Kate Mackintosh on keeping our promise to human rights victims

Madlen Popignatova 17
Article by: Sophie Poulsen
Kate Mackintosh on keeping our promise to human rights victims

“I have always been concerned with social justice. I have never seriously considered anything else.”


Kate Mackintosh, THNK Class 9 participant, recently became the Executive Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA.


Founded with a $20 million gift from the estate of Kirk Kerkorian, an Armenian-American businessman and philanthropist, The Promise Institute is named after the first Hollywood film to be made about the Armenian genocide, The Promise. The title refers to the promise to the victims and survivors of mass human rights abuses to not forget and to work to support human rights and prevent these atrocities from happening again.


While the institute has only just opened, it is already making progress. “Even before we developed our own robust research, teaching, and advocacy programs, we have launched conversations in the university around human rights,” says Kate. “We have partnered with the impact program at the business school as well as with information studies and Hollywood actors and producers — and next year we will have a poet in residence! So, I feel we are shaking things up already.”

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Are we keeping our promises to human rights victims? #humanrights #leadership #society #culture #humanrightsvictims Click To Tweet

A life of social justice

Kate attributes her lifelong involvement with social justice to her parents, who are committed socialists. She grew up thinking about justice and equality, being involved in movements like anti-apartheid, anti-racism, nuclear disarmament, and feminism, from a young age. Before joining the Promise Institute, Kate spent eight years with Médecins sans Frontières and slightly longer in a range of roles at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and its sister tribunal for Rwanda.

Her UN experience in Rwanda had a significant impact on her. She said, “Before I went to Rwanda, I was committed to social justice. I worked in a high street legal aid firm dealing with the struggles of mainly poor and marginalized people as they brushed up against the state. But, in Rwanda, I was introduced to a whole other scale of problems. I arrived one year after the genocide, and I spent one year trying to understand what had happened, how it happened, what it meant, and how it could be fixed. It was overwhelming and I suppose I never got a real answer to these questions. So, I am still asking them and trying to address them in different ways.”

At the Promise Institute, Kate and her team focus on migration, race, technology, and the environment, with an overarching theme of accountability. “These are the issues that resonate with our location here in LA and which are shaping our world,” Kate explains. “The way the genocidal violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar was driven by Facebook, for example, highlights how we need to pay attention to these contemporary facilitators of persecution, forced migration, and ethnic cleansing. All these issues are interlinked and I consider all of them urgently in need of attention to protect human rights.”

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All the world's issues are interlinked. And they are urgently in need of attention to protect human rights. #humanrights #society #technology #law Click To Tweet

Kate x THNK

When Kate joined the THNK Executive Leadership Program, she was exploring new opportunities, so she wanted to step back and deeply consider her options before making a decision.

She credits her current role to THNK: “THNK is without a doubt what led me to my current position. In this mission to set up a human rights institute in the law school at UCLA, I saw the opportunity to continue the project I had started at THNK: to bring the linear and highly structured areas of law and human rights into conversation with the more playful storytelling and innovation thinking that THNK offers to catalyze new solutions.”

We are excited to be working with Kate on a pilot program for the Promise Institute. On THNK’s collaboration with the institute, Kate says, “As we build the institute, I want to offer the students here some of the tools and insights I gained at THNK. I am excited to say that I am working on a pilot human rights challenge for an interdisciplinary group of students here next year in partnership with the THNK team! In many ways, some of my goals for the institute coincide with those of THNK, as I want to train the human rights lawyers and leaders of tomorrow.”

Kate is one of many inspiring leaders who participated in the THNK Executive Leadership Program.

To explore new opportunities for yourself or to advance your own mission, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.