The Papers of George Lister: "Mr Human Rights"

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About George Lister


George Lister was the State Department's point person on human rights during the formative years of the human rights movement. A career diplomat, Lister served for more than 60 years at the State Department, building relationships with an astounding array of human rights and democratic activists around the world. Although well-known in human rights circles, Lister has largely escaped the attention of scholars and the public.

George Lister was born in Chicago in 1913, and he was raised in New York City. Although his family struggled financially, Lister worked his way through college, attending night classes for seven years at the City College of New York (CCNY). He later fondly recalled the intense political conversations he had with classmates at CCNY, at that time a hotbed of Socialist activity. Lister graduated from CCNY in 1938.

In 1941, Lister traveled to Bogotá, Colombia, where he hoped a family connection would lead to a job opportunity. A chance meeting with one of the officers at the U.S. Embassy, as well as Lister's previous experience working in a bank, led to a job in the commercial section of the embassy. A few years later, Lister took and passed the Foreign Service exam, entering the Foreign Service in 1945.

Lister spent most of the early part of his career working abroad at U.S. embassies. In addition to Colombia, Lister's assignments included Poland, the U.S.S.R., Italy, and Germany. He spoke Spanish, Italian, Russian, and French. Between 1957 and 1961, Lister served as the First Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Rome. There, Lister displayed a characteristic willingness to challenge the State Department bureaucracy. Against the wishes of his superior, he established contact with the Italian Socialist Party in the hopes of splitting their alliance with Communists. Lister was almost fired for this work, but historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. later gave him credit for taking a principled stand.

For the remainder of his career, Lister was based in Washington, D.C., though he was a frequent traveler overseas. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Lister served in the Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs; his free-ranging work centered on the promotion of democracy in Latin America. Lister's advocacy for human rights drew him to U.S. Representative Don Fraser, who in 1973 and 1974 held a series of influential Congressional hearings on U.S. human rights policy. Lister worked closely with Fraser's staff during these hearings, which eventually led to legislation that significantly reshaped the State Department's approach to human rights.

The most notable outcome of the legislation was the creation of a new human rights bureau-now known as the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The Bureau has helped make human rights an institutionalized factor in foreign policy decisions. The legislation also called for designating human rights officers in every regional State Department bureau. Lister became the State Department's first human rights officer in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.

Lister officially retired in 1982, but he worked in the human rights bureau as an unpaid policy advisor until 2003. During these latter years, Lister perhaps did some of his most productive and influential work. Lister's accomplishments include building relationships with the democratic opposition to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; serving as the department's contact with Kim Dae-jung, the South Korean dissident who later became president; helping initiate contact between the State Department and Solidarity leaders in Poland; acting as the department's main contact with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and working with Congressional leaders to give human rights a greater voice in U.S. foreign policy.

In the 1990s, Lister came under fire from some critics who felt he operated too independently. In 1993, the State Department's Inspector General Office issued a report that recommended releasing him. Prominent friends rallied to support Lister, including Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Rep. Bill Richardson (now Governor of New Mexico). In an interview with The Washington Post about the controversy, Schlesinger called Lister ''Mr. Human Rights.''

In his last decade of service, Lister continued to add perspective to the State Department's human rights efforts. ''George was as much as anyone the institutional memory of the Human Rights Bureau,'' observed Harold Koh, who served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor from 1998 to 2001. ''He had been there from the very beginning, pretty much, and he came in through some bureaucratic moves that no one really understood...but he had lived through a tremendous amount of institutional history.''

Lister's accomplishments did not go without recognition. In 1992, the Chilean government invited him to Chile to receive recognition for his role in restoring democracy in that country. In 1997, he was nominated for the Warren M. Christopher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Global Affairs. He was invited in 1998 to the presidential inauguration of Kim Dae-jung.

When Lister died in 2004, Bill Richardson told The Washington Post: ''His contributions are going to have a lasting effect, but there is no George Lister now. There are probably a lot of people who have human rights in their titles, but the conscience of human rights is gone.''

The following timeline reconstructs, to the best of our knowledge, the trajectory of Lister's tenure at the State Department.

Timeline of George Lister's Career in the State Department

1941: Lister begins work in commercial section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá

March 7, 1944: Vice Consul; Bogotá

April 19, 1944: Foreign Service Officer (unclassified); Buenaventura, Colombia

December 22, 1945: Foreign Service Officer, Vice Consul, Secretary, Diplomatic Service; Bogotá

December 29, 1945: Third Secretary, Vice Consul; Bogotá

February 25, 1946: Economics Officer; Warsaw

May 1949: Detailed Russian language area training; Foreign Service Institute

June 2, 1950: Second Secretary, Vice Consul; Moscow

August 1, 1952: Soviet area studies; Regensburg, Germany

December 14, 1953: Department of International Relations Officer

December 2, 1956: Foreign Affairs Officer

April 21, 1957: International Relations Officer; East Europe

September 8, 1957: Rome Political Officer

1958: First Officer to the U.S. Embassy in Italy

October 28, 1962: Department of Foreign Affairs Officer

November 7, 1965: International Relations Officer

1968: Special Assistant in the Bureau of Latin American Affairs

1974: Human Rights Officer for Latin America

1975: Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Latin America

1970s and 1980s: Special Assistant on the Western Hemisphere, legal office of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

1982-1993: Lister officially retired in 1982 but kept his desk at the State Department. He continued by serving as an unpaid consultant in the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs (now DRL)

1987-1994: Senior policy advisor to the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs

2001: Senior State Department policy advisor