advocate, a great friend, and one of their leading and brightest lights."

The Lawyers Committee extends its sympathy to Jackie, Helton's wife, and to his family.

Other biographical information on Arthur Helton: * Wrote The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century. * Founded the Forced Migration Project at the Open Society Institute (1994-1995) * Adjunct Professor, Columbia University School of Law (2001 to 2003)

About The Author

Jill Savitt is the Director of Communications of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Since 1978, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has worked in the US and abroad to create a secure and humane world by advancing justice, human dignity and respect for the rule of law.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.