“I think the hardest and most challenging thing for an entrepreneur is to find the inner strength to keep going, the belief that the goal is possible.”
Karen Tse is a tireless crusader for the awareness and proper application of fundamental legal rights throughout the developing world. Her focus is on closing the gaps between rapidly expanding legal systems and the shockingly primitive tactics of ‘law enforcement’ officers in many countries. Karen’s efforts involve a vast amount of advocacy and education among the legal, judicial and social communities.
A Chinese-American from California, Karen finished UCLA Law School in 1990. From there, she began working in human rights and public defence and ended up in the mid-1990s supporting the re-establishment of Cambodia’s legal system in the wake of the Khmer Rouge devastation.
She worked for several years for the UN Centre for Human Rights Judicial Mentor Programme as well as the Cambodian Defender Project, gaining exposure to widespread torture and a severe lack of infrastructure and resources for legal defenders. “I would just sit on my couch and cry; I was so depressed because I couldn’t see the end. I would ask myself, why in the world am I doing this? In Cambodia the police officers know nothing about gathering evidence. Whoever they grab gets tortured until they confess. The police stick them in prison and consider the case closed. What keeps me motivated is the improvement of such seemingly inescapable circumstances.”
This experience moved Karen to enter Harvard Divinity School, exploring Taoism while becoming an ordained minister. At the same time she developed her concept of International Bridges for Justice. Subsequently Karen relocated to Geneva and wrote the mission statement in 1999. “I was completely naïve when I started IBJ, in that I had no idea how difficult this would be. I recognized an urgent need and thought I had a great idea, idealistically believing that everybody in the whole world would come and support me. I thought I would be done with setting up the organization within a year and would then move on with my life.”
Driven by the conviction that no one else was addressing the very basic problem she had identified, Karen pushed forward and in 2001 landed a key meeting with China’s national Legal Aid director. “At some point, everybody has to connect to something bigger than themselves, otherwise they will never be satisfied with their life. Joy comes from working for something bigger than yourself.” This was a turning point: Karen’s persistence led to an invitation by China’s Justice Ministry to help develop its legal defence system. IBJ partnered with legal and academic groups to organize nationwide campaigns promoting detainees’ rights. Karen continued to grow her organisation through constant dedication and ‘sweat equity’, eventually gaining support from Skoll, Ashoka and Echoing Green foundations as well as greater recognition through the publication of her 2011 TED talk. Initially IBJ concentrated its activities in Cambodia, China and Vietnam, and since then has expanded to Burundi, India, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. Karen’s goal is to train defence teams in countries across the globe so that ultimately, torture will be eradicated and due process rights will be upheld.
“Now you see what work as a social entrepreneur is sometimes all about: achieving the best you can to realize your vision with whatever resources you can get. And never give up, just keep going.”
“I think when you start a company in the business world and it isn’t working, you quit and start another money-making venture. In the social space it is completely different. I saw a specific need that had to be met and felt that if I didn’t take care of it, the need would not be addressed. And this need had to be met, because people were and still are tortured every day. Quitting was not an option.”
“I never thought about giving up. Even in the lowest, lowest moments I always strongly believed that I had to do this. Maybe not on the grand scale I had originally envisioned, maybe I would have to scale down – but I had to do it.”
“I’ve never regretted starting IBJ, and experiencing all the hard times. It is often from the same place of depth the sorrow has created that joy can arise. I’m grateful for the challenges I experienced in founding IBJ.”
IBJ is headquartered in Geneva with a presence in Burundi, Cambodia, China, India, Rwanda, Singapore and Zimbabwe. IBJ develops and implements initiatives to train defense lawyers, advocate with justice officials for fairness in criminal justice systems, and teach citizens their legal rights.
Type of Education: Master’s, Harvard University School of Divinity; J.D., University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law; Bachelor’s, Scripps College
Awards: Echoing Green Gleitsman International Activist Award (2009); American Bar Association International Human Rights Award (2008); Skoll Entrepreneur Award (2006, Peace and Human Security); Thomas J. Watson fellowship (1986, criminal law and human rights)
Foundation Affiliation: Ashoka, Skoll, Echoing Green
Pathway to Impact: Path of Concern
Impact Area/s: Security – Personal Safety; Freedom of Choice & Action
Organisation Type: Non-Profit/NGO
Facts & Figures: As of January 2013, IBJ’s “JusticeMakers program has funded projects in 25 countries and built a platform now used by more than 6,000 lawyers and human rights defenders worldwide. IBJ has advanced the legal skills of thousands of lawyers through training and has educated millions of people to demand their legal rights.” <http://www.skollfoundation.org/entrepreneur/karen-tse/>
Karen Tse’s TED Global talk on the urgent need to end investigative torture ranked #3 in the TED/Huffington Post series “Best of TED 2011: A Countdown of 18 Groundbreaking Ideas to Reshape the World in 2012. Watch Below.
New York Times editorial by Karen Tse