Karen Tse is one of those people you never forget seeing for the first time. The moment she looks at you the world around her blurs and her face pulls from the crowd, and she seems for that instant the only thing in your life that is truly in focus.
I met Karen in New York City on a cold and misty Saturday at the Empire Hotel. The two-story lobby of the Empire, which opened in 1923, is drenched in waves of gold curtains against dark walls, with brass chandeliers, black and white animal print pillows on the high-backed orange couches; the perfect setting for Bogart and Bergman to kiss beside the big staircase and a fitting place to discover the legal leopard of southern Asia.
Karen is an international human rights attorney and the CEO of the organization she founded, International Bridges to Justice. I first saw Karen Tse in her TED talk in which she detailed her mission to end torture as an investigative tool in 93 countries around the world. She spoke of working in the sweltering indigence of countries like Vietnam, Burundi, the slums of India and Cambodia. She spoke of children born in captivity like creatures of zoology, of women and young boys beaten for confessions; fingernails pulled, raped, burned with electric wires and cigarettes and held hostage in some cases solely because they were the only family member of the actual criminal sought for the commission of an unprovable crime. I was mesmerized.
I've worked in law enforcement for 25 years. I've seen men muster courage to face unknown risks. But what struck me when I watched Karen Tse speak was how brave she is in both the physical and the eternal sense. Her convictions are so strong that she can walk into a prison in a poor, corrupt country, look into the scarred face of a prison director who has personally beaten countless prisoners, and manage to unravel from his cynicism a sense of hope and a willingness to adopt positive change. That scenario has been repeated dozens of times by the irrepressible determination of Reverend Karen Tse. I asked her why these men work with her. She laughed and said, "I'm short. No; I'm kidding of course, but I do say hey, let's talk - walk with me." There is a self-confidence about her that's engaging. End torture in 93 countries? C'mon; who can pull that off? Karen can.
Karen earned her juris doctorate from UCLA and a masters degree from Harvard Divinity School. She is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and a stalwart believer in the human race. She speaks some Spanish and was raised speaking Cantonese. When she lived in Cambodia she learned Khmer well enough to train lawyers. Karen now lives with her family near the IBJ offices in Geneva.
Karen has earned a reputation for persuasiveness. After having breakfast with her I understand how she can sway hardened jailers. She has intense eyes yet she has an unpretentious way of leaning in to you and speaking softly, almost as if she's sharing a secret. It made me feel like her confidant.
This sense that she trusts you engenders loyalty in return, not with money or promises or political currency, but with a genuine smile and relaxed tone. She has a gift for making people feel they are part of the mission, that together they really can find hope hiding under the rubble, that even the word hopelessness has hope in it. She embodies optimism in a pocket-angel that only gets over five feet tall when she stands on her toes. She is a positive thinker, but she has often felt as though she's banging her head against the wall trying to get through to people, but Karen says, "I'll keep banging, because something will break, and it won't be my head."