Tribute: Robert Henigson, JD ’55, Strong Supporter of Human Rights Work at HLS

(This tribute was written by Henry Steiner: founder of the Human Rights Program in 1984 and its director for 21 years; Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law Emeritus)

Robert Henigson, my cousin and lifelong close friend, died on January 28 this year. We were classmates at Harvard Law School. After our graduation in 1955, HLS continued to figure in both our lives. I spent my academic career here. In a different environment and career, Bob’s activities linked him as well to this school.

I refer to the reach of his extensive philanthropy to HLS and its Human Rights Program. Bob became a leading supporter of our work in this field. His gifts enabled HRP to open fruitful paths toward its growth, while also contributing to the breadth of the school’s faculty and curriculum.

A man in his middle ages smiles at the camera. He wears a white button-down shirt and a tie and large square glasses.
Philanthropist Bob Henigson, JD ’55, a strong supporter of the Human Rights Program.

Bob practiced law at the Los Angeles firm of Lawler, Felix, and Hall, where he became a prominent lawyer and managing partner. He came to know people organizing a number of start-up companies, some related to scientific invention (Bob held two degrees from Caltech), that piqued his interest. His long-term investments in a few of them led to enduring relationships by Bob’s serving as their adviser, director or board chairman. In his last, seriously ailing years when travel was onerous, Bob’s joining meetings by phone had to do the job. Those years also brought to an end the hyperactive outdoor life that he and his wife Phyllis had relished – skiing, running, biking, hiking.

As his career in practice wound down, Bob’s attention to public-interest issues absorbed ever greater time, to the point where philanthropy trumped other ongoing activities during the post-retirement decades. His social, cultural and political concerns retained their earlier vitality. Bob found outlets or expression for them in a variety of philanthropic ventures. Some responded to liberal commitments to domestic civil liberties as well as to his liberal internationalism embracing the human rights movement. Other ventures assisted early education for the less well off or university centers; aided cultural institutions like orchestras and theatres; and strengthened organizations protecting against the spoiling of the natural world. At the same time, Bob worked closely with community leaders to advance the welfare of the local community on Orcas Island where he and Phyllis retired.

In my view, two innovations in human rights education stemming from Bob and Phyllis’s ongoing gifts to the school top the list of what those gifts made (or will make) possible. The first in time, the endowed Henigson Human Rights Fellowships that HRP administers, are available principally to graduating J.D. and LL.M. students who have demonstrated their commitment to human rights and their interest in building that field into their careers. Those students selected for fellowships actively participate for about a year in the work of a human rights NGO designated by them within a developing country. Stipends are in the neighborhood of $27,000. Recent comments (see below, directly following this tribute) from several of the 35 Henigson Fellows over the last 13 years describe ways how their experiences bore on their later, ongoing human rights work. These experiences were gained in such countries as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Congo, Egypt, Hungary, India and Uganda.

The second innovation at HLS followed from Bob and Phyllis’s endowing just two months before his death a new professorial chair of a special character. When the chair becomes fully operational, HLS will generally invite annually for one semester a professor, judge or advocate who is from and works within a developing country and who engages with human rights issues. These visitors will offer academic courses on human rights. Bob denominated the chair as the Henry J. Steiner Visiting Professorship in Human Rights. Naturally I feel deeply thankful and honored by him.

This professorship holds multiple promises. I believe it will become widely known and sought within the human rights communities of the developing world. It should enrich the ideas explored within human rights education by bringing to us teachers of dramatically different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives on the human rights movement. These academic visits should further spread the word among relevant foreign communities and foreign students thinking of graduate work in this country about the variety and excellence of human rights education at Harvard.

Bob is survived by Phyllis and their two sons, Ted and Jeff. Thank you, Robert Henigson, for your abiding interest in HRP and HLS. How generously your gifts have nourished our human rights work!

Tributes from Henigson Fellows

“The Henigson Fellowship has been incredibly important in helping individuals like myself launch their careers in human rights. Perhaps more important, though, is that the fellowship has directly helped the victims of human rights abuses. After graduating, I was fortunate to receive a Henigson Fellowship to work in Bolivia with the victims of a series of massacres carried out by government officials. Six years later, I continue to work with the same victims. I am currently working with a team of attorneys, including several at the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, on a lawsuit against the ex-President for his role in the killings in Bolivia. Without the funding and support I received from the fellowship, I simply would not have been able to live in Bolivia, gather pertinent evidence, and get the case off the ground. I am very sorry to hear about Bob Henigson’s passing, but he will live on through all the amazing work he made possible, through the victims of human rights abuses that he helped empower, and through the generations of human rights advocates that he supported.”

Thomas Becker, JD ’08, musician and human rights attorney

“I used my Henigson fellowship to work in the West Africa office of a leading international anti-conflict organization, and I have continued to work full-time in human rights education, research, and advocacy. I am forever grateful to Bob Henigson for the tremendous gift and opportunity. It opened a door of possibility for me — I walked through and have never looked back.”

