It goes without saying that Amal Clooney, a political activist, powerhouse barrister in international law, and mother—who’s married to a very famous man—is a changemaker in her own right. To quote Tina Fey’s monologue at the 2015 Golden Globes, where Amal’s husband, George Clooney, received the AFI Life Achievement Award, she’s “worked on the Enron case, was an adviser to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person UN commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip, so tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award.” (Do you see the distinction?)
On Wednesday evening, at the 16th awards ceremony for the Cartier Women’s Initiative, a global entrepreneurship program that aims to drive change by encouraging women who leverage their businesses as a force for good, hosted by writer, comedian, and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig at the Salle Pleyel concert hall in Paris, Amal gave an inspiring speech of her own, celebrating a plethora of career achievements and those of the French luxury house’s 32 fellows, and sharing some empowering words.
She started by stressing the ongoing need to advance women’s rights to the crowd. “Whether you believe in human rights, or just prosperity, it is a good idea to try to unshackle half the population of the world,” she said. “The latest data shows that women’s economic parity would add $12 trillion to the global economy. Yet the percentage of philanthropic grants that go to women’s empowerment is in the single digits. And women’s rights in places as diverse as Afghanistan and the United States have been in retreat in recent years. My goal is equal justice for all and my philosophy is that justice must be waged. Because justice is not inevitable: it doesn’t just happen on its own. We have to fight for it; to gather our forces, forge alliances, prepare a strategy and be determined to do whatever it takes. For me, waging justice means trying to change the system—one case at a time.” She went on to list inspiring and often haunting examples of her casework.
Here, read the complete transcript in full:
Bonsoir a tous, et merci beaucoup Sandi. Merci aussi a Cyrille [Vigneron, Cartier International president and CEO] et a Cartier de m’avoir invitée à participer à ce merveilleux evénement ce soir. Good evening everyone; I am so happy to be part of this evening, that brings me back to a city I love, and where I get to celebrate one of my favorite things: fabulous women who are changing the world.
Throughout my career as a lawyer, I have sought to advance women’s rights. It seems pretty obvious that this is a worthy area of focus. Whether you believe in human rights, or just prosperity, it is a good idea to try to unshackle half the population of the world. The latest data shows that women’s economic parity would add $12 trillion to the global economy. Yet the percentage of philanthropic grants that go to women’s empowerment is in the single digits. And women’s rights in places as diverse as Afghanistan and the United States have been in retreat in recent years. My goal is equal justice for all and my philosophy is that justice must be waged. Because justice is not inevitable: it doesn’t just happen on its own. We have to fight for it; to gather our forces, forge alliances, prepare a strategy and be determined to do whatever it takes. For me, waging justice means trying to change the system—one case at a time.
I’d like to give you some examples from my work on women’s rights.
First, there are cases in which I have sought to challenge discriminatory laws and practices through the courts. In Tanzania, we found data showing that approximately 1 in 4 girls is either pregnant or married before she turns 18, and that schools in Tanzania have a policy of expelling these girls—meaning they never get to graduate from high school. So I worked alongside a local women’s group to challenge this policy in a case before the African Court of Human Rights. Following this challenge, Tanzania announced a U-turn in its policy, meaning that a quarter of the population of adolescent girls in the country now has a chance to complete their education. This is one case that had an impact on an entire community.
Across the border—in Malawi—I worked on a case involving some of the poorest and most vulnerable women in the world. I had learned that women working on tea plantations were routinely sexually abused by their male supervisors. And that the company they were picking tea for was headquartered in the U.K. So, along with colleagues, I filed a case on behalf of 36 of the women in a London court. We obtained a life-changing settlement that included not only a substantial compensation award and new safety measures for the women who had been abused, but also forward-looking initiatives like training and employment opportunities that promoted gender equality in the entire community. These cases inspired the Clooney Foundation’s Waging Justice for Women Program—to try to scale this work and change the system. We are now conducting investigations at tea plantations across Malawi to see where further litigation can help. Later this year we will open our first women-for-women legal aid clinic in Malawi so that young women lawyers can be trained and funded to provide free legal support to women and girls in their communities. Across Africa, we plan to challenge many more laws that discriminate against women when it comes to marriage, divorce, and property. And I have now joined forces with Michelle Obama and Melinda French Gates on global programs to combat child marriage and increase girls’ access to education.
Around the world, I have also represented women who have been persecuted for using their voice. In Azerbaijan, my client was a woman named Khadija, one of the top investigative reporters in the country. She uncovered corruption by the President and his family and quickly became a target—first when authorities released footage from a camera hidden in her bedroom, and later when they imprisoned her on wholly unfounded charges. I led a team of lawyers that took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, and she was set free. And I am currently working on a similar case, trying to keep another female journalist—the Nobel laureate Maria Ressa—out of jail in the Philippines. Because locking up one journalist means that 100 others will put their pen down—and women are particularly vulnerable to attack. Cases like this inspired the TrialWatch program at the Clooney Foundation—where we monitor criminal trials across the world; provide pro bono legal support to those unjustly imprisoned, and advocate to overturn unfair laws. We are now in over 40 countries—and growing.
