David Cohen, WSD Handa Professor in Human Rights and International Justice, professor of classics and director of the Stanford Center for Human Rights and International Justice (formerly the Handa Center), has been awarded the 2021 Miriam Aaron Roland Volunteer Service Prize.

Cohen is a leading expert in human rights, international law and transitional justice, as well as one of the world’s leading social and legal historians of ancient Greece.

The Roland Prize is an annual award presented by the Haas Center for Public Service to a faculty member who involves students in integrating academic scholarship with volunteer service to society. The award was established in 2001 with a gift from Stanford alumna Miriam Aaron Roland.

Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, will present Cohen with the Roland Prize at a virtual celebration on May 12. 

In nominating him for the prize, Cohen’s colleagues and students noted the numerous ways in which he bridges scholarship and service, including through courses, hands-on support of students participating in the Human Rights Fellowship and the many research initiatives at the Center for Human Rights.

“David uses the classroom as a place not only to instill important human rights theory, but also actionable know-how,” said Jessie Brunner, Cohen’s colleague and senior program manager at the Center for Human Rights. “He truly embodies the Center’s slogan of ‘in the classroom and in the world.’”

Cohen’s work at Stanford is a continuation of the work he started at the University of California, Berkeley, where he founded the War Crimes Studies Center. When the Center moved from Berkeley to Stanford in 2013, a minor in human rights was created, boosting the field’s visibility and popularity with students.

“In a world facing ever-greater human rights, social justice and development challenges, we know that Stanford students aspire to become leaders for change,” said Penelope Van Tuyl, associate director at the Center for Human Rights. “Our aim with the Center and the minor is to help prepare them for that role by enabling students from across the campus to pursue their interests in human rights and global justice while completing their degree in other disciplines.”

Cohen has lived this work for decades. His research into war crimes tribunals began with WWII Europe in the mid-1990s, and since then he has led justice sector reform initiatives and contemporary tribunal monitoring programs in Indonesia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Cambodia. Students benefit from his mentorship as an active practitioner in the field.

By supplementing our readings with personal anecdotes in his Transitional Justice class, Professor Cohen provided important historical context for our discussions,” said Kyra Jasper, ’21. “These stories also exemplify how his career has tremendously improved the communities he has engaged with – from documenting the Khmer Rouge Tribunals in a television series to better engage the Cambodian population, to reforming aspects of Indonesia’s judicial system alongside local NGOs.”

Those who have studied under Cohen often go on to work in the field of human rights. Jasper’s experience during her time at Stanford has extended into a job opportunity after graduation this year. She has been offered a position by a partner organization, the Indonesian Institute for an Independent Judiciary, where she worked as Cohen’s research assistant.

A key contribution Cohen has made is mentoring and supporting next-generation human rights advocates. Van Tuyl commented, “The opportunities David provided me and the generous and sincere mentorship he offered helped me imagine and forge a non-traditional career path, applying my legal training and advocacy skills to interdisciplinary projects that bridge academic scholarship and practical efforts to address pressing social challenges. In 15 years of working with him, I have seen David guide and support scores of students in exactly the same way.”

Though Cohen’s busy schedule requires substantial international travel, the time he takes to encourage students has had a profound influence. 

Maya Lorey, ’18, is a former student who now works as a research and teaching assistant at the Center for Human Rights. She recalled Cohen inviting her to discuss her ideas over coffee during her junior year. 

“That conversation – and the meetings, introductions, projects and volunteer work that followed – allowed me to explore and articulate the connections between my human biology major and human rights minor in a way that propelled me into a life of public service,” she said.

Under Cohen’s leadership, the Center for Human Rights and International Justice has expanded its summer fellowship program. Students in the program are paired with human rights organizations to work in areas from climate justice to LGBT+ rights to human trafficking. 

Students bring their own ideas for projects, based on their interests and experience, and receive tailored mentorship and advising to prepare for a summer of service. Academic preparation includes studying the country and organization where they will be working, as well as basic issues of health and safety while away from home. Before COVID, Cohen traveled to Southeast Asia monthly. While students are there doing their internships, he is also there much of the time and is in daily touch with the students’ host organizations.

“The remarkable thing about these students is that when they come to me looking for opportunities, they often already have experience, whether at high school, between high school and Stanford or during their previous undergraduate experience,” said Cohen. “I’m grateful for the commitment from the university to provide support for the many talented students interested in working in human rights.”

RSVP for the Roland Prize presentation. Contact Sarah McShea for details.