Chi Adanna Mgbako, JD ’05, Clinical Professor of Law and Director,
International Human Rights Clinic, Fordham Law School

“The Henigson Fellowship helped me move to The Hague right after law school and work closely with world experts on international criminal law and gender justice at the International Criminal Court. Thanks to the Fellowship, I built relationships with leaders at the forefront of examining and prosecuting gender crimes in the context of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. I’ve been able to apply what I learned at the ICC in my work on women’s rights and human rights in Myanmar. I’m with a brand new NGO, but because I’m able to draw upon the expertise of an entire network of experienced colleagues I worked with as a Henigson Fellow, we’re able to have a much greater impact on the ground in Myanmar than we otherwise could have imagined. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity afforded to me through the Henigson Fellowship and hope I’ll be able to continue to employ what I learned as a fellow as I work for human rights here in Asia. I would like to send my sincere condolences to the Henigson family. “

Taylor Landis, JD ’11, researcher, Fortify Rights

“The Hengison fellowship allowed me to work on critical human rights issues in Georgia with local advocates, and to launch my career as a human rights advocate. During my fellowship, my Georgian colleagues thanked me several times “for what you are doing for Georgia,” and were touched that a private donor would support their work in this manner. It meant a lot to me that I was able to return to a country that I care deeply about to do meaningful work on issues that are very important, but often overlooked, including LGBT and gender issues. I am so grateful to the Henigson family for supporting the fellowship and for giving me this special opportunity.”

– Elizabeth Summers, JD ’12, New Media Advocacy Project

“I would have been unable to start my career in human rights without the Henigson fellowship. I am among the most recent recipients of the fellowship, and I am spending this year in Bogotá with an international women’s rights organization. The fellowship has been of great benefit to my career as a humans rights lawyer, and it has allowed me to contribute to a worthwhile cause. It has been a privilege to be a Henigson fellow and form part of a group of lawyers whose careers were made possible by the generosity of the Henigson family.”

Elsa Meany, JD ’13, working as a current fellow with Women’s Link Worldwide

“I was a Henigson Fellow last year, working with the International Crisis Group in Colombia. The fellowship provided me with an invaluable experience working in a country grappling with how to deal with human rights abuses perpetrated in a prolonged armed conflict. I have now started down a career path that would not have been possible without Bob and Phyllis Henigson’s support – for this I will always be grateful.”

Anna Crowe, JD ‘12, Legal Officer, Privacy International

“The Henigson Fellowship helped me land a job with EarthRights International in Peru, providing legal support to indigenous communities in the Amazon responding to the social and environmental consequences of oil extraction. I am now in the middle of my third year. For all the good will that fills the heart of new lawyers, upon graduating from law school, we often find that the doors to working with our dream organizations are shut precisely because of lack of funds to take on new personnel. The Henigson Fellowship is exactly what is so often missing for new lawyers to get their foot in the door. As recipients of this fellowship, we know that this is an investment in us — an investment in people — as a means for pursuing human rights and social change. This level of trust and generosity is incredibly rare. I have always felt privileged and grateful for the trust shown in me, and I hope that the social change that we are all fighting for is a tribute to Bob’s memory.”

Ben Hoffman, JD ’11, Amazon Staff Attorney, EarthRights International

“Through his generosity and dedication to human rights, Bob Henigson’s legacy stretches across the world. Thanks to a Human Rights Program Henigson fellowship, I was able to step directly out of my legal education at HLS into a position working side by side with human rights defenders in Kyrgyzstan. Mr. Henigson’s commitment to social justice and equal opportunity has left an indelible impact on young human rights lawyers like me and allowed us to further these values in communities around the globe.”

– Lillian Langford, JD ’13, current fellow, working at Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan

“During my time as a Henigson fellow I worked with food sovereignty activists in Colombia, on human rights issues related to agriculture. The experience reframed how I understand social and environmental justice, and has motivated my work and research ever since.”

– Nate Ela, JD ‘07, PhD candidate in Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“The Henigson fellowship’s impact on my life and career can be summarized in two words: opportunity and insight. The opportunity was the chance to work closely with the Enxet and Sarapaná indigenous communities in Western Paraguay in litigating their cases before international human rights bodies. These cases not only advanced the communities’ collective struggle to regain legal rights to the ancestral territory where they have lived for centuries, but also now serve as emblematic precedents for other indigenous communities throughout Latin America fighting to reclaim their communal lands.

The insight was the personal knowledge of the challenges facing every human rights struggle: the long hours of work and coordination with movement leaders; the frustrations of winning legal battles yet still facing intransigent governments; and the inspiration of working side by side with civil society leaders and human rights defenders who continue to fight for justice against all odds. Thanks to the Henigson fellowship, this first year of experience provided me with insight that guided my career over the next several years, as I continued to litigate cases with marginalized communities who sought to defend their rights, environment, and traditional ways of life in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Panama, Guatemala and other countries in the hemisphere.

After five years of working on human rights and environmental litigation in Latin America, I have recently returned to pursue a PhD in political science at Columbia University. Yet the experience and insights I obtained from my work continue to guide and inform my research and career even today.”

Jacob Kopas, JD ’07, PhD candidate in Political Science at Columbia University