Humphrey School News—August 28, 2018

Threats Worldwide Demonstrate The Need for Human Rights Scholarship

University of Minnesota is preparing students to fight for fundamental freedoms and protections


Rohingya refugees stand in line at a refugee camp
Rohingya refugees at a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Voice of America

Commentary by Barbara Frey and Laura Bloomberg

The daughter of Bhutanese refugees to the United States, Richa Sharma came to the University of Minnesota to complete a master’s degree in human rights out of a desire to improve the treatment of persons fleeing persecution. 

This past spring, Sharma was one of the inaugural group of students to graduate from our program; The Master of Human Rights degree program is offered jointly by the College of Liberal Arts and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and distinguishes itself by its combination of professional training and interdisciplinary critical analysis focused on advancing human rights protections.  

We launched this human rights degree in 2016, a crucial moment in national and global politics. The international movement to protect rights is under threat from both sides of the political spectrum. The emergence of nationalist populist regimes and their efforts to weaken international institutions and norms has brought about an ominous increase in violations against dissenters, minorities and their defenders. 

Brushing aside international commitments to “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” as promised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, governments feel justified in carrying out full-scale assaults on rights in the name of “security.” 

At the same time, academic critics like Yale University professor Samuel Moyn are busy pointing to the inadequacy of the human rights movement to cure global inequality.They suggest that the human rights project is “not enough” because it has not generated economic and social equalities, and is instead merely a byproduct of neoliberalism during “a golden age for the rich.”  Others complain that nascent institutions such as the International Criminal Court are ineffectual and overreaching.

As academics, we have the responsibility to evaluate and critique the institutions and norms that shape our lives.  But we reject the paralysis among students and faculty that these criticisms sometimes engender. 

This era is characterized by the shift of power from a bipolar world—in which the United States and the Soviet Union dominated geopolitics—to the post-communist unipolar world of U.S. control.  In the past decade, we have entered a multipolar terrain, where no single government controls the international normative or economic environment.

This new and more unpredictable geopolitical climate gives more space for national governments to ignore previously negotiated treaty commitments or political pressure. Thus, as we see in countries as diverse as the Philippines, Poland and Turkey, governments are adopting nationalist policies and practices that heighten the challenges to protect the rights and dignity of all human beings.

Among the first targets of these repressive governments are students, scholars, artists, journalists and intellectuals – the crucial core of our academic project.

Students prepare to address complex human rights challenges

It is precisely these challenges that demonstrate the need for more study and practice of human rights. We must train and support emerging human rights leaders who can draw upon many types of knowledge and experiences in a field that demands innovative responses to complex challenges.  

Today’s students of human rights are as diverse as the subjects they study, and they analyze every situation with an eye to the power and privilege embedded in it. In addition, they are already contributing to the effective practice of human rights as they prepare to join the ranks of activists, scholars, and diplomats.

Our student research teams, for instance:

  • worked with Human Rights Watch to survey the perceptions of U.S. citizens regarding current human rights issues;
  • prepared a draft policy for pediatricians working to prevent the separation of children from their families in U.S. immigration detention; and
  • designed a strategy to remove hate speech targeting the Rohingya, a marginalized Muslim group, from Facebook. 

 The University of Minnesota has a decades-long record of scholarship on human rights, led by pioneers in the field like David Weissbrodt and Kathryn Sikkink, who have educated generations of human rights practitioners and activists and shaped the practice of human rights locally and globally. In her book Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton University Press, 2017), Sikkink reminds us that one of the successes of the human rights movement is drawing attention to an ever wider range of violations around the world.

If today we learn about a new crisis displacing refugees or a new victim of police abuse, it is because people are now conditioned to bring these violations to public attention. That was not always the case. For instance, hundreds of thousands of deaths in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s did not cause a blip on the public’s radar screen. Ironically, says Sikkink, “we think the world is worse off because we care more and know more about human rights than ever before.”

In this era of dangerous backsliding on human rights principles by our own government and demagogues around the world, our students will be front and center in the fight to demand fundamental freedoms and protection for the rights of all human beings. Now is not the moment to abandon human rights protections. We are celebrating the fact that our graduates, eyes wide open and prepared for what awaits them, are stepping up to fight for rights. 

Educators and researchers cannot stand aloof in these times when circumstances require us to double down on our advocacy for supporting human rights in this country and across the globe. It is time to recognize the unique value of hiring and engaging professionals with interdisciplinary human rights training and background. It is also a great moment to join one or several organizations that are working to protect the rights of scholars, artists, journalists and human rights defenders.

Stand up for your rights and the rights of our colleagues who are under threat. Either we stand up for our rights or we watch them further disappear. 

Barbara Frey is director of the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Laura Bloomberg is dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. This commentary was originally published by Inside Higher Ed

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