Leah Levin, international human rights advocate, dies at 98 (2024)

Leah Levin, a British activist who wrote a seminal U.N. book on human rights and who led a watchdog group that helped free the “Birmingham Six,” whose convictions for deadly bombings were overturned 16 years later after probes into police abuses, died May 25 in London. She was 98.

The cause was a heart attack while she was recovering from hip surgery at a rehabilitation facility, said her son Jeremy Levin.

In many ways, Ms. Levin’s lifelong dedication to rights advocacy was built upon her personal journey, beginning with her family fleeing their native Lithuania for South Africa in the late 1920s amid rising antisemitism. Then, in the 1960s, Ms. Levin and her children left Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when her husband, Archie Levin, feared arrest by White-rule authorities seeking to silence his political activism.


“That was the beginning of what I call the me of now,” Ms. Levin once said of the family’s move to Britain.

In London, Ms. Levin volunteered as a secretary at the United Nations Association, a group with chapters around the world to promote collaboration with U.N. agencies.

She found herself working alongside rising leaders in Britain’s human rights community such as Martin Ennals, who led Amnesty International from 1968 to 1980 in a tenure that included the group receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977.

After the death of her husband that same year, Ms. Levin immersed herself even deeper in human rights causes. Among her jobs was writing what became one of the most widely distributed U.N. books, “Human Rights: Questions and Answers,” first published in 1981 by the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO.


The book, now translated into 36 languages, is a history lesson and users’ manual for rights groups and activists. She led readers through the development of modern international rights standards from the Magna Carta to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She also gave a road map on what courts and jurisdictions handle various claims of rights abuses.

She wrote that millions of children, in particular girls, lacked access to health care and education, and that food insecurity affected nearly one-third of the world’s population. At the same time, she could be hopeful in tone: “A sense of collective responsibility for massive human rights violations occurring anywhere in the world is emerging,” she wrote in the updated 2012 edition.

In 1982, Ms. Levin became director of the legal reform group Justice, whose work includes supporting those alleging they were wronged by British courts and law enforcement. At the time, six men from Northern Ireland were serving life sentences in Britain after convictions in 1975 for bombings at two Birmingham pubs on Nov. 21, 1974.


The Birmingham blasts claimed 21 lives and injured more than 180 people, then the bloodiest incidents in England linked to the Irish Republican Army and its fight to end British rule of Northern Ireland.

For years, however, journalists and rights groups such as Justice were digging into claims by the convicted men that their confessions were coerced and that they endured what they described as torture. One of the Birmingham Six said police led attack dogs into his cell, snapping back the leashes just at the last second.

A series of documentary TV shows in 1985 produced by journalist Chris Mullin (who later held a seat in Parliament from 1987 to 2010) on the alleged police misconduct and other questions helped spur hearings by an appeals court. New witnesses raised doubts about the evidence presented in the Birmingham Six trials and the testimony of the forensic expert.


Yet there were many in Britain outraged by any support for the Birmingham Six — even if police misconduct was proved. The conflict in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles, had sharply escalated since the 1970s and attacks on English soil had grown more brazen, including a 1984 bombing at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during a political conference attended by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Five people were killed, and Thatcher narrowly escaped.

During the Birmingham Six appeal, Ms. Levin was portrayed as a master mediator among the defense teams, legal aid groups and others involved in the investigations and court filings. British media described her abilities to calm clashing egos and work across ideological and political lines. “Quietly charismatic,” said a story in the London newspaper the Times.

“The very conservative sector of the legal profession probably regard us as very radical, and the radical sector no doubt regard us as establishment,” she said. “We are neither, and so we are able to prick people’s consciences.”


In March 1991, the Birmingham Six walked out of London’s Old Bailey courthouse after the convictions were thrown out. They raised their hands in triumph. (The case remains unsolved.)

“It has been a watershed year for the whole of the criminal justice system. We have campaigned for many years, but 1991 has been very dramatic,” Ms. Levin told the Reuters news agency.

She left Justice the following year to co-found Redress, a London-based group lending legal support to survivors of torture to seek reparations. Ms. Levin remained on the Redress board until 2007, often referring to the plaintiffs in the group’s cases as her other “children.”

Fled Lithuania

Sarah Leah Kacev was born in Mazeikiai, Lithuania, on April 1, 1926. Her parents, who lived on a small farm, grew increasingly uneasy over anti-Jewish political rhetoric — with memories still fresh from targeted attacks in 1919 on Jewish residents in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, and other cities.


In 1927, the Kacev family immigrated to South Africa and eventually settled in Piketberg in a mostly Afrikaans-speaking area north of Cape Town. Her father raised cattle and mules; her mother took on sewing jobs and other work from home to raise money for their children’s education. (The spelling of the family name changed to Katzeff.)

She graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1945 with a degree in social sciences. When World War II ended, she learned that nearly all of her relatives had been killed by pro-German collaborators before the Nazi advance into Lithuania in 1941.

In 1947, she married Archie Levin, a former journalist at the Cape Times newspaper, and the couple started to write travel guides. They also became increasingly supportive of the anti-apartheid movement.

After a massacre of 69 unarmed Black protesters by White security forces in Sharpeville in March 1960, Ms. Levin and her husband worried the growing repression in South Africa could soon come their way. They moved to then-colonial Rhodesia with their two children, daughter Michal and son Jeremy. A third child, David, was born in the Rhodesian city of Salisbury, now known as Harare.


Ms. Levin received a degree in international relations at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1965. Her husband had resumed his political activism, including starting a newspaper, the Sunday Mirror, aimed at Black readers. (One of the newspaper’s early contributors was the future Zimbabwean president and strongman Robert Mugabe.) Archie Levin also published a newsletter that was sent to officials and diplomats around the world giving insider details on opposition in White-ruled Rhodesia.

His work again put him under intense pressure — this time from the government of Prime Minister Ian Smith. When Ms. Levin’s husband received a tip in 1965 that he would probably be arrested, he fled to London with one of their sons. Ms. Levin and the rest of the family later made their way to Britain.

Ms. Levin created the Martin Ennals Award for human rights defenders in 1993, serving on the board until 2013. Her honors included being appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire, or OBE, in 2001.

Survivors include her children; seven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Over the decades, Ms. Levin often described the struggle for human rights as a series of small victories that required patience and, above all, perseverance.

“I’m not particularly put out if things don’t happen overnight,” she once said. “I’m much more inclined toward constructive, brick-by-brick building.”

Leah Levin, international human rights advocate, dies at 98 (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Arline Emard IV

Last Updated:

Views: 5992

Rating: 4.1 / 5 (72 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Arline Emard IV

Birthday: 1996-07-10

Address: 8912 Hintz Shore, West Louie, AZ 69363-0747

Phone: +13454700762376

Job: Administration Technician

Hobby: Paintball, Horseback riding, Cycling, Running, Macrame, Playing musical instruments, Soapmaking

Introduction: My name is Arline Emard IV, I am a cheerful, gorgeous, colorful, joyous, excited, super, inquisitive person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.