Finally, there are the cases in which I represent women who have been victims of violence in conflict. This has been a focus of my work since my first international case—the trial of Slobodan Milošević—known as the Butcher of the Balkans. More recently I had the honor of representing women in the first trial at the International Criminal Court against a militia leader responsible for crimes against humanity in Darfur, Sudan. Many of the victims I interviewed were women who fled the violence across the border to Chad and ended up in a refugee camp, where they still live two decades later. Their children told me they have never seen the world beyond the borders of the camp. Many women told me that until I interviewed them, no one had ever asked them what happened to them. Some told me that they had never told their husbands that they had been raped—but that they would do so in open court if it helped to bring perpetrators to justice. One women even started going into labor while I was interviewing her—but she said she had not wanted to cancel the appointment because justice was her imperative. So many witnesses spoke of the importance of this long-awaited trial to their community, and their belief that justice could help stop the ongoing violence in their country. The trial is ongoing in The Hague. But I am now also working with the ICC Prosecutor to bring other perpetrators to justice, including former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. As Sudan burns, it could not be more important to move from one case to changing the system.
My last example comes from Iraq, where my work on conflict-related violence has focused on women who are victims of ISIS. ISIS was, of course, the most brutal terror group in the world, and it reserved its most brutal acts for Yazidis—a small Kurdish-speaking community that ISIS abhorred for being non-Muslim and not having a holy book. Young Yazidi girls were bought and sold at markets and online, sometimes when they were as young as 8, for as little as $20. And ISIS left a trail of evidence behind it—because they thought they would never be held to account. And they were right. Until survivors fought back. One of the survivors I represent is a mother whose daughter was killed in front of her while they were ISIS captives. I cannot say her name for security reasons. But she told me that she was held in Iraq at the house of an ISIS militant named Taha, along with her daughter Reda. Both mother and daughter were subjected to horrific abuse—and ultimately Reda died after Taha left her hanging from a window in the scorching Fallujah heat. My client, the mother, said she was haunted by the cries of “mama” she heard that day and was determined to do whatever it took to get justice. She was illiterate, and had never left the country. But she traveled to Europe, leaving everything and everyone she knew. She put herself into a witness protection program. I connected her to a small group of prosecutors in Germany, who were intent on filing charges for international crimes. And she became the key witness in the case against her abuser.
Against the odds, she took on this fight. And last year, over seven grueling days of testimony spoken through an interpreter, she told a panel of judges what Taha did. She sat across from her tormentor in open court. And at the end of the trial he was convicted of genocide and sentenced to life in prison.
I will never forget the moment the verdict was announced: the defendant fainted, and paramedics were called. They had to postpone the proceedings. While he was down, my client was clam, and resilient. It was the greatest possible reversal of power: the slave, rendered stronger than her captor, through justice. This was the first case, anywhere in the world, in which an ISIS fighter has been convicted of genocide. I have, since, represented a victim in the second such case, and many others in which we have secured convictions against ISIS militants for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Cases like these represent a triumph for the whole community determined to see justice being done. So I am now working with Yazidi survivors to trigger more trials like this. And our Foundation’s Docket program is doing the same for women who are survivors of war crimes from Ukraine to Congo to Venezuela.
Ladies and gentlemen, these are some ways in which, as a lawyer, I can advocate for the rights of women—one case at a time, but always to change the system. And in this room we have some amazing women who are impact entrepreneurs across continents and industries: they are improving food security, refugee integration, female and infant health care. They are providing emergency support to women in danger, creating online laboratories for students and tech platforms for teachers. These are all people changing systems, one project at a time. People who are not satisfied with the status quo and who are determined to scale the impact they’ve already had. Reading through their profiles; this is what stood out to me about what they had in common: their work has already touched so many, but all they can see is that it’s not enough. These women are citizens of the world who get in the arena, and fight for a better future. They are engines of change—and I am sure they will use the fellowship and community we celebrate tonight as a catalyst. I feel lucky to be in a room with them. And as a mother I am inspired: I am going to bring my daughter into rooms like this when she is a bit older than 5! So thank you, Cartier, for having me here, and congratulations to all the wonderful fellows being honored tonight. I wish you all a lovely evening—je vous souhaite à tous une tres bonne soirée! Thank you.
Claire Stern is the Deputy Editor of ELLE.com. Previously, she served as Editor at Bergdorf Goodman. Her interests include fashion, food, travel, music, Peloton, and The Hills—not necessarily in that order. She used to have a Harriet the Spy notebook and isn’t ashamed to admit it.