V. A Global Voice for Justice
By Alexander Papachristou
Executive Director, Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice
The essence of the New York City Bar Association is engagement, and throughout its history its members have engaged with the issues of the day wherever they arise across the world. This activism in global causes has found expression in 18 committees dedicated to international issues and, since 2002, in the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.
The Vance Center brings together the concerns and the practices of its eponymous former Association president and former U.S. Secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, Sr., and many other leaders and members of the Association: an active commitment to international human rights and the rule of law through pro bono collaboration of lawyers in private practice, civil society, and academia.

Cy Vance, Sr. pioneered human rights as a goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Carter Administration and continued this moral diplomacy as United Nations peacemaker in Cyprus, Macedonia, and South Africa. Within the United States, he played a central role in the founding of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Volunteers of Legal Services, and other initiatives to redress the country’s moral and social shortcomings. He advocated for all lawyers to give Saturday to pro bono work, reflecting his commitment to public service as a cornerstone of the legal profession.

On Vance, Sr.’s death in 2001, his family, friends, and former colleagues, including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, established the Vance Center at the Association, both in tribute and in determination to pursue his international engagement. Simpson Thacher, his longtime law firm, provided a foundational financial commitment, since joined by 30 other major law firms and their partners serving on the Vance Center Committee.

The founding of the Vance Center coincided with intellectual and policy developments at the Association. President Michael A. Cooper (1998-2000) convened a conference and authored an influential article in The Record of the Association, calling on lawyers to extend their pro bono practice internationally, much as the U.S. legal profession had expanded across the globe. President Evan Davis (2000-2002) traveled to South Africa to assess how U.S. lawyers could advance that country’s transition from apartheid to Nelson Mandela’s vision of a democratic, multiracial society. Joan Vermeulen, the Vance Center’s founding executive director, brought these streams together and launched broad, sustained programmatic engagement by the New York legal community on issues of international justice. The Vance Center over the years has worked closely with the Association’s Committees on International Human Rights, Inter-American Affairs, and African Affairs, and with its Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

The Vance Center’s cultivation of pro bono practice first took root in Latin America and now has spread to sub-Saharan Africa and into Europe. In 2001, lawyers in Buenos Aires invited members of the Association’s Inter-American Affairs Committee to confer with them on pro bono practice. Latin American lawyers, from studies and work in the United States, had learned of the growing importance of this practice to U.S. law firms’ recruitment, retention, and training of associates, as well as the public and client recognition that it gave. From this conference came the Vance Center’s Latin American pro bono initiatives. At a 2005 conference in New York City, lawyers from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the United States launched the drafting of the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas, a commitment of law firm and other signatories that each lawyer give at least 20 hours of pro bono service annually; more than 560 signatories today represent approximately 10,000 lawyers. By 2016, 14 organizations across South and Central America formed the Pro Bono Network of the Americas. Another major Vance Center initiative in Latin America, with chapters in 19 countries, modeled itself on the Association’s pioneering Women in the Legal Profession program, aimed at promoting gender equity among lawyers.

The Vance Center’s initial engagement in Africa responded to the scarcity of South African lawyers of color (whom apartheid had excluded) in private law firms and corporations. The South African Legal Fellows Program brought young, promising lawyers of color to work at New York City law firms and corporate legal departments for up to a year, to gain international experience and contacts. Over 50 alumni, now successful in law firms, companies, and government, collaborate in mentoring high school, university students, and new lawyers from similar backgrounds, so that they can participate in the program or comparable activities. In 2016, the Vance Center expanded the geographic scope of the program to include lawyers from Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia in the renamed African Legal Fellows Program. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2018, the program included Power Africa Legal Fellows who concentrate in energy project finance, to further the U.S. government’s goal of increasing electrification in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Vance Center underwent institutional and programmatic expansion starting in 2012. From a three-person team, the staff has grown to ten, and the Vance Center Committee includes 41 members from 31 law firms, as well as corporations and the public and nonprofit sectors. These law firms and Committee members have provided most of the tripling of funding to today’s annual budget of $1 million, along with grants from the Tinker, Ford, Open Society, and Novo Foundations and the Chubb Rule of Law Fund.

The pro bono representation program has provided a novel methodology and powerful impact: While continuing to promote pro bono practice internationally, the Vance Center has evolved into a pro bono public interest law firm serving international, national, and local human rights, environmental, and investigative journalism organizations, working alongside more than 175 law firms from most countries in the world in an innovative co-counseling model. The human rights program focuses on women’s and LGBT rights, transitional justice, and international justice and has launched initiatives on women’s incarceration and business and human rights. The environment program has supported global responses to the climate crisis, as well as environmental defenders, and worked to preserve rivers and the resources of indigenous communities. In response to the U.S. immigration crisis, the Keep Families Together initiative has provided immigrant children and families separated by detention policies with pro bono legal counsel in their home countries to coordinate with their U.S. lawyers.

The breadth and number of exciting projects and initiatives of the Vance Center exceed the parameters of this summary. As it advances global justice by engaging lawyers across borders to support civil society and an ethically active legal profession, the Vance Center continues to fulfill the vision and example of Cyrus R. Vance, Sr. and his fellow Association presidents.

1947
The International Bar Association is founded at the House of the Association.
1963
The Special Committee on the Lawyer’s Role in the Search for Peace presents case studies on the role of law in the settlement of international disputes.
1992
The International Human Rights Committee testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
2001
The Association’s report “Inter Arma Silent Leges: In Times of Armed Conflict, Should Laws Be Silent? A Report on the President’s Military Order of November 13, 2001, Regarding Detention, Treatment, and Trial of Non-Citizens in the War Against Terrorism” argues that the presidential order establishing military commissions did not guarantee habeas relief and did not provide for judicial review of executive actions.
2004
The report “Torture by Proxy: International and Domestic Law Applicable to ‘Extraordinary Renditions’” is issued by the City Bar’s International Human Rights Committee and NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice.
2013
Chen Guangcheng, Lawyer and Civil Rights Activist, receives Honorary Membership.
Chen Guangcheng receiving an award
2017-2018

The Task Force on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges (TFILJ) is launched.

TFILJ Issues Letter to Chinese Government Leadership on the Third Anniversary of the “709 Crackdown.”

1957
Dag Hammarskjold, UN Secretary-General, receives Honorary Membership.
Dag Hammarskjold headshot
1997
The Association issues a report calling for an international criminal court.
2002

The Cyrus R. Vance Center for
International Justice
is founded.

Delegations led by the Association’s Council on International Affairs visit Rwanda to help officials construct a competent and impartial justice system based on respect for the rule of law following the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

2007
City Bar President Hon. Barry Kamins addresses 700 lawyers rallying on the steps of the New York Supreme Court in support of lawyers, judges, and the rule of law in Pakistan.
2016
Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Association in the Meeting Hall.