IN the SPOTLIGHT: Human Rights Underpins All Center Work

Susan Marx headshotSusan Marx is director of the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program.

When Susan Marx walked on stage at Carnegie Hall last year, she repressed the urge to burst into song.

Marx was in the spotlight not as the opera singer she’d dreamed of being as a South African teen, but as the director of the Carter Center’s Human Rights Program, accepting an award on behalf of President and Mrs. Carter for their work advancing social and racial justice.

That work is what drew Marx to her “dream job” at the Center in May 2022, setting the strategic direction for the Human Rights Program.

  • Mining facility

    Marx visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August to check progress on the Center’s work to help encourage transparency and accountability in the mining industry.

“President Carter was the first president to make human rights a central tenet of United States foreign policy,” Marx said, “so it’s a fairly hefty responsibility to try to embody that in the programs we implement.”

It was a book that launched Marx’s 20-year career of defending human rights. While in undergrad at University of Southern California, Marx read Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s “A Human Being Died That Night: The South African Story of Forgiveness.”

  • Marx walks mining site with two men.

    Marx visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo in August to check progress on the Center’s work to help encourage transparency and accountability in the mining industry.

“It was the first book I ever read about the true history of my country,” Marx said. “We were raised by government propaganda, and I didn’t realize that I grew up in a Black African country until I was in my 20s and living in the U.S. I was so devastated — and so angry.”

Marx informed her dean she would major in African studies. There was just one problem: The major didn’t exist. So Marx created her own, focusing on human rights in Africa. She went on to take an immersion course in Zulu language and culture and earn a master’s degree.

“Then, as you do, I took my master’s in African studies and promptly moved to the Middle East and South and Central Asia,” Marx said. “I always wanted to go back to South Africa and work in the region where I came from, but I felt I needed to gain global experience.”

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Timor-Leste, she built a foundation of vital knowledge, growing the offices of nongovernmental organizations and helping implement programs focused on human rights, legal aid, women’s rights, and more.

Much of her work — including efforts to raise awareness of women’s rights and reduce violence against them — targeted the patriarchal roots of inequity.

“When 50% of the population is oppressed — denied rights to education, economic productivity, health — it impacts the entire society,” Marx said. “If you look at the statistics, countries who oppress women cannot succeed.”

After 15 years, Marx said she felt she’d developed the skills to return to South Africa as a strategic professional — not just a “do-gooder.” There, she opened the American Bar Association office and focused on women’s rights and human trafficking, leading a program that helped the African Prosecutors Association reform legal frameworks for prosecuting human traffickers.

Ultimately, she felt pulled toward a role that would allow her to apply her experience to more than one country and one initiative at a time and to continue growing, learning, and leading. In connecting with The Carter Center, she found it.

Now, with her desk facing a portrait of a smiling President Carter, she reflects daily on how she can amplify his legacy.

“Human rights are the foundation of everything that The Carter Center does,” Marx said. “This program is the moral voice reminding us why we’re doing all of this: It’s because of dignity. Everybody has the right to dignity.”

Related Resources

Carter Center Human Rights Program

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