Papers of diplomat George Lister come to The University of Texas at Austin

AUSTIN, Texas—The University of Texas at Austin has received the papers of career foreign services officer George Lister.

Lister worked behind the scenes in the early 1970s to shake conventional wisdom that human rights concerns did not bear consideration in foreign policy decisions. His ideas took root, helping to spawn an influential State Department bureau dedicated to human rights.

George Lister
George Lister

When Lister died in 2004 at the age of 90, he left behind him the paper trail of a career as a government official—boxes and boxes of letters, speeches, newspaper articles, essays and other documents. In July, Lister’s papers arrived at The University of Texas at Austin as the result of a collaboration between the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice at The University of Texas School of Law and the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. 

As Lister was a specialist in Latin America, the Benson Latin American Collection—the preeminent academic library in the U.S. specializing in materials from and about Latin America—will house the papers.

Already, the Rapoport Center and the Benson Collection are considering ways to honor and explore Lister’s distinguished career. The Benson’s focus will be on cataloguing the papers and making them accessible to the public, while the Rapoport Center is considering a conference on the papers to be held in 2006, as well as other initiatives.

The first step, however, will be for the library to catalog and preserve the papers, a process that will take several months. In the meantime, Law Professor Karen Engle, director of the Rapoport Center, is anxious to discover what surprises lie in store for scholars. She notes that, in 1992, historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger told a reporter that Lister was “Mr. Human Rights” for his unparalleled influence on human rights issues.

“And yet many people outside the Beltway have never heard of him,” Engle observes. “How is that possible? How did he work so effectively behind the scenes?”

The papers themselves, it is believed, will provide a window into the evolution of human rights in U.S. foreign policy and the ability of one government employee to shape history.

Lister’s long foreign-service career, which spanned half a century, included assignments in Moscow, Warsaw, Rome, Germany and Bogota. 

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Lister’s work in the State Department’s Bureau of Latin American Affairs centered on egregious human right violations in Latin America. In 1974, at Lister’s urging, and with leadership from U.S. Representatives Don Fraser and Tom Harkin, Congress created what is now the Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy, and Labor. The bureau grew in stature during the 1980s and 1990s, making human rights considerations an institutionalized part of the policy process.

Lister officially retired in 1982, though he continued to work as an unpaid consultant until 2002.

Upon Lister’s death in 2004, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who as a Congressman worked with Lister on human rights issues, told The Washington Post that Lister“s passing would leave a noticeable void.

"His contributions are going to have a lasting effect but there is no George Lister now,” Richardson said. “There are probably a lot of people who have human rights in their titles, but the conscience of human rights is gone.”

One part of Lister’s legacy that is evident from initial glimpses at his papers is his willingness to support the study and debate of human rights in a university setting. Stacks of letters from universities thank him for speaking to students about his career and the struggle to promote human rights in Latin America and the rest of the world.

“Mr. Lister’s papers will be invaluable to various research interests,” says Benson Collection Head Librarian Ann Hartness, “including U.S. diplomatic history and Latin American history as well as human rights. The intersection of his career with the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and political turmoil in Latin America in the 1960s makes The University of Texas, which also hosts the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, an indispensable location for research on U.S.-Latin American diplomatic relations during that period.”

Upon learning that Lister’s papers would be coming to the Benson Latin American Collection and the Rapoport Center, Tom Harkin, now a U.S. Senator, suggested that the papers have the potential to become a vehicle for future human rights work.

“George devoted his life to advancing the goal of human rights,” says Harkin. “I am hopeful that his papers will inspire others at The University of Texas and around the country to follow his lead in this laudable pursuit.”

Call 512-495-4644 for access to a high-resolution image of George Lister.

For more information contact: Christian Kelleher, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, 512- 495-4581, or Karen Engle, professor, School of Law, 512-232-4857.