Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massimino joins the Carr Center for Human RIghts Policy as Senior Fellow

May 16, 2018

Elisa Massimino joins the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy as a Senior Fellow on July 1, 2018. She was President and Chief Executive Officer of Human Rights First, one of the nation’s leading human rights advocacy organizations. Established in 1978, Human Rights First’s mission is to ensure that the United States is a global leader on human rights. The organization works in the United States and abroad to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law. Massimino leads a staff of 100 with offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Houston.

Massimino joined Human Rights First as a staff attorney in 1991 to help establish the Washington office. From 1997 to 2008 she served as the organization’s Washington Director. Previously, Massimino was a litigator in private practice at the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, where she was pro bono counsel in many human rights cases. Before joining the legal profession, she taught philosophy at several colleges and universities in Michigan. 

Massimino has a distinguished record of human rights advocacy in Washington. As a national authority on human rights law and policy, she has testified before Congress dozens of times and writes frequently for mainstream publications and specialized journals. Since 2008, the influential Washington newspaper The Hill has consistently named her one of the most effective public advocates in the country.

Massimino appears regularly in major media outlets and speaks to audiences around the country. She has written for and been quoted in numerous print and online news sources, including: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and other global publications. She has been featured on ABC News, NBC Dateline, The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, MSNBC, CNN, National Public Radio, BBC, and many other news outlets.

The daughter of a nuclear submarine commander, Massimino was instrumental in the organization’s efforts to assemble a group of retired generals and admirals to speak publicly against policies authorizing the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. This coalition of military leaders has played a pivotal role in the effort to restore compliance with the Geneva Convention’s standard for treatment of prisoners.

Massimino holds a law degree from the University of Michigan where she was an editor of the Journal of Law Reform. She holds a Master of Arts in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Massimino serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where she teaches human rights advocacy, and has taught international human rights law at the University of Virginia and refugee law at the George Washington University School of Law. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the bar of the United States Supreme Court.

Original press release from Human RIghts First

Washington, D.C.—After a decade of leading the organization, Elisa Massimino has announced that she will be stepping down from her post as President and CEO on July 1, 2018.

Massimino joined the organization as a staff attorney in 1991 to help open the Washington, D.C. office and served as its Director for more than a dozen years before being named CEO in 2008. Under Massimino’s leadership, Human Rights First has become one of the most effective and respected human rights organizations in the world, expanding efforts to protect vulnerable refugees and other persecuted minorities, and forging progress in the fight against torture and on other vital national security issues.
“Leading this amazing team of advocates and making a difference on issues of such consequence to our country and the world has been a profound privilege,” Massimino said. “I’m extremely proud of all we’ve accomplished together.”
Human Rights First’s Board of Directors expressed appreciation for Massimino’s distinguished service. “We owe Elisa a great debt for her service to Human Rights First and to the cause of human rights,” said longtime chairman Bill Zabel. “She was instrumental in building unconventional partnerships to advance U.S. leadership on human rights, including banning torture and defending the rights of refugees.”
After 9/11, Massimino built a powerful coalition of retired generals and admirals to speak publicly against torture, culminating in President Obama’s 2009 executive orders closing secret prisons and banning torture. She later helped secure the declassification and public release in 2014 of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s post 9/11 torture program, and advocated successfully for the subsequent passage of anti-torture legislation. During Massimino’s tenure as CEO, Human Rights First became a leader in addressing the rise of global antisemitism and hate crime as a violation of fundamental human rights.
In the face of the worst refugee crisis since World War II, Massimino led efforts to defend the right of refugees to seek asylum through Human Rights First’s pro bono legal representation program, including expanding its operations to Houston in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2015. In 2017, this program generated more than $60 million of in-kind contributions from law firms, the largest in the organization’s forty-year history.
Massimino will join the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on July 1 as a Senior Fellow.
Human Rights First remains at the forefront of defending human rights as the foundation of global peace and security. The organization has retained Russell Reynolds to conduct a nationwide search for Massimino’s successor.