Fletcher Features

Tisch Exhibit Documents Career of "Crusader for Human Dignity" Ellen Lutz


From the rural provinces of Panama to the cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ellen Lutz served as a global champion of human rights, working tirelessly to prevent rights violations and promoting legal frameworks to protect the most vulnerable. Her legacy is captured in a new exhibit at Tufts University’s Tisch Library, titled “The Papers of Ellen L. Lutz: Documenting a Lawyer’s Dedication to International Human Rights.”

Lutz, who died in 2010 after battling breast cancer, joined the faculty of The Fletcher School in 1994 and served as professor of law and human rights, teaching courses in human rights as well as in mediation and international law. Lutz helped establish the Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution and served as its executive director from 2000 to 2003.

Peter Uvin, academic dean and Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies, praised Lutz as an “amazing woman” who spent “decades trying to create social change in many different ways.”

The exhibit, which runs through January 7, features original papers, photos and personal materials that cover more than three decades of Lutz’s work. The items on display are part of a much larger collection of private papers that was recently donated to Fletcher and is being processed by the Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives (DCA).

Prior to Fletcher, Lutz oversaw the Human Rights Watch California office and served as co-counsel in landmark human rights cases against the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos and General Carlos Guillermo Suarez-Mason of Argentina.

In 2004, Lutz became executive director of Cultural Survival, a Cambridge-based non-profit that works to protect the rights and heritage of indigenous communities worldwide. 

Lutz was a “crusader for human dignity,” who conducted her work with “grace, intelligence and courage,” said Eileen Babbitt, professor of international conflict management practice at Fletcher, who co-edited with Lutz the 2009 volume “Human Rights & Conflict Resolution in Context: Columbia, Sierra Leone, & Northern Ireland” (Syracuse Studies on Peace and Conflict Resolution).

Polly Laurelchild-Hertig, F98, who worked with Lutz at Cultural Survival, played an instrumental role in delivering the Lutz collection to Fletcher. About a year after Lutz’s death, Laurelchild-Hertig reached out to Miriam Seltzer, a reference librarian at Fletcher’s Edwin Ginn Library, to discuss the possibility of archiving the material. Seltzer introduced Laurelchild-Hertig to the DCA, which helps preserve and digitize Tufts resources to facilitate the research of students across the university. A short while later, and with permission from Lutz’s family, the collection was boxed up and brought to campus.

Though small, the exhibit speaks volumes about Lutz’s career, focusing mainly on her work in three countries: Uruguay, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Panama.

Lutz lived in Uruguay from 1971-72 as an exchange student, just prior to the 1973 military dictatorship that lasted for 12 years. The experience spurred Lutz to pursue a career at the intersection of human rights and law. After completing her law degree at the University of California at Berkeley in 1985, Lutz returned to Uruguay to conduct field research and investigate the trial of former military leaders. The Tisch exhibit includes copies of political newspapers she gathered while there, as well as text from a 1999 Fulbright application outlining the influence of Uruguay on Lutz’s career trajectory.

A colorful armband from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) evokes Lutz’s time in Bosnia-Herzegovina. She traveled there as an international election supervisor for the 1997 municipal elections. Along with the armband, images of a bombed-out Sarajevo and information from a land mine safety orientation illustrate the details—and the gravity—of her journey.

As head of Cultural Survival, Lutz encouraged a Panamanian nonprofit to fight construction of the Chan-75 hydroelectric dam, which would threaten the livelihood of indigenous, Ngöbe communities along the Changuinola River Valley. Lutz helped the non-profit in meetings with local government representatives and to ultimately petition the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Tisch exhibit recounts the story with images of the Ngöbe people, copies of a survey map of the region, and correspondence from Ngöbe leaders to the American engineering firm set to build the dam. 

“Ellen had a very sharp legal mind, but she also saw things through a cultural lens,” said human rights attorney, Andrew Tirrell, MALD ’11 and a current PhD student, who worked with Lutz in the Chan-75 hydroelectric dam case.  “More than anything else, she was tireless…she put every moment into making sure that injustices were being righted.”

The exhibit is just a fraction of the full archives: nearly 50 boxes of material, according to DCA staff. The collection includes drafts of publications, personal correspondence from across the world and photographs. Lutz’s old Girl Scouts cap is there, too, along with her badges.

DCA archivists have processed, digitized and catalogued some of the material to facilitate on-line research and will continue doing so in the months ahead. Students may also visit the DCA to request access to other resources from the collection that have been processed but not digitized. Library staff members hope that access to the primary resource materials will enrich the study of human rights and international law.

“Ellen deeply cared to do the right thing in every aspect of her life,” said Dean Uvin, “to be ethical, to create social change, and at the same time, to be a scholar.” 

-- Emily Simon, MALD '13 Candidate