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An illustration of a woman huddling in fear.
Nineteen women who work in human rights spoke to NOTUS about behavior by powerful male leaders. TRUNCUS/Shutterstock

The Human Rights World Has a Sexual Harassment Problem

From fear of hurting their causes to being suspected as Chinese spies, women say there’s a culture of silence about misconduct in the human rights advocacy community.

Esma Gün couldn’t believe the messages as they crossed her screen.

The conversation had been friendly but professional: two human rights activists celebrating a policy victory. Now, Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, was saying he wanted to kiss her.

Gün, a Turkish-Belgian university student, was 22 at the time and relatively new to human rights advocacy. Isa, then 53 years old, didn’t stop when she pushed back, according to screenshots of the February 2021 conversation reviewed by NOTUS and an interview with Gün. “But I would really kiss you without letting you go,” Isa wrote to her in Turkish, according to an independent interpreter hired by NOTUS.

When Gün tried to change the subject, Isa persisted. “I would be so glad if you kissed me,” he told her.

Disconcerted, Gün limited their interactions. But the next month, Isa tried to convince her to meet with him.

“You’re always on my mind,” he wrote in a message he appears to have later deleted, according to screenshots taken by Gün. In another conversation, he urged her to visit. “It would be good for you if we could meet,” he said. “You could come over for a few days. We would talk about nice things, I would make you laugh, and so you could blow off some steam.”

Gün told him she felt awkward about the idea of meeting alone because her activist friends might want to join them. According to the screenshots translated by the independent interpreter, Isa responded that it would be better for her to “keep it just to yourself.”

“Why would we tell others about it?” he asked. “Do you share it with friends that we often talk like this?”

Gün now felt like she hadn’t been valued for her work, but for something else entirely. She felt disillusioned and wanted to avoid Isa, she said. She eventually quit activism.

Gün didn’t report the incidents to the World Uyghur Congress, and for years, she didn’t tell other activists.

“I didn’t want people to know their leader is someone like this,” she said. “Keeping hope is already difficult for them.”

Two other women, who are unaffiliated with Gün and asked to speak anonymously because they were worried about retaliation, claimed in separate interviews with NOTUS that Isa had also made unprofessional sexual advances with them.

Before this story was published, Isa declined to comment on those two women’s allegations and did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Gün’s claims sent to both a confirmed personal email address and the World Uyghur Congress. A spokesperson for the World Uyghur Congress did not address the claims when provided a detailed summary, but in an initial response told NOTUS “this may be an attempt to defame” the organization and its members and suggested it may take legal action. “As you can appreciate, any attack on them and us, even if untrue, will be seized upon by the Chinese regime and used against us,” the spokesperson said.

On Sunday, Isa publicly apologized in a statement on X: “I have a duty to admit serious errors of judgement, for which I apologise without reservation. While I never acted upon them, I deeply regret sending messages that caused discomfort and distress. To those who received them, and to those in the community who feel understandably let down, I am sorry.”

Isa said the World Uyghur Congress has not had a robust process to handle complaints in the past and invited people who have “felt discomfort” with his communication to meet to discuss “common solutions.”



“I didn’t want people to know their leader is someone like this,” she said. “Keeping hope is already difficult for them.”


***

Human rights groups advocate for the oppressed, staring down tyrants and authoritarian governments. They’re a fixture in Washington, D.C., and other centers of power around the globe. They hold press conferences with lawmakers and testify before committees to fight genocide, forced labor and religious persecution. Wherever human dignity is being trampled, these groups exist to push back.

But interviews with 19 women involved in human rights activism in Asia, Europe and North America revealed a culture in which powerful men can get away with unprofessional and sometimes even predatory behavior without consequence.

People in this line of work have strong incentives to stay quiet about misconduct: Human rights advocacy is a small world, and almost everyone interviewed by NOTUS for this report shared fears they would hurt their careers — and damage the causes they believe in — by talking openly about this topic. When activists do speak up, they learn their cash-strapped organizations often don’t have robust procedures or the training to handle ethics investigations. People who allege misconduct can also face a very different kind of accusation from their colleagues: that they may be spies or influence agents for the Chinese government attempting to destroy a righteous cause.

