Humphrey School News—January 11, 2019

UMN Students Collaborate with UN Official on Human Rights Research Project

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Group photo of four Master of Human Rights students with Todd Howland of the UNs Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
L-R: Todd Howland of the UN Human Rights Office; students Paul Olubayo, Gonxhe Kandri, Alli Strong, and Hannah Shireman.

When Todd Howland talks about his commitment to human rights, the words of the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone immediately come to mind: “We all do better when we all do better.”

Howland, a Minnesota native, has spent his entire career advocating for equality and basic human freedoms; for the past decade with the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In that role, Howland seeks to ensure countries are abiding by international human rights standards, and facilitates change to address noncompliance.

His work has taken him across the globe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Colombia, where he recently completed an eight-year appointment as the director of the OHCHR’s office there.

The OHCHR has more than 100 staff members working in 18 offices around the world, and Howland’s experiences led him to wonder what kinds of innovations those advisors have developed that could become models for their colleagues. So with the help of five University of Minnesota Master of Human Rights students, Howland has begun a two-month long independent research project to explore that question. 

Together with Howland, the students—Shelby Ankrom, Gonxhe Kandri, Olanrewaju (Paul) Olubayo, Hannah Shireman, and Alli Strong—will interview people working in OHCHR offices and pore over literature on the efforts of human rights advisors.

When an advisor is sent to an office, they are stepping into a complex situation. Howland says it’s important for them to integrate themselves, and gain an understanding of how that country operates and who the key stakeholders are, before embarking on any enforcement activities.

According to Howland, an advisor’s ability to succeed relies on having the necessary tools to overcome resistance. If an advisor finds that a country is violating human rights—from discrimination to barriers to education to arbitrary detentions—they will pull in different parts of the UN to work with leaders to facilitate change, and ensure the country comes into compliance.

By identifying best practices, Howland hopes to provide advisors with better information and tools so they can hit the ground running when they are assigned to an office. “When you’re out on the front line, you don’t have time to look at recent literature,” he says.  

Howland also hopes his research will stimulate academic interest in the operational work of advisors and the OHCHR; he would like to see more universities conduct more research on this topic.  

Why is this work so important?

Howland said he believes protecting human rights around the world is a benefit to all countries. Yet in recent years, he has seen an increase in isolationist policies, with some countries closing their borders and adhering to a belief that supporting human rights for all is not putting their country first.

“If the people of Honduras are being respected in their country, they won’t seek asylum in the United States,” Howland says. “Once all boats are lifted, you have a society that is more stable.”