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March 1, 2006

Professor Karen Engle, UT Law, (512) 232-7066.

Rapoport Center Receives UT Grant to Explore Life and Legacy of Diplomat George Lister

Educational Website to be Developed

Photo of George Lister and Chilean Acting Foreign Minister Edmundo Vargas
George Lister (r) is presented an award in recognition of his "efforts on behalf of human rights and democracy in Chile" by Chilean Acting Foreign Minister Edmundo Vargas.

AUSTIN, Texas ― George Lister, a career diplomat, served as the hub of much of the State Department’s human rights policy during the Cold War era. Yet he has largely escaped the attention of scholars and the public. A new educational website to be developed by the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at UT Law will tell the story of how Lister, without ever rising to a top leadership position, became a powerful advocate for giving human rights a greater priority in U.S. foreign policy decisions.

The website will largely draw upon Lister’s papers—memos, correspondence, speeches, and other collected materials—which in July were donated to the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection at UT. Funding and technical expertise for the website will be provided by a grant from UTopia , an innovative UT program that enables university departments to create online content.

Once called “Mr. Human Rights” by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Lister served at the State Department for six tumultuous decades, from the 1940s until 2002. His staunch support for human rights may have hurt his career, as he never rose to the department’s upper echelons. His accomplishments were considerable, however, and include playing a pivotal role during the 1970s in working with Representatives Don Fraser and Tom Harkin (now Senator) to spearhead the opening of the State Department’s first-ever Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Upon Lister’s death in 2004, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who had worked closely with Lister on human rights issues, told The Washington Post that “the conscience of human rights is gone."

In exploring Lister’s story, the website will narrate the history of the development of human rights policy in the United States, its institutionalization in the State Department, and its relationship to the Cold War. Besides incorporating key documents from Lister’s papers, it will include taped interviews with those who knew Lister. A model for the website will be the Tom Clark papers, a previously successful initiative of the Tarlton Law Library.

Tracy Wahl, a producer for National Public Radio and a friend of the Lister family who will assist in the development and production of content for the website, said that Lister himself would be pleased about the UTopia project. "George Lister was a man with a great passion and vision for how human rights should be honored. And he loved to teach,” she said. “I'm sure he would be thrilled to know that people everywhere will be able to learn about the legacy of his human rights work."

Photo of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and Prof. Karen Engle
Professor Karen Engle meeting with U.S. Senator Tom Harkin to discuss the Rapoport Center and the legacy of George Lister.

The Center’s programmatic focus on Lister will culminate in December 2006 with the hosting of a conference. Activists, politicians, and friends of Lister in addition to scholars, students, and community members will be invited to UT Law to examine the development of human rights policy over the course of Lister’s career.

Professor Karen Engle, director of the Center, said that the development of the website will be intertwined with the conference. A prototype version of the website will be used during the conference as a starting point for discussion. Insights from the conference will then be used to complete the website.

“The Center’s proposal to use content from the archive and the conference to build the Lister website was well-received at the funding stage,” said Douglas Barnett, the UTopia project manager who will work with the Center to coordinate the technical aspects of the website. “That’s the mission of UTopia: to bring previously out-of-reach materials and scholarly analysis to the public.”

Learning about Lister

In order to lay the groundwork for the website and conference, the Center is taking steps to explore Lister’s career. A small group of faculty members from the law school, the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the History Department, and other areas of UT have already held the first of several meetings this semester to discuss documents from the collection, which is currently being processed by the Benson library.

Additionally, the Center has been reaching out to the many people who worked closely with Lister. Last October, Engle and Professor Gerald Torres traveled to Washington, D.C., where they met with Senator Tom Harkin, staff members of former Representative Don Fraser, and various activists who knew Lister. A common theme that emerged from these meetings was that Lister had demystified the State Department for legislators and activists alike.

Documents emerging from the Lister archive attest to Lister’s wide-ranging involvement within the human rights community. In one fascinating 1985 memo, then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams describes how Lister helped initiate contact between the State Department and Solidarity leaders in Poland; served as the department’s contact with Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean dissident who later became president; built relationships with the democratic opposition to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet; worked with Congressional leaders; and acted as the human rights bureau’s “main contact” with international human rights organizations.

“When the papers first came to us they were quite disorganized,” said Christian Kelleher, archivist at the Benson Collection. “But as we began working on them we quickly realized that Lister had preserved a wonderful record of his long career. I think there is a lot here that scholars will find useful.”

Engle said that researching Lister has been both fascinating and inspiring.

“We knew that George Lister was highly-influential in the human rights arena, but we just did not realize how wide an imprint he had left,” said Engle. “We are very excited to have this chance to explore how one man managed to run with his passion, all while operating at the mid-level of the State Department bureaucracy.”

For information during the coming months on the Center’s activities regarding George Lister, please visit the Center’s website at