Pozen Center Celebrates 25th Anniversary with “Human Rights at the Crossroads” Colloquium

Human rights experts explored human rights and their relationships with accountability, international borders, and individual rights in a roundtable discussion.


University of Chicago Photographic Archives

International House, shortly after its completion in 1932.

By Shinjini Chakraborty

On October 20, the Pozen Center for Human Rights celebrated its 25th anniversary with the “Human Rights at the Crossroads” colloquium. Featuring University and Pozen Center administrators and experts in the field, the colloquium explored human rights and their relationships with accountability, international borders, and individual rights.

Faculty Director of the Pozen Center Mark Bradley began the program by outlining the Center’s history. He stated that one of the Center’s initial goals upon its founding in 1998 was to “develop a program that combined an emphasis on both human rights theory and human rights practice and the thought about the entanglements of those.” Since then, the Center has offered human rights-focused courses to undergraduates and has sponsored programs like its human rights internship program, which has funded summer internships in the domain of human rights for over 500 College and graduate students.

The main content of the event was a series of roundtable discussions about the future of human rights. Roundtable members were human rights scholars and practitioners who would, through their discussions, “help us think about what the project of human rights looks like today and where it may be going in the future,” Bradley said.

First, the discussants explored the relationship between human rights and accountability. “The United States has been over-reliant on coercive scripts of accountability both in terms of military coercion and in terms of the use of economic sanctions which have had very deleterious and adverse human rights consequences,” said Aslı Bâli, a professor at Yale Law School.

Instead, she suggested that the U.S. approach international conflict with “greater forms of engagement and diplomatic practice.” Bâli added that the United States could benefit from collaborating with other nations to find solutions to conflict and that it should work more closely with organizations like the United Nations (UN) that specialize in human rights.

Simon Fraser University assistant professor Darren Byler considered how activists and citizens have sought to hold their governments accountable for human rights violations, particularly in the Xinjiang region of northwest China, home to the persecuted Muslim Uyghur minority.

“There’s a lot of pressure, sectarian pressure, in the UN, especially when it comes to human rights discourse,” he said. “The way that pressure has been built at the UN in relation to the Uyghurs has been through activists, through Uyghurs who were dispossessed, who were detained, in some cases, and really speaking with a lot of courage to the UN Human Rights team about what they had experienced themselves, knowing that it could impact their families back in China.”

Moderator Jessica Darrow segued into a discussion of human rights at and across borders, which University of Toronto professor Kamari Clarke approached from the angle of human rights and technology. Clarke noted some ways that technology can be used to inform people about activities that could threaten their safety.

“Sometimes drone technologies can serve a role in locating the missing and the abducted. Sometimes it’s cellular uploads on platforms where people send alerts, and those alerts are meant to instruct people that there has been an attack, there has been an abduction, there has been a burning,” Clarke said.

Associate professor Suketu Mehta from New York University discussed the “global war” on migration, climate change, and human rights discourse via narrative and rhetoric. Mehta considered populists to be people who are talented at creating their version of the truth, citing leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Narendra Modi. He then detailed how to fight back against figures like this.

“Whether it is about human rights—the right of a human being to live in peace unmolested by the state—or migration, the right of a human body to move through the Earth, which we have taken for granted throughout our history as a species, we do it by […] telling a true story better,” Mehta said.

A third group of speakers considered how human rights might be scrutinized. Howard Chiang, an associate professor at the University of California, Davis, addressed the lenses through which queer rights are examined. He said he wanted to “encourage us to think about ways of capturing queerness and gender transgression that are not always through Western categories He clarified that there are groups of genderqueer people around the world, such as individuals who live within South Asian Hijra communities and Native Americans who identify as Two-Spirit, who may not identify as transgender. He explained that the term reflects a conceptualization of the gender binary that is not present in all cultural contexts.

Yale University professor Juno Richards viewed the topic by analyzing the framework of individualist rights. Richards contrasted the approaches that the Black feminist SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and the general American birth control movement took in the pursuit of reproductive rights. “Rather than focus on an individual right to privacy, which has been historically defined through the experience of white women, the SisterSong Collective organized around a project that they called reproductive justice, a move beyond contraceptive choices to consider radicalized forces that inhibit the choices that we can make.” The Collective’s work allowed people to “start thinking of a wider field of justice” than what the American birth control movement considered, Richards said.

Bradley closed out the colloquium with a few final thoughts. “To me, the possibility of looking forward and thinking where we’ll go over the next 25 years is in fact the most important part of what this celebration is about. So, the kinds of issues that all of you were raising tonight, there’s a lot for us to think with.”