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Fight for Human Rights Ranges the World

Paul Hoffman's activism on behalf of victims results in a key post with Amnesty International.

November 15, 2002|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

When Paul Hoffman enrolled at New York's City College in 1968, he decided to major in international relations "because everyone who grew up in the '60s was interested" in the role of the U.S. in the world because of the war in Vietnam.

That interest led to activism, and this fall -- in the culmination of more than two decades of human rights work -- the Los Angeles lawyer was elected chairman of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International. The volunteer panel of nine, with representatives from the Netherlands to New Zealand, governs the 1.2-million-member organization.

Based in London, Amnesty is perhaps best known for its Prisoner of Conscience campaigns, which seek to free -- or at least ameliorate the treatment of -- people around the world jailed for purely political reasons.

The principle is simple, Hoffman said: "People in one part of the world helping people in another part of the world. Human rights victims are not abstractions."

Among them is Abdullah A'n Na'im, now a professor at Emory Law School in Atlanta. Hoffman worked on Amnesty's 18-month campaign to free Na'im, who was imprisoned in the early 1980s for advocating legal reform in his country of Sudan. The two are now friends and teach at a human rights seminar at Oxford University each summer.

During his two decades as an Amnesty volunteer, Hoffman, 52, also has represented torture victims in Ethiopia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and farmers in Myanmar who allege that they were raped or enslaved by that nation's military while Unocal turned a blind eye. The company has denied the allegations, saying it did not aid or abet the violation of anyone's human rights.

Hoffman has also served as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, where he worked on behalf of people spied on by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Hoffman, board chairman of Amnesty's U.S. chapter in 1988-89 and 1997-99, has been something of a pied piper in bringing together people concerned with international human rights and domestic civil liberties issues.

As long ago as 1982, while teaching at Southwestern Law School, Hoffman founded and served as national coordinator of Amnesty USA's legal support network, which recruited volunteer lawyers to assist U.S. residents who had human rights problems before immigrating.

Later in the 1980s, while at the ACLU, he persuaded the organization to create an international human rights project.

In the late 1990s, Hoffman played a key role in the creation and initial funding of the Center for Justice & Accountability, a San Francisco-based Amnesty offshoot that specializes in representing victims of torture. He has traveled to nearly two dozen countries on such matters.

"One could say Paul is a Johnny Appleseed of human rights organizations," said Sandra Coliver, the center's executive director. "He is so prolific and dynamic, and he is a mobilizer."

Hoffman's complementary interests came together while he studied at New York University Law School, where he did volunteer legal work for welfare recipients in East Harlem and for an international-law professor.

He moved to Los Angeles when he graduated in 1976 because partners at Loeb and Loeb said they would give him time to do pro bono work for the ACLU while handling commercial cases for the firm.

Hoffman spent five years at Loeb before moving on to Southwestern for three years and the ACLU for a decade. He then joined a Venice-based law firm now called Schonbrun, DeSimone, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman.

Hoffman still does pro bono work while representing paying clients such as actor Robert Blake, for whom he recently filed a constitutional appeal for bail pending the actor's murder trial.

Those who have worked with Hoffman say that in addition to being a tenacious advocate, he utilizes a deft sense of humor to defuse tense situations.

In 1993, he was presiding over a large Amnesty meeting in Boston, which like many such gatherings was simultaneously translated into French, Spanish and Arabic. The organization was facing a budget shortfall, which meant projects had to be eliminated.

"It got grim pretty quick. People were a bit testy," Hoffman said. The board decided to take a break. Hoffman and a few others went to a nearby restaurant. As he slid into a booth, Hoffman noticed a multicolored wooden chicken for sale.

He bought the chicken, named it Barbara and took it back to the meeting. From that point on, whenever he decided a speaker had gone on too long, Hoffman walked toward the person, waving the chicken, drawing laughter from the crowd.

"This was a wonderful, cross-cultural way to tell someone to shut up," said William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "You did not have to understand English to know that when Paul picked up the chicken, it was time to shut up."

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