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Full Biography

Roberta Cohen is a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. She is a specialist in human rights, humanitarian, and refugee issues, and a leading expert on the subject of internally displaced persons and on human rights conditions in North Korea.

Cohen co-founded and co-directed the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement for over a decade, and served as senior adviser to the representative of the United Nations secretary-general on internally displaced persons (1994-2010). She co-authored the first major study on internal displacement, Masses in Flight: The Global Crisis of Internal Displacement (Brookings Institution Press, 1998) with Francis M. Deng, the first representative of the secretary-general, and co-edited its second volume, The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced (Brookings Institution Press, 1998). The study proposed the creation of an international system for addressing the protection, assistance, and development needs of internally displaced persons. In 2005, she and Deng were co-winners of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. In 2006, a special issue of the Forced Migration Review (University of Oxford) was devoted to her work.

Cohen served as a public member of the United States Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2003, and of the United States Delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1998. She has served as a consultant to governments, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Bank, the National Academy of Sciences, and a variety of non-governmental organizations. During the Carter administration, she served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Department of State’s first human rights bureau and as senior adviser to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1985, Cohen received the United States Information Agency Superior Honor Award for reopening U.S. educational, cultural, and information programs in Ethiopia during a difficult political period. She has also served as honorary secretary of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group in the United Kingdom, and as executive director of the International League for Human Rights in New York.

Cohen has published more than 100 articles on human rights and humanitarian issues, and has written a series of op-eds in leading newspapers. In 2002, she received the Diplomatic and Consular Officers, Retired Fiftieth Anniversary Award for Exemplary Writing on Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy, specifically on "refugees and internally displaced persons." In 2005, she was awarded the Washington Academy of Sciences Award for Distinction in the Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Most recently, Cohen is author of “China’s Forced Repatriation of North Korean Refugees Incurs United Nations Censure” (International Journal of Korean Studies, 2014); “Protection of IDPs: National and International Responsibilities” (“Research Handbook on International Law and Migration,” 2014); “Human Rights in North Korea: Addressing the Challenges” (International Journal of Korean Unification Studies, 2013); Lessons Learned from the Development of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Georgetown University, 2013); “World Food Day: The Challenge of North Korea” (Brookings Northeast Asia Commentary, 2013); “From Sovereign Responsibility to R2P” (“Routledge Handbook on the Responsibility to Protect,” 2012); “Disasters and Displacement: Gaps in Protection,” with Megan Bradley (Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies, 2010); “Improving the US Response to Internal Displacement: Recommendations to the Obama Administration and the Congress,” with Dawn Calabia (Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, 2010); “Reconciling R2P with IDP Protection” (Global Responsibility to Protect, 2010); and “Mass Displacement from Conflict and One-Sided Violence: National and International Response,” with Francis Deng (SIPRI Yearbook, 2009).

Cohen is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration, adjunct associate professor at the Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in American University’s Washington College of Law, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is co-chair of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, former vice-chair of the International Human Rights Law Group (now Global Rights), and serves on the administrative council of The Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and on the Committee on Conscience at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. She is on the editorial board of Global Responsibility to Protect and the international editorial advisory board of the Journal of Refugee Studies at Oxford.

Cohen has an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern Faculty of Law, a master’s degree “with distinction” from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a bachelor’s from Barnard College (Columbia University), which awarded her its Distinguished Alumna Award in 2005.