Spotlight on Alumnae: Karen Tse ’86 Is Building International Bridges to Justice

Karen Tse

Karen Tse ’86 has put her Scripps degree in international relations to good use. As founder and CEO of International Bridges to Justice, she has dedicated herself to protecting the human rights of citizens in developing countries for the last three decades.

Raised in Southern California by parents who emigrated from Hong Kong, Tse says she entered college as a shy person, but her Scripps education helped her both discover her passion for working on global human rights issues as well as develop confidence and leadership skills—she was a resident advisor in Eleanor Joy Toll Hall and president of the 5C Asian Students Association—that have helped her succeed. Tse recalls that her advisor, Scripps Professor of History and International Relations James Gould, was especially inspiring; he urged students to confront troubling issues, even if they felt there was very little they could do to help. Tse got involved in Amnesty International, the non-governmental organization focused on human rights, advocating for victims of torture through letter-writing campaigns. But she wanted to do more. “There wasn’t much we could do at the time beyond writing letters,” she says.

Toward the end of her senior year, Tse earned a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship that took her to Vietnamese and Laotian refugee camps, where she watched as refugees were removed from the camps for nonviolent protest, unable to provide much assistance. Upon returning to the U.S., she debated between attending law school or divinity school. While she saw the value of building a spiritual foundation for her work, she believed that a law degree would have allowed her to better help the refugees she encountered while working on her fellowship. In 1987, she deferred admission to Harvard Divinity School to enroll in law school at the University of California, Los Angeles. After earning her law degree, she worked as a public defender in San Francisco.

“Every single person deserves a lawyer,” she says. “Even if they’ve committed the crime.”

In 2000, Tse founded International Bridges to Justice to fill a need she observed in developing countries. Despite laws protecting prisoners from torture and ensuring their right to a lawyer, the lax enforcement of those laws and lack of resources still led to coerced confessions, especially for the economically disadvantaged. “There are people tortured every day, and we, as a world community, can do something about it,” she says.

International Bridges to Justice has since served as a catalyst to prompt change by providing resource centers for lawyers and assistance in defending victims of torture through its offices in Burundi, Cambodia, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. In addition to supporting lawyers, the organization partners with local governments to provide legal assistance to those who do not have access to it.

International Bridges to Justice has also established JusticeMakers, groups of legal fellows, in 38 countries around the world to help victims of legal injustice, like 28-year-old Alex, a father of five who was held in pre-trial detention for more than a year for a crime he didn’t commit. Without access to legal help or his family, he was beaten until he confessed. A lawyer who visits prisons on behalf of International Bridges to Justice met Alex and agreed to take on his case. Within weeks, Alex was freed from prison.

Today, the need for the essential work of International Bridges to Justice has been elevated to the international stage in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, officially known as Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a list of 17 aspirational global goals to meet by 2030. Goal number 16, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, includes ensuring equal access to justice and to protect fundamental freedoms—objectives at the core of Tse’s foundation.

“In the past, this was a really low priority for nations,” Tse says.

Tse has gone far beyond the letter-writing days of her early activism, and she recognizes that thanks to modern technology, today’s students with similar ambitions can accomplish more than ever. The international connections that can be created online have prompted Tse to work innovatively in building a global community aimed at ending torture worldwide.

Regarding the organization’s future plans, Tse says, “What would be amazing is if we could start student groups across the country.”