Jerome J. Shestack grew up in Atlantic City during the Depression, where he studied the Bible and the Talmud with his grandfather, a rabbi. With the teachings and charitable acts of his grandfather as a model, he resolved to do whatever he could to fight injustice. After leaving the US Navy following the end of World War II, during which he fought in major battles in the Pacific, Shestack received a law degree from Harvard. While there, he successfully launched a movement to enable women to be admitted to the school. Subsequently, while teaching at LSU in the early 1950s, he led a successful campaign to desegregate the school. As Philadelphia’s First Deputy City Solicitor in the 1950s, his advocacy resulted in the abolition of segregation in swimming pools, bowling alleys, and places of public amusement. In the early 1960s, he served as First Executive Director (pro bono) of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, establishing an office in Mississippi to defend civil rights protestors and mobilizing an army of human rights activists drawn from the ranks of the nation’s lawyers. As chair of the American Bar Association’s Section on Individual Rights, Shestack started the first ABA committees on women’s rights, legal services to the poor, Native American rights, and international human rights. He succeeded in securing ABA endorsement of the Genocide Convention and other human rights treaties.
For 20 years Shestack chaired the International League for Human Rights, the nation’s oldest human rights NGO, and led initiatives protesting human rights abuses throughout the world, including in Chile, India, Argentina, Paraguay, and Eastern Europe. He drafted a comprehensive human rights policy for President Carter and helped create a Human Rights Division in the State Department. In the late 1970s, he founded the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) and served as its first chair. As U.S. Ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Shestack was the principal architect of the UN Working Group on Disappearance to address abuses committed by Argentina, Chile, and Brazil; defended Sakharov, Mandela, and other dissidents and obtained resolutions in their favor; formed a human rights bloc at the UN Commission on Human Rights that succeeded in gathering support against human rights abusers; and served on the Working Group that drafted the Convention on Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Shestack founded and has served as chair (and later co-chair) of the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights, which coordinates ABA human rights activities. He has served as chair of the International Bar Association (IBA) Standing Committee on Human Rights and was a founder of the IBA Human Rights Action Plan and the IBA Human Rights Institute. He helped create the International Criminal Court and chaired the International League for Human Rights, which helped to rally world opinion through its missions to expose injustices and human rights on several continents. Shestack has also served on the Executive Council of the Holocaust Museum in Washington and helped marshal protests against the genocide in Sudan.
Often referred to as the “Pied Piper of Human Rights,” Shestack has served as a mentor for a generation of lawyers in the US and around the world. He has written numerous articles and op-ed pieces on human rights, the independence of the judiciary, and the obligation of lawyers to pursue justice. Throughout his legal career, Shestack spent at least one-third of his time on pro bono activities.