In interviews, women described being assaulted, groped and propositioned for sex as they tried to do their work. Some said male co-workers and supervisors had acted aggressively while drunk, made degrading comments, talked about their sex lives, tried to invite themselves to hotel rooms and requested nude pictures. Almost all of those women said they weren’t sure where to go to report misconduct in their organizations, while others said they didn’t report it because they didn’t believe nonprofit leaders would actually address it if they did bring concerns forward.

Other behavior seemed comparatively innocuous, but women said it felt intended to catch them off guard and made them uncomfortable, such as men higher up in an organization frequently asking them out to drinks after work or texting them in the middle of the night and blaming the odd hours on travel.

Fed up with those dynamics, some activists at human rights organizations around the world have forced a reckoning over sexual harassment and abuse within their ranks. Since the summer of 2022, those conversations have made advocacy events tense, captured the Chinese government’s attention and ricocheted around Capitol Hill, where staffers have debated whether to host certain leaders despite allegations implicating them.

Some of the accusers have faced vitriol for talking about their experiences. They’ve also found out just how unprepared some nonprofits are to address sexual misconduct.

***

The public got an early glimpse of this reckoning with a tweet. In July 2022, a pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong grew frustrated after hearing from women about harassment they’d faced while trying to do their jobs. She posted online to complain about “one very high profile award-winning activist (former athlete)” she said had been “preying upon young women” at human rights conferences. She claimed this man texted event attendees asking them to cuddle and have sex.

The woman declined to name the man when asked by NOTUS. But three sources familiar with the situation said her post triggered an investigation into Enes Kanter Freedom — a former NBA player and Turkish-American human rights activist — by the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, which organizes the Oslo Freedom Forum.

In a statement, Freedom denied any association with the tweet and said he hadn’t done anything wrong. “When you fight against dictatorships, they are gonna do whatever they can to ruin your reputation,” he told NOTUS.

Human Rights Foundation founder and CEO Thor Halvorssen told NOTUS the organization is “categorically committed to the safety and wellbeing of our guests, attendees, and any member of our community,” but did not address specific cases.

“We have zero tolerance for any person who may engage in sexual misconduct or other violations to our code of conduct during our events,” he said, adding that HRF takes complaints seriously and always investigates “in a manner that is both fair and respectful of the confidentiality of the parties.”

As Human Rights Foundation staff asked women about their experiences, according to people familiar with the conversations, they wanted to know about Nury Turkel — who chaired the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and is one of the most famous Uyghur advocates.

Nury Turkel
Nury Turkel was appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2020. Carolyn Kaster/AP

At least one woman raised concerns to the Human Rights Foundation about Turkel’s behavior at a 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum gathering that year, and at least one other woman complained in 2022, according to people with knowledge of the conversations. (The Human Rights Foundation did not comment on the matter when asked by NOTUS.)

Julie Millsap, a contractor with the Uyghur Human Rights Project, or UHRP, learned of complaints about Turkel, who leads the organization’s board of directors, during an August 2022 meeting with a different group about an upcoming event. One participant on the call argued Turkel shouldn’t be invited to the event because of concerns within the Human Rights Foundation about his treatment of women, according to Millsap and messages viewed by NOTUS. It was the first time Millsap had heard anything of the sort.

Millsap has her own history with Turkel: She told NOTUS she had a consensual sexual relationship with him beginning around May 2021, before she worked at UHRP. It went sour after she started working there and ultimately ended in September 2022, she said.

An attorney for Turkel declined to comment when given a detailed summary of these allegations and a week to respond “due to potential litigation that he is considering.” The attorney did not address the substance of the claims but said Millsap “is not credible” and “has harassed” Turkel and his family.

Millsap said she confronted Turkel about his standing with the Human Rights Foundation after she heard about it on that call in August 2022, but she said he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. She let it go. Nearly a year later, in the summer of 2023, Millsap heard new claims about his conduct from people she trusted. She worried UHRP’s reputation was at risk and wanted the nonprofit to know.

