High-profile advocate for human rights

High-profile advocate for human rights

The Rev. William F. Schulz looks back on twelve years at Amnesty International.

Kimberly French


In late May 2005, the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz was startled to find the spotlight of the national media circus suddenly trained on him. Every talk show in the country wanted the executive director of Amnesty International USA as a guest.

During a London press conference unveiling Amnesty’s 2005 annual report on 149 countries’ human rights records, secretary general Irene Khan had called the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay “the gulag of our times.” The metaphor hardly registered a blip on the screens of the European media.

But in the United States, the president, vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and chair of the joint chiefs of staff blasted the world’s oldest human-rights organization, calling it “absurd” and “anti-American.”

After his initial shock, Schulz realized the windfall he’d been dealt. The blitz lasted for three weeks, as the top U.S. leaders kept piling on the two-million-member organization. “It was news time we could never have gotten on our own,” Schulz remembers.

Calling the United States a leading practitioner of torture, he shot back that some of those government leaders might well find themselves under arrest for international human rights violations if they travel abroad, as Chile’s former president Augusto Pinochet did in 1998. He demanded that Congress and President Bush investigate and reveal who authorized the U.S. torture policy, if the president didn’t himself.

In the following weeks Amnesty netted about 15,000 new members in the United States and more than $1 million in additional donations. Today “gulag” has entered the American lexicon, recently appearing in Harper’s and the New York Times, to refer to the U.S. prison system for foreign detainees.

This year Schulz is leaving his post at Amnesty. In his twelve years there, he has brought human rights to the forefront of the national discussion and doubled the organization’s budget.

The fight for human rights has run through Schulz’s entire career, in his opposition to the death penalty and his support for women’s rights, gay rights, and racial justice. He has written two pragmatic, highly readable books showing what human rights have to do with ordinary Americans and with U.S. government and economic policies: In Our Own Best Interest: How Defending Human Rights Benefits Us All (Beacon Press, 2001) and Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights (Nation Books, 2003). A humanist and existentialist, he is also the author of Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism (Skinner House Books, 2002).

Before joining Amnesty, Schulz served the UUA for fifteen years, the last eight as president. In 1985 he championed the case of a 15-year-old youth who was expelled from the Boy Scouts because he did not conceive of God as a “Supreme Being.” Two weeks after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, he led a delegation to Romania that helped secure the rights of religious and ethnic minorities there. (Europe’s oldest Unitarian congregations are in the ethnically Hungarian region of Romania.) He also led the UUA’s opposition to U.S. military aid to El Salvador.

“Both at the UUA and at Amnesty, I tried to advance the values of my religious faith and personal experience, but with a critical spirit,” Schulz says. “I pushed the UUA to talk more in spiritual terms, with a less leaden humanism. At Amnesty, I pressed the organization fairly hard to take human-rights violations committed by terrorists as seriously as the violations by governments trying to stop terror.”

Currently on a year’s sabbatical, Schulz is serving as a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.; and an adjunct professor at the New School in New York City. He is married to the Rev. Beth Graham, the UUA’s associate vice president of stewardship and development.

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