Human Rights Progam serves useful purpose

By Katrina Paleski

The University’s Human Rights Program will sponsor a conference entitled “Civil Society and the Practice of Human Rights” tomorrow in Judd Hall. The day will feature panels and discussions with leading human rights activists, professors, and students. The theme of the conference reflects the Human Rights Program’s unique interdisciplinary design, which combines anthropology, history, philosophy, and the humanities to examine human rights from many perspectives.

Main issues of discussion will be the role in human rights of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights organizations in the Midwest, transnational human rights advocacy, and the implementation of policy. “The best part of the conference is that it will create a dialogue between activists and academics. It will be an intellectual Disneyland that examines human rights through a variety of disciplines,” said Susan Gzesh, the director of the Human Rights Program.

Margaret Keck, a Johns Hopkins University expert on civil society and the protection of human rights, will give the keynote address. Morning and afternoon sessions will feature a number of panels that will discuss a wide range of human rights projects. Michael Posner, the founding director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Human Rights, will give a closing speech examining the role of U.S. non-governmental organizations in the international protection of human rights. Posner has been a leading advocate of the International Criminal Court, which entered into session April 11, 2002.

”The conference will help us understand the diverse kinds of work our interns engage in, and will help us evaluate how we can better prepare future students to make the most of these unique experiences,” said Satish Moorthy, coordinator of the Human Rights Program at the University.

Tomorrow’s conference is representative of the increasing activity of the Human Rights Program within the University.

Established in 1997, the Program responded to the challenges of new issues such as globalization and international security with an interdisciplinary approach to human rights. Unlike the human rights programs at various other universities, the University of Chicago program does not use the traditional focus on the legal and political aspects of the field. The mission is to teach the history and philosophy of the human rights movement, but also come together with practitioners to better understand activism and the role of NGOs. In 2001, the Program was the recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Innovation Award.

The Human Rights Program is part of the University’s Center for International Studies. Degrees are not offered to undergraduate or graduate students, although the Program is currently exploring its options to award certificates. There are a number of interdisciplinary courses offered through the College, including a three-quarter introductory sequence that comprise the academic side of the Program.

Closely linked to the Human Rights Program is the Scholars at Risk Network, whose mission is the defense and protection of scholars around the world from attacks on their fundamental human rights. Founded in June of 2000, the Network collaborates with professional associations and NGOs, locally and internationally.

In addition, the Human Rights Program sponsors workshops, panels, and discussions every quarter. Recent workshops include “The Practice of Human Rights: Amnesty International, Immigration Policy, and Police Torture and Impunity in Chicago.”

The Human Rights Internship Program gives students the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge and interests, and to learn about the difficulties and barriers in implementing human rights. “The internship program exposes students to the subjective experience of working…with non-governmental organizations,” Gzesh said. Three-month summer internships are offered to qualified students to work within the United States or abroad through a wide range of human rights organizations.

Janis Breckenridge, a University graduate student, is a former intern for the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who arranged her internship to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the military coup. As a result, she was able to explore the cultural and social responses to the event and simultaneously experience the practical workings of a grassroots NGO.

At last year’s Human Rights Program conference on torture, “New Paradigms in Human Rights: Investigating and Combating Torture,” she discussed the artistic and dramatic forms of expression by victims of torture. “The Program introduces interns to practitioners, and allows them to get their feet wet working with real NGOs,” Breckenridge said.

Ana Ayala, a fourth-year international studies and anthropology concentrator in the College, is a former intern for Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Bolivia, in La Paz. Through the internship, Ayala worked closely with the CSUTCB, an organization of the Aymara peasant population in Bolivia. Much of the work involved mediation between the government and the Aymara group to facilitate a compromise and avoid violence. “The Program gave me the opportunity to see various organizations working together to bring about change. It is important for interns to see how the global network of human rights organizations can work effectively,” she said.

Ayala and Breckenridge are both featured panelists at the conference.

Faculty members from the University that will participate include Edward Lawlor, dean of the School of Social Service Administration; Mae Ngai, assistant professor in history; Allison Boden, dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel; and Michael Geyer, professor in history, who played a key role in developing the conceptual foundations of the conference.

Other feature speakers include John Donahue, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless; Standish Kwame Willis of the National Conference of Black Lawyers; Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the Midwest Immigrant and Human Rights Center; and Jon Cortina of the Universidad Centro Americana San Salvador, El Salvador.

Past participants in the Human Rights Internship Program will also speak on their experiences, and the application of theoretical knowledge in practice. These panelists include Kate Gehring, former intern for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; Josh Kaplan, former intern for the Jerusalem Center for Social and Economic Rights; Riva Khoshaba, former intern for Physicians for Human Rights-Bosnia; and Rebekah Lusk, former intern for Alianza Contra la Impunidad, Guatamala.

Tomorrow’s conference will consider a wide range of issues, focusing primarily on the role of NGOs and the implementation of human rights norms through practice. The day-long event will be held at Judd Hall from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. It is free and open to the public.