Our Goal

Since its first grants in 1978, MacArthur has invested in advancing human rights. Within overall goals to defend freedom of expression and enhance criminal justice globally, a time-limited effort is underway to improve the quality of evidence in the administration of criminal justice in Mexico. Commitments to existing grantees in Russia will be fulfilled in accordance with the law. Consideration is underway of possible future directions in the area.


We believe that respect for human rights is fundamental to good governance and that freedom of expression helps enable the realization of all rights. The protection of human rights requires political systems that hold governments to account and systems of justice that enforce criminal accountability. Advances in digital technology can help human rights advocates achieve impact, but can also be turned against rights advocates and used to help perpetrate abuses.


MacArthur has invested in advancing human rights since its first grants in 1978. Beginning in the 1990s, in the wake of mass atrocities in places such as Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and East Timor, grantmaking focused on building an international institution, the International Criminal Court, to prosecute individuals for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The Foundation also emphasized the use of regional institutions like the European Court of Human Rights that offer redress to victims of abuses by the State where domestic systems are weak or corrupt. In addition, early grants supported select international human rights groups, based primarily in the north, that were setting standards for documenting and reporting human rights violations, conducting forensic investigations, litigating cases of abuse, and bringing advanced communications technology into the fold of rights advocacy. Programs to strengthen human rights infrastructure at the local level were conducted in Russia, Nigeria, and Mexico. Finally, there was a focus on new thinking about the obligations of the international community in the face of mass atrocities and threats to civilians in conflict situations.

In 2010, the Foundation assessed its human rights grantmaking and began the process of shifting the program’s priorities to align with the following emerging trends in human rights and international justice.

  1. Growing threats to freedom of speech and association:
    Freedom of speech and association are fundamental because they create the conditions through which other rights are exercised; they form the building blocks of transparent and accountable governance. Repressive governments know this and are responding by restricting and intimidating human rights organizations and independent media, while increasingly controlling the Internet. At the same time, speech itself can, at times, present a threat. The challenge is to develop approaches for identifying and limiting speech that could incite atrocities, while not unduly infringing upon free speech rights.
  2. New demands for accountable governance: 
    In many countries, new Freedom of Information legislation is providing human rights advocates with new tools to open government to scrutiny and reduce mismanagement and corruption. While these developments are encouraging, too often there is a gap between the adoption of such laws and their implementation.
  3. New attention to national and local justice opportunities:
    Rights have little practical meaning if they are not backed up by credible accountability mechanisms in places where violations occur. In Mexico, where regional court judgments have pressed government to improve the domestic justice system, human rights groups monitor government implementation of rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and advocate for related policy reform. Meanwhile, there is a new focus in several African countries that have ratified the Rome Statute treaty to advance domestic prosecutions related to periods of violence in which international crimes were committed. Of particular note are efforts to advance accountability for sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. Spurred by jurisprudence emerging from the Rwandan and Yugoslav tribunals and codified in the Rome Statute, victims are seeking redress in domestic courts. While this is encouraging, more needs to be done to ensure that the rhetoric against sexual violence is transformed into meaningful action, that justice is sensitive to the needs of survivors, and that appropriate protection is given to survivors and witnesses.
  4. Rapid advancement in communications technology: 
    Advanced technology is fundamentally changing the way human rights advocates monitor violations, collect and manage data, and communicate with colleagues and the public, from GPS-enabled handhelds recording testimonies, to geospatial imaging, to encrypted storage in the cloud, to Internet video of abuses. Making good use of these new tools, while managing risks to privacy and security is likely to be a key goal for the human rights movement in the years ahead. Governments are increasingly filtering and blocking Internet content and engaging in various forms of surveillance. While there can be legitimate law enforcement reasons for engaging in Internet regulation, too often it is done to repress free speech advocates, including bloggers and journalists.

Strategic Approach

MacArthur’s human rights grantmaking takes account of the trends described above while maintaining the core objectives of strengthening rights protections, advancing accountability, and improving the reach and quality of justice. We partner with people and organizations on the ground, buttressed by international organizations and institutions, to improve human rights protections. 

Grantmaking Priorities

Grantmaking is framed around two fundamental aspects of human rights: free expression and criminal justice. Our approach in each emphasizes accountability – both political and judicial – to provide mechanisms for achieving progress in these essential areas. Throughout all the grantmaking is a focus on leveraging technology and innovation to advance our objectives.

Defending Free Expression

Three thematic elements comprise this area, each addressing specific issues related to free expression, including:repression of human rights advocates, political accountability, and Internet openness and security. Taken together, they are meant to build long-term efforts to preserve and expand free speech globally. We support civil society groups engaged in domestic and internationaladvocacy and litigation that challenge repressive laws and call on governments to fulfill their human rights obligations to citizens. Grants to advance an open and secure Internet support policy research and advocacy that seek to maintain and expand freedom of speech and access to information online while exposing Internet control and surveillance activities. 

Enhancing Criminal Justice

Two mutually reinforcing thematic elements make up this area of grantmaking. The first  – domestic state accountability for mass atrocities – had a primary focus on Africa’s Great Lakes region, especially Uganda, building on the Foundation’s decade of work to advance accountability through a transitional justice approach. There will also be limited grantmaking on this issue at the continental and regional levels. The second element – criminal justice reform, is an emphasis in Mexico where grants support efforts to improve the legal framework for human rights and access to justice for ordinary people. 


We place special emphasis on assessing progress in our areas of investment, both in terms of individual grants and more broadly on the extent to which our strategic approach is contributing to systemic change. 


Updated August 2015


Portrait of Stephanie Platz

Stephanie Platz

Managing Director, Programs
Portrait of Mary R. Page

Mary R. Page

Director, Human Rights

Sharon Bissell Sotelo

Director, Mexico
Portrait of Kole A. Shettima

Kole A. Shettima

Director, Africa Office
Portrait of Oladayo (Dayo) Olaide

Oladayo (Dayo) Olaide

Deputy Director, Nigeria Office
Portrait of Yvonne Darkwa-Poku

Yvonne Darkwa-Poku

Program Officer

Liliane Loya

Deputy Director, Mexico
Portrait of Eric Sears

Eric Sears

Senior Program Officer
Portrait of Quinn Hanzel

Quinn Hanzel

Program Assistant
Portrait of Phillis D. Hollice

Phillis D. Hollice

Program Administrator
Portrait of Ken Lee

Ken Lee


Media Contact

Portrait of Meredith Klein

Meredith Klein

Senior Communications Officer

Evaluation Contact

Portrait of Joanna Cohen

Joanna Cohen

Program Officer, Evaluation