Mike Jendrzejczyk

Human-rights campaigner who got things done

Michael Jendrzejczyk, human-rights campaigner: born New Britain, Connecticut 1 February 1950; Advocacy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch 1990-2003; married 1971 Janet Buczkowski; died Washington, DC 1 May 2003.

For the last few years, some pundits have been saying that the human-rights movement has lost its way, that, as rights rhetoric has gained currency, the movement itself has lost impact. They should have met Mike Jendrzejczyk. He didn't stay up at night worrying about whether the movement was adrift. He just got things done.

As the chief Asia advocate for Human Rights Watch from 1990, he helped get writers, doctors, journalists and other troublemakers out of prison. Jendrzejczyk taught hundreds of Asian activists how to get the ear of policy-makers in key donor countries and made them more influential at home. He built bridges between the business community and human rights groups. He explored ways to get international financial institutions to take more of an interest in the impact their projects had on local communities. He played the press like a violin, and journalists loved him: they also kept the spotlight on human rights.

Mike Jendrzejczyk was the quintessential American activist. Born in 1950 in New Britain, Connecticut, he was the grandson of Polish immigrants and proud of his Polish heritage. During the Vietnam War he was drafted into the army, but was later discharged as a conscientious objector. He worked as a pre-school teacher, and for a time was involved in the anti-nuclear movement. In 1982 he joined Amnesty International's US office and three years later moved to the AI International Secretariat in London, where everything went wrong.

Jendrzejczyk and his wife Janet used all of their savings at the height of the Thatcher property boom to put a down-payment on a tiny flat in Walthamstow. He hated the flat, and he didn't like being part of a pecking order. About the only thing he liked about London was Kew Gardens and then, in 1987, a horrific storm blew down all his favourite trees.

He moved back to Washington to take the advocacy job with what was then called Asia Watch (now the Asia division of Human Rights Watch) and was active in encouraging the United States to demand accountability from the Chinese government for the 1989 military action in Tiananmen Square. He started his trademark pattern of making things happen. When I worked with him at Human Rights Watch, he did more in a day than most humans do in a month. He was always rushed, but always available to help people in trouble, like the wife of a detained Vietnamese or the sister of a murdered Acehnese lawyer.

He had the charm of a con man, the energy of a five-year-old, and the persistence of a used-car salesman. One of his colleagues described him as one of the most sincere wheeler-dealers she knew. He would make calculations about whom he needed to reach in the Washington, or Tokyo, or corporate power structure. It wasn't part of the calculation that he almost invariably became friends with his targets – but it increased his influence.

Asian colleagues saw the other side of Jendrzejczyk. He was the person who made the corridors of power accessible to people from Hunan and Papua and Ratanakiri. The human-rights movement is alive and well – and stronger for Mike Jendrzejczyk's having been part of it.

Sidney Jones

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