By Sharon Lee
Special for Northwest Asian Weekly
This is the first time I will not be calling my dad and sending him a card on Father’s Day. It is hard to express this sad and empty feeling from losing a parent. Luke T. Lee passed away suddenly in January at age 91 from Parkinson’s disease. He was born in 1923 in Fuzhou, China. He and my stepmother Denise had lived in Bethesda, Maryland for many years.
Even when my dad was in frail health, he always acted like he was going to live forever. For me and my siblings, we were so used to thinking about dad always being around.
So on this Father’s Day, instead of talking to him, we take this special time to remember him.
Many first-generation Chinese Americans were pioneers and had to struggle to find their way when they came to this country. My dad came as a student and was very poor. He was unconventional in many ways. Instead of pursuing a career in science, math, or business like many of his peers, he obtained a law degree, a PhD, and became an international human rights lawyer. He used his legal and academic skills to champion the rights of refugees and immigrants around the world.
My dad envisioned “a world without refugees.” I remember him flying to refugee camps and international conventions around the world to not just report on, but to seek solutions to the dire plight of families and individuals in war-torn countries.
He focused his work on the human rights of refugees, in particular where there are mass expulsions of people across national boundaries. He defined “coerced expulsion” to mean “use of coercion, direct or indirect, with the intention and effect of securing departure of people against their will from their homeland.” He stated that the “expulsion of nationals by their governments is a gross violation of human rights and international law.”
In 1977 my dad was recruited by Patsy Mink, former Assistant Secretary of State, to work for President Jimmy Carter. At the time, he became the highest-ranking Asian American in the Senior Executive Service at the State Department and worked there for 20 years. Prior to this, he was Professor of International Law at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
At an international human rights conference in 1984, my dad remarked: “Refugees have existed from time immemorial. Indeed we are all descendants of refugees, from the time Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden…there are approximately 10 million refugees today, not counting Palestinian refugees. While estimates vary, it is certain that no continent has been spared the human suffering that is the hallmark of the refugee.”
My dad developed groundbreaking work on the right to compensation of individual victims of war. He used the example of the atrocities that were committed against innocent Chinese civilians during Japan’s invasion, typified by the tragedies surrounding the “comfort women” and the “Rape of Nanking.” In 2012 he initiated and helped develop the Declaration of International Law Principles on Reparation for Victims of Armed Conflict adopted by the International Law Association.
He completed many projects that have worldwide impact. He established the Rights of the Child Project in cooperation with UNICEF and the National Commissions for the International Year of the Child (IYC) in sixty countries. He published many books and articles on consular law, population and family planning, China relations, and the international rights of women and children.
I am so proud of my dad. I never took the time to look at what he accomplished until he passed away. It has been wonderful for the family, Denise, sister Hsueh-tze, and brothers Bertrand and Erik, to come together not only in grief but to celebrate the courage of a man who fought for the rights of refugees, women and children. (end)
Luke T. Lee received his A.B. from St. John’s University, Shanghai in 1944, a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1947, a PhD. from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1954, and a J.D. from University of Michigan Law School in 1959.
Sharon Lee is founding Executive Director of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a nonprofit housing organization. www.LIHI.org.