Since then, she has faced pushback and sometimes hostility while seeking accountability, according to interviews with her and more than a dozen other people familiar with the situation, as well as emails, audio from internal meetings and other documents obtained by NOTUS.

Millsap had a three-hour conversation about her concerns — only what she’d heard from others, not her personal experiences with Turkel — in August 2023 with Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the group. Millsap claimed in an interview with NOTUS that Greve responded at the time that Millsap probably wouldn’t want to work at UHRP anymore if she believed the situation was that bad.

“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I like my job,” she remembered telling Greve. “I’m saying we need to do something about it.”

UHRP declined to comment on specific personnel matters but denied any retaliation took place.

“UHRP does not and has not engaged in retaliation toward any person raising ethics concerns, and strongly disputes any assertions or statements implying such retaliation,” a spokesperson said.

***

While some nonprofits have firm policies and experienced staff to probe misconduct, smaller or newly established human rights groups can operate like startups, without clear rules or HR departments. Many human rights organizations also have only a few staff members, making it difficult to lodge complaints anonymously without potential retaliation.

One woman described her former workplace as the Wild West in that respect: She said when she asked her boss about an offensive comment made by a colleague, he shrugged it off and told her that’s just how that colleague is. There wasn’t anywhere else to go with her concerns.

Leaders often disagree on how much evidence to expect from victims. Some want to know if whistleblowers filed a police report before they support any punitive action against affiliated activists. Others are willing to form an internal committee or hire an attorney to investigate.

American lawmakers haven’t been sure how to react to allegations of sexual harassment within the human rights world. Staff in several congressional offices involved in China policy are aware of questions surrounding Freedom and Turkel, as well as recent turmoil at UHRP, according to six people familiar with the discussions.

Staff for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China debated whether to bring Freedom to testify in a hearing last year, knowing of the 2022 tweet, three people with knowledge of the conversation told NOTUS. Aides scoured the internet to make sure there weren’t any direct claims connected with him, and staff even asked Freedom about it, one of those sources said.

The panel ultimately chose to have him appear because he hadn’t been named in the tweet, according to people familiar with the conversations. A spokesperson for the panel declined to comment on internal matters.

***

One concern comes up over and over when discussing harassment allegations against human rights advocates: Chinese disinformation.

The Chinese government has a well-organized apparatus for attacking human rights leaders, and Beijing revels in conflict between activists. It can be difficult to tell the difference between propaganda and truth.

That fear is often used against people who raise allegations.



“Even Chinese spies don’t have the power to exercise mind control in order to force men in the advocacy space to engage in sexual misconduct.”


In interviews, people in human rights work described sharing concerns about Wang Dan — a Chinese dissident who was accused by men of sexual harassment and assault last year — only to be dismissed by their colleagues, who suggested without any firsthand knowledge of the situation that the claims had come from the Chinese government. (Wang has denied the allegations.)

And as NOTUS reported this story, two human rights leaders implied Millsap is part of a Chinese disinformation campaign; why else would she be undermining their work like this? Millsap has testified publicly and reiterated in her interview with NOTUS that Chinese authorities have harassed her estranged husband’s family members, who live in China, in attempts to get her to work for them, something she said she reported to the FBI.

“All people really need to do is look at what I gave up for this cause,” she said. Millsap, an American who lived primarily in China between 2010 and early 2020, doesn’t view returning there as an option because she has publicly criticized Chinese leader Xi Jinping and advocated for Uyghurs.

“While I realize that people view spies as powerful, crafty people, even Chinese spies don’t have the power to exercise mind control in order to force men in the advocacy space to engage in sexual misconduct,” she said.

People who make claims against human rights activists are also at risk of being identified in Chinese propaganda, even if they want to remain anonymous.

In the summer of 2023, a woman told friends she had been sexually assaulted by pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, according to people familiar with the allegations. She did not go to the press with the claims, but her story rippled across the Hong Kong diaspora, human rights circles and Beijing.

Soon after, several social media accounts posted about the allegations against Law, including pictures of a woman they claimed had made them. Those accounts had zero followers, had only a couple of interests and posted nearly simultaneously.

It was a seismic claim against a leader in a movement that has already been fractured, with other members imprisoned and scattered around the globe since 2019. The story grew widespread enough that without speaking to either Law or the woman who accused him, activists at several different organizations reconsidered inviting Law to events, chose not to post pictures with him and rewrote press releases about Hong Kong to minimize his footprint on them.

Law denied the allegation, describing what happened as a romantic encounter. “I’ve never assaulted or abused, in any way, anyone,” Law said in an interview. He said he hasn’t been sure how to respond to the claims without putting the woman in the spotlight or opening himself up to China’s “politically mighty propaganda machine.”

Law said he provided evidence about his conduct to organizations he works with, although he declined to name which groups he spoke with about the claims.

Law, who helped establish the Hong Kong Democracy Council, remains on the advisory board for the U.S.-based advocacy group. But “since last summer, the Board of Directors of HKDC has suspended Nathan Law from participation in our meetings and events,” HKDC board chair Brian Leung told NOTUS in a statement. “This suspension serves as a precautionary measure until the Board determines appropriate actions to address concerns arising from the allegations against him.”

***

Law’s case wasn’t the only one HKDC had to consider last year.

In June 2023, a Taiwanese journalist accused Chinese human rights attorney Teng Biao of attempting to have sex with her and repeatedly lunging at her in a hotel room as she resisted. (In comments to the BBC, he apologized and said his behavior was not an attack but a clumsy attempt at “courtship.”)

Shortly before that accusation became public, Teng resigned from his position on HKDC’s advisory board. HKDC said in a tweet that the claims were “concerning and disturbing” and that Teng would not be invited to future HKDC events.

“We believe strongly that a movement that protects and respects all individuals is integral to the success of our fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong,” the organization wrote.

Dolkun Isa
Dolkun Isa is president of the World Uyghur Congress. Koji Sasahara/AP

HKDC also shared an email address event participants could use to flag concerns for the group’s internal committee on sexual violence and harassment. HKDC said it established the four-person committee in the spring of 2023.

HKDC’s response at the time followed the playbook women who spoke with NOTUS urged other human rights groups to adopt: commit to creating a safe environment for activists, show serious intent to investigate concerning behavior and clearly identify where misconduct claims can be shared.

At one point during the group’s July 2023 conference, participants held a discussion on how to improve the human rights community’s handling of sexual harassment and abuse situations. The group organized the conversation with the hope that it would give participants a “sense of responsibility to act and support our own community,” HKDC said in a statement.

HKDC told NOTUS it hasn’t received any formal complaints since creating its internal investigative committee.

Even though misinformation is a possibility, the organization said, “it is worth it” to have a tip line.

“We value building a strong community that can withstand challenges — whether from inside or outside the community — for the longevity of our cause,” said a spokesperson.

***

Millsap said she did not feel the same level of support from her organization.

She claimed leaders of UHRP removed some of her workload after she first spoke to them about Turkel. And on an advocacy trip to Taiwan with Turkel and UHRP staff in September 2023, she said, she was cut out of planning conversations related to meetings with Taiwanese officials she felt she should have been included in because of her role as government relations manager.

She bristled at being sidelined, pulling Turkel and other Uyghur leaders into a private conversation about it. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on behind the scenes or personal feelings,” Millsap recalled telling them during the trip. “If you’re here on an UHRP activity, I am the UHRP government relations manager, period.”

After that confrontation, Greve met with Millsap again and drafted a document outlining the organization’s expectations for her, according to a copy obtained by NOTUS. The document, which Millsap described as a “gag order” and refused to sign, prohibited her from speaking with people outside the organization about ethical concerns related to UHRP staff and board members. Such allegations, the document stated, were to be considered “confidential organizational information” under Millsap’s consulting contract.

In an October 2023 meeting with Greve and UHRP executive director Omer Kanat, Millsap said she wouldn’t sign the document because she wanted to know how UHRP would respond to claims against Turkel. Kanat cast doubt on the allegations. It’s “not very reliable information,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting.

Kanat took issue with her social media posts, too, including one around that time, which Millsap later deleted, stating leaders who prey on others shouldn’t hold positions of power. Kanat said that tweet could have applied to anyone and caused confusion.

“You are the one who are spreading this,” he told her.

Throughout the recorded conversation, Greve attempted to moderate between Millsap and Kanat. “We don’t want you to come to the conclusion that UHRP is totally uninterested or prefers not to know or doesn’t believe that our board chair could ever do anything bad,” she told Millsap.

She also reminded Millsap the organization wasn’t prepared to handle a situation like this: “It’s all very messy because people don’t have the time or training to deal with it,” she said, noting UHRP doesn’t have an HR department.

Greve and Kanat declined to comment when given quotes from the audio recording and asked about the conversation.

***

UHRP asked the law firm Isler Dare to probe the claims against Turkel. That investigation began in November 2023.

In addition to probing Turkel’s conduct at the Oslo Freedom Forum, the investigator heard from a woman who told NOTUS Turkel made a sexual advance in 2021 after what was otherwise a normal work meeting.

The investigator interviewed 13 people and concluded “there is simply no basis to support allegations that the board member engaged in sexually inappropriate conduct,” a UHRP representative said. UHRP did not share a copy of the report when asked by NOTUS.

“Some allegations raised in the course of the initial interviews were too generalized or vague to be investigated,” the representative said.

The investigation did conclude that “a UHRP board member, having become at least slightly inebriated, acted overly familiar in a public social setting, with two different female colleagues” in 2019, according to the representative.

“This situation was confirmed to have been fully remediated,” the representative continued. “There was no credible factual testimony received to support any other allegations that the Board member has acted inappropriately towards women, or has engaged in a pattern or practice of sexual harassment, inappropriate sexual touching, or sexual abuse, or that UHRP has allowed or condoned an environment that is hostile towards women.”

Turkel is still listed as UHRP’s board chair.

Millsap said she has reservations about how UHRP handled the situation, telling NOTUS human rights groups should make sure “the voices of those who may feel intimidated to speak publicly are taken into account.”

***

Whistleblowers don’t have many options if they feel they aren’t being taken seriously. One is to go to the groups that fund human rights organizations. Courtney Hamilton, a friend of Millsap’s and an anti-genocide activist, argued they have the power to change the human rights community’s culture around sexual harassment.

“Sadly, if it’s not tied to money, nothing ever gets done,” she said. “If there’s not an actual consequence, like being barred from receiving funds from a grantor organization, then nothing changes.”

According to an email reviewed by NOTUS, Millsap raised concerns about Turkel in October 2023 with the National Endowment for Democracy — a grant-making group created by Congress in 1983 and still largely funded by the U.S. government, which has provided grants for UHRP. She said their staff weren’t able to hold a call with her for months.

When she tried again in March, she said, she was told National Endowment for Democracy would take violations of funding agreements seriously, but “they were eager to tell me it wasn’t their responsibility to address most of my concerns.”

A spokesperson for the National Endowment for Democracy did not respond to multiple requests for comment on those claims. But in an earlier statement about how the organization vets the groups it funds, a spokesperson said, “NED is committed to living its values. As part of our grant proposal review process, we consider all aspects of a prospective grantee organization and its programs to ensure they align with our policies and values.”

Program managers at grant-making groups can vary hugely in their expectations for handling sexual harassment, according to people familiar with their work. Some of them want to see detailed misconduct handbooks before approving grants for nonprofits, while others are more focused on making sure the funding is used properly.

Millsap said nonprofits need to proactively establish thorough whistleblower policies, “with multiple levels of accountability and the option to go completely outside the organization if necessary to talk to someone.”

Millsap had conversations like these in mind when she spoke on a panel about women’s issues in human rights during a November 2023 conference in Lithuania. She said she made the case that women should be able to talk about sexual misconduct and sexism within the human rights community in order to find solutions.

The divide between Millsap and Uyghur leaders was stark during the same conference. Millsap met there with Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, which works closely with UHRP. Millsap asked him how he views his responsibility to protect women in human rights. Isa responded that his staff is made up of more women than men, according to a recording of the conversation.

“We don’t have a problem,” he told her.

This is all “coming from you,” Isa said when Millsap pressed him on claims against Turkel. “This is all [a] problem you brought.”


Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).