Human Rights First

We know that it is not enough to expose and protest injustice, so we create the political environment and policy solutions necessary to ensure consistent respect for human rights. Whether we are protecting refugees, combating torture, or defending persecuted minorities, we focus not on making a point, but on making a difference.

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About Human Rights First

Human Rights First (HRF), originally named Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, was formed in 1978 to encourage the U.S. government and powerful private companies to enforce the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights both at home and abroad. When they fail to do so, HRF steps in. They expose wrongdoing and injustices and fight for policy reforms that would work to right the wrongs committed against refugees, torture victims, indentured persons, and persecuted minorities.

HRF is a bipartisan organization that has worked closely with influential politicians such as John McCain and Barack Obama. In order to stay impartial, they accept no government funding and they neither support nor oppose political candidates. By staying out of the politics of politics, they are able to have a strong influence on policies and are successful in getting bills passed even in times of partisan gridlock.

Why We Chose To Feature This Organization

We couldn’t have a human rights portfolio without including Human Rights First. They tackle some of the world’s toughest problems, including dismantling human trafficking, ending torture, and creating safe and welcoming places for immigrants and refugees.

For the purpose of our portfolio and report, we will focus on their work fighting modern day slavery. Modern slavery, or human trafficking, is a major problem that many people don’t know about. As of 2017, there were an estimated 24.9 million victims of human trafficking. Modern slaves are forced to work for little or no money within laborious jobs such as construction, mining, and fishing boats. They can also be forced into domestic work and sex work.

Traffickers earn an estimated $150 billion in profits per year. When this kind of money is involved, we need all hands-on-deck fighting the problem. HRF staff are well-educated and highly trained within the fields of law and policy research. They use their skills to impact the problem via policy and legislature. 

Policy & Legislature

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How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking: Blueprint for Congress

Despite slavery being illegal in every country, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are currently over 20 million slaves in the world. To put this number into perspective, there are nearly double the number of people enslaved today than there were during the transatlantic slave trade 150 years ago.

Modern-day slavery is mostly labor related, with 68% of victims forced to work in private homes, fields, factories, and fishing boats for little to no pay. 22% of victims are in sex-related servitude in prostitution rings and brothels. The remaining 10% are state-imposed indentured servitude in labor, military, or paramilitary forces (including child soldiers).

Trafficking humans is low risk and high reward. It is estimated that traffickers earn $150 billion annually worldwide, but in 2015, there were only 6,609 trafficking-related convictions globally. HRF recommends that in order to stop human trafficking, the trade needs to become high risk and low reward. Congress can achieve this by prioritizing policies that will increase human trafficking prosecutions and lower their profits. More specifically, they recommend the following:

Trafficking Victims Protection Act Reauthorization:

  • Designate Human Trafficking Prosecutors: A designated trafficking prosecutor should be hired to proactively investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases, especially those related to labor trafficking, which are often harder to identify and prosecute, thus requiring more resources and better interagency coordination
  • Pass the Trafficking in Persons Report Integrity Act: Passage of this act would add transparency and oversight to the State Department’s annual TIP report, which ranks countries on how well they fight human trafficking.
  • Establish Human trafficking Compliance Advisors: Congress should require each federal agency to appoint or hire a Human Trafficking Compliance Advisor who would work to enforce section XVII of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 which requires U.S. government contractors to have compliance plans in place to protect vulnerable workers from trafficking (when the contract exceeds $500,000)


  • Adequately Fund the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit: The Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU) has seen a 62% increase in cases filed in FY2011-2015 when compared to FY2006-2010. Despite this increase, funding has remained flat at $5.3 million since FY2010. As such, HRF recommends that HTPU is funded at $12.181 million in order to adequately cover their increased costs and hire forty-seven additional attorneys.
  • Enforce the Ban on Goods Produced with Forced or Child Labor: The Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is the only government law enforcement agency authorized to investigate allegations of forced labor/child labor during the manufacturing process of goods that are imported into the United States.  Congress should require ICE to perform an assessment of how they use their funds to address forced child labor and clarify which efforts are the most effective.

Testimony of Elisa Massimino (President and CEO of Human Rights First)

Senate Foreign Relations Hearing on Ending Modern Slavery: Building on Success
February 15th, 2017

On February 15th, 2017, President and CEO of Human Rights First, Elisa Massimino, spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on human trafficking and ending modern slavery. In addition to outlining their “How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking: Blueprint for Congress” detailed above, Massimo explained the relationship between the refugee crisis and human trafficking and followed with policy recommendations which would help refugees enter the United States and avoid being trafficked.

At the time of Massimino’s speech, Executive Order 13769, commonly referred to as the “Muslim ban” or the “travel ban”, was in effect. This order lowered the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States to only 50,000 for the year 2017 and completely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees until further notice. Mass protests and legal challenges against the ban took place, with both Republican and Democrat leaders, U.S. diplomats, United Nations officials, and top business executives expressing their disapproval.

Refugees are a prime target for human traffickers. They are desperate and vulnerable, and lack access to economic support and social structures that help their families. The lack of security and oversight of refugee camps coupled with their chaotic nature and disorganization allows for traffickers to infiltrate and establish robust trafficking rings. Most of the victims are women and children, and a third of them are under 12 years old.

In order to successfully combat human trafficking, it is imperative that we protect the most vulnerable refugees, which currently means those from Syria. In order to do so, Massimo and Human Rights First recommend the following policy actions:

  • Rescind Executive Order 13769 and maintain funding levels for refugee resettlement programs, as well as providing access to counsel to those who have been held or detained at a port of entry.
  • Ensure that vulnerability, not religion, is the criteria by which refugees are priorities for admission.
  • Provide access to protection at our borders to refugees and those especially at risk of being trafficked.
  • Child refugees are at the most risk of being trafficked, and as such, they should never be forced to return to the place from which they fled. If they are returned they risk being recruited by military groups or being isolated from their families and communities, leaving them susceptible to human traffickers.

Refugees are victims of extremism and terrorism, not purveyors of it. The United States must return to its values and visions of inclusion, integration, and as a safe place for all in order to combat human trafficking both at home and abroad.


Human Rights First

Elisa Massimino

President and Chief Executive Officer

Experience and Education
  • Washington Director at Human Rights First
  • Juris Doctorate from the University of Michigan Law School
  • Master of Arts in Philosophy from The John Hopkins University
  • Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Trinity University

Human Rights First

Zachary Silverstein

Chief Operating Officer

Experience and Education
  • Partner and Attorney at Babbitt, Land, Silverstein & Warner LLP
  • Juris Doctorate from Northwestern University School of Law
  • Bachelor of Arts in History from Yale University

Human Rights First

Sharon E. Kelly-McBride

Vice President

Experience and Education
  • Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School
  • Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University

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