Cambridge, MA—Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL) has named legal pioneer Karen Tse as this year’s recipient of the Gleitsman International Activist Award for her efforts on behalf of people around the world who are denied their legal rights through arbitrary arrests, torture, and denial of counsel or a fair trial. The award and the $125,000 prize that goes with it will be presented to Tse at a ceremony in Cambridge on Tuesday, September 29th.

Tse is the founder and CEO of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ), an international NGO. She established IBJ in 2000 in Geneva, Switzerland, to address the injustices she witnessed as a lawyer working abroad for the United Nations. Tse saw firsthand the unmet need that many people in prison around the world—even in countries with established judicial systems—had not only for proper legal representation but also for better knowledge of their own legal rights.


In 1994, Karen and her colleagues launched her first training program for public defenders in Cambodia, where only a handful of attorneys had survived the terror reign of the Khmer Rouge, and forever changed the legal landscape of that country. Fifteen years later, working on donations alone and harnessing the power of dedicated volunteers, International Bridges to Justice has legal training programs in 17 countries on six continents.

“Every day, as I see the impact of the work of courageous public defenders, I am more and more convinced that justice is within our reach,” said Tse. “One day we will reach that place where the letter of the law is not merely a piece of paper, but embodied throughout the world. I believe that we can get there. I believe that with every legal case and with every legal training seminar we are making a critical difference. The Gleitsman award gives courage and confidence to public defenders worldwide who are tasked with the noble goal of protecting due process rights of everyday citizens. It allows us to take action now and immediately scale up our efforts to ensure the end of torture as an investigative tool in this century.”

Casey Otis-Cote, assistant director of CPL’s Gleitsman Program in Leadership for Social Change, added: “Karen epitomizes the social change activists that Alan Gleitsman originally sought to honor. Because of her tireless efforts, hundreds have received advanced legal training, and millions more have been empowered to demand their rights, spark transformation of legal aid systems, and move closer to ending torture. We are thrilled to be able to share her story with the Harvard community and the world.”

The Gleitsman International Activist Award, given biennially, was created in 1993 by the late Alan Gleitsman to honor leadership in social activism that has improved the quality of life in countries and inspired others to do the same. Past honorees have included Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Yunus, activists such as Dr. Jaya Arunachalam founder of the Working Women’s Forum and, most recently, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning.