Katarina Tomasevski

A number of years ago I took to calling Katarina Tomasevski the “Great One,” and in reflecting upon her life and now her death I believe the nickname was an apt one. Katarina was larger than life – and this was true not only for those who worked with her and those who loved her, but even for those who only knew her by her considerable reputation. 

There is no question that Katarina was one of the leading human rights scholars in the world.  Her CV (to be found on her website www.tomasevski.net) is both an embarrassment of riches but also testimony to her passion and her doggedness in fighting for human rights. Katarina is the author of some twenty five books and an almost countless numbers of journal articles, book chapters, special reports and so on. She is the only person I know who has a CV organized according to year – one year of her accomplishments equals a career for the rest of us – and I once suggested to her that she might want to break this down even further according to month. She shook her head from side to side and seemed to be giving this idea some thought before realizing that I was simply joking.  But in retrospect, this would not have been such a bad idea at all.  She truly was that accomplished.    

In addition to all her published works, Katarina was also a spellbinding speaker. What she did, quite simply, was to hold a conversation with her audience, although she was the only person talking.  Despite her legal training, Katarina always focused on the “human” side of human rights.  She seldom, if ever, mentioned international human rights law itself, and certainly not Article X of this or that international treaty. Rather, her stories – and these were always stories – focused on people. If you ever had the opportunity to hear her speak, you would know what an incredible experience this was. 

One of Katarina’s proudest achievements was being the first U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education. I happened to be in her office the day she was named to this position and it is the only time that I ever saw even a hint of sentimentality in her. This, however, lasted for all of five seconds because Katarina immediately began to throw herself into this work as if the world depended upon it. And for her the world did depend upon it. What was most appropriate is that her work focused on children and the human rights of children. When Katarina talked about children and education she took responsibility for all children as her own. 

In this role, Katarina became a one woman bulldozer. She would battle the World Bank about user fees. She would pick fights with any countries foolish enough to try to make education anything less than available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. And I am sure that she would alienate any number of people in the process, even colleagues and co-conspirators.  What mattered to Katarina – in fact, the only thing that truly mattered to her – was protecting human rights.  And if this meant losing friends or walking away from comfortable positions, this simply did not matter.      

Friends of Katarina will know that she had a passion for turtles and her lovely Copenhagen apartment was full of small turtle figurines. Many friends and admirers relished finding a turtle in some exotic locale and sending it to her. We all knew how much this would be appreciated by her, but it was also one of the few ways that her unbound generosity could be repaid. I mention turtles not only because she had a great fondness for them but also because she was like a turtle herself. For the outside world, Katarina oftentimes wore a protective shell; a defense mechanism against some of the great disappointments in her life. But under this shell was the real Katarina.  She remains one of the kindest, most generous, most joyous and, yes, softest people I have ever met or befriended. 

Katarina loved to entertain and she had a wonderful way of bringing people together, especially those who themselves were strangers in Denmark. Her cooking was superb and the wine would be delicious and everyone would be having a riotous time – and then when the evening looked as if it might be winding down she would stand up, light another cigarette (of course) and announce to the group in her no-nonsense tone that it was now time to start working. And work we did (somehow) because, quite frankly, all of us were always a little bit afraid of Katarina, but even more in awe of her. 

I will close by saying a few things about Katarina’s teaching. For a woman of her academic accomplishments and for someone who was at the seat of power, this might seem to be a stretch. But it was in the classroom, and with her generations of students, that Katarina really did her best and most satisfying work. There is no question in my mind that she must have been a very tough teacher. But what I am certain about is the manner in which she was able to instill her passion and her perspective into her students – but also the way that they delighted and instructed her as well. 

Katarina would not have been a good poker player (not that she would ever indulge herself in any kind of silly game) because she wore all of her emotions on her face. When she laughed – and she laughed quite often - her face would break out in a thousand different pieces. But the image I have of her most often is of her beaming. And she always seemed to be beaming when she would be talking about the accomplishments of her legions of students.  But the truth is that we were all her students. We all learned from her and, hopefully, we were all infected by her commitment to make the world a much better place. 

Mark Gibney