by D-L Nelson
- France -
Anyone who says one person can’t make a difference never met Karen Tse. She looks like a college student, but at 43, Tse is a lawyer, a Unitarian minister, a wife and mother. As founder and CEO of International Bridges to Justice (IBJ; www.ibj.org), she travels regularly from Europe to Asia to train public defenders and to create public awareness of legal rights.
Tse knew from her California childhood, as the daughter of Hong Kong immigrant parents, that she wanted to improve peoples’ lives.
At Scripps College, Tse turned the campus Asian Students Association from a social club into an advocacy group working against Marcos in the Philippines and other social issues.
When she graduated, she couldn’t decide between law or divinity school. Deferring her decision, she went to Southeast Asia to work with refugees. The abuse she saw shocked her. She believed the lack of a legal structure was responsible for much of the suffering. It made her choose law school.
After graduation, she joined the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. She later left to work on human rights issues in Cambodia, specializing in training legal defenders.
Tse believes all societies fail their citizens somehow. Convinced she had to do something about it, she developed a concept, which would ultimately become IBJ, an organization that provides support and training to emerging Asian legal systems.
In 1997, she enrolled at Harvard Divinity School, but kept working on IBJ. She selected a board of directors made up of lawyers, business leaders and professors who shared her vision.
Tse wanted to transform theory to reality by refining existing systems, and chose China as her springboard. China wanted membership in the World Trade Organization and to host the 2008 Olympics. Foreign investment was important, and investors need stable legal systems. Tse decided to offer IBJ’s program to the highest person she could find in the Chinese government.
She requested an appointment with Deputy Director of Legal Aid, Gong Xiao Bing. He agreed, but at the last minute tried to cancel. “No,” she told his office.
With a $5,000 donation from her high school best friend and a borrowed professional blue suit to replace her jeans, Tse boarded the plane. Then she panicked, fearing that Gong wouldn’t see her; he wouldn’t speak Cantonese, he would think the program too small or too big.
Her fears proved groundless. Gong welcomed her into his unadorned office in Cantonese. The allotted 15 minutes turned into dinner. Tse emerged with instructions to write a memorandum of understanding. She’d won. Tse doesn’t remember what she ate.
Dreams are one thing—now the time had come to take concrete, detailed steps.
Tse returned to the US, graduated, and married Alex Wong. They moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he took a post with the World Economic Forum. She gave birth to the first of two sons.Tse opened IBJ offices in a neighborhood that is a hodge-podge of commerce and cultures. The workers and volunteers at IBJ speak a hodge-podge of languages: Chinese, French and English. A blue poster dominates one wall, saying in Chinese “Know Your Rights.”
Although there’s an informality to the office itself, there’s nothing informal about the intensity of the work. Lawyers, clerical support and interns are constantly on the phone arranging travel, work permits, writing materials and training sessions.
Tse has a phone permanently glued to her ear. “It’s working,” she said between phone calls.
She believes the success that they have had so far is only because she has had official consent from the highest governmental levels.
If Tse thinks of herself and IBJ as a catalyst, she also recognizes that catalysts need agents to act with. In this case it was the formation of viable local partnerships equally dedicated to reform. Gong introduced her to Zheng Zhew, Research Director of NLAC, which would become a major partner, as did the Chinese Ministry of Justice. Additional support has been provided by Beijing University and China University for Political Science and Law. Tse never stops giving credit to all those who participate.
IBJ, along with local partners, tackled the three pillars that Tse considers mandatory for a strong legal system: training defense lawyers; developing an infrastructure for criminal defenders and legal aid services; and expanding public awareness of basic legal rights.
IBJ needed to provide and coordinate services simultaneously, including: legal needs assessments, resource materials, creating and giving training sessions, a legal rights awareness campaign and opening resource centers.
IBJ’s first three training sessions were held in 2002-2003 in Hefei, Beijing, and Nanchang. They taught lawyer and defendant rights under Chinese Law, how to interview detainees, how to conduct investigations, prepare cases and develop basic trial skills.
One exercise in each session asks the participants to visualize what the situation will be in ten years. Tse is emotional when she recounts how one person said that they would be in a developing country training another budding legal system. “Can you imagine?” she asked. “They saw themselves replicating their successes elsewhere in the world.”
China alone should have kept IBJ busy, but there was more to come. While working on the Chinese project, in February 2001, Tse received an invitation from Legal Aid of Cambodia. They invited IBJ to become a partner.
When Tse took time for a social evening with her husband, people asked Wong where they were going on holiday. “My wife can’t get away,” he said.
“I thought she was the boss.”
Bosses might be able to get away for vacations, but catalysts are much too busy helping people improve their societies.