When Professor Henry Steiner ’55 founded the Human Rights Program in 1984, he built on the earlier work of Professors Louis Sohn LL.M. ’40 S.J.D. ’58 and Clyde Ferguson ’51 , who had both taught occasional seminars and done scholarship in the field, and on the interest of a handful of students. Today there are as many as seven courses a year, a wealth of program-sponsored activities, many links with human rights institutions, and scores of committed students, some drawn to the School because of its human rights offerings.
This fall students in a new, clinical course taught by Associate Program Director Peter Rosenblum wrote a position paper concerning a $3.5 billion oil project in the African country of Chad; they also drafted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court that was endorsed by 64 nonprofit organizations — including leading U.S.-based human rights groups — in support of a Massachusetts law to restrict purchasing from companies doing business with Burma, because of human rights violations in that country.
Each year the program supports some 20 students doing summer human rights internships abroad, hosts ten or so visiting fellows from around the world, and leads interdisciplinary roundtable discussions among influential thinkers on such topics as truth commissions, international business and human rights, the Arab human rights movement, economic-social rights, and religion and state. “Human rights,” says Steiner, “has become a strong part of the School’s curriculum and scholarship, and the program offers abundant opportunities for students to engage in human rights work.”
The program recently turned 15, and Steiner says he felt “it was time to celebrate the achievements of the program as well as the remarkable work of our many program alumni out there battling in the trenches, doing inventive writing, and helping in so many ways to further the human rights movement.” The time was also ripe for marking the successes, shortcomings, and new directions of the human rights movement itself over the course of the half century since the original shaping document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.
Accordingly Steiner and the program staff master-minded the Human Rights Program’s first grand-scale event, which drew human rights activists and leaders from around the world to the School September 17 for a weekend of celebration and debate. Some 350 attended the Saturday morning panel chaired by National Public Radio host Christopher Lydon and the evening keynote address by Amartya Sen, master of Trinity College at Cambridge University and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. Sen’s talk explored relationships between, on the one hand, rights-based advocacy and discourse, and, on the other, utilitarian argument and welfare economics.
Among participants well known in the human rights arena were Rita Hauser ’58, president of the Hauser Foundation and former U.S. representative to the UN Commission on Human Rights; Navanethem Pillay LL.M. ’82 S.J.D. ’88, president of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; Robert Joffe ’67, presiding partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, who is active in human rights work; and New York University Law Professor Theodor Meron LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’57, known for his work on humanitarian law. Most of the panelists were more recent graduates of the School who were active in HRP as students or were former HRP visiting fellows.
“The event was a triumphant occasion for our alumni who returned to a school appreciative of their important work in the public interest,” says Steiner. “All of us involved in HRP can be proud of what it has accomplished in 15 years.”
At the plenary session chaired by Lydon, a half-dozen experts debated the strengths and shortcomings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Makau Mutua LL.M. ’85 S.J.D. ’87, associate professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo, called the declaration “incomplete,” noting that “the drafting process did not include a single African.” Professor Mary Ann Glendon said the document was “imperfectly multicultural,” and that “Westernization set in in earnest after the cold war” (see story p. 20). Rita Hauser deemed the declaration “excellent” but noted the difficulty of enforcing its provisions and of punishing those who violate them. Hauser also remarked on the United States’ “lofty support of principles” and simultaneous failure to ratify several conventions, including those on women and land mines. Navanethem Pillay described problems facing the International Criminal Tribunal and commented on the apathy of some states in response to genocide.
At lunch, several recent graduates described their work and the program’s influence in shaping their careers. Alicia Yamin ’91, a Columbia University School of Public Health professor who is currently documenting health-related human rights violations in Lima, Peru, said HLS’s Human Rights Program helped her “turn passions and convictions into a career.” Chris Mburu LL.M. ’93, a human rights officer for the UN Observer Mission for Sierra Leone, described grim human rights violations in that country, including the dismemberment of citizens by rebel forces. S.J.D. candidate Lobsang Sangay LL.M. ’96, a Tibetan scholar and human rights activist, discussed the brutal treatment of the Tibetan people since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951. Jennifer Green ’91, a staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, described her litigation work on behalf of victims of human rights violations.
Later sessions considered truth commissions and international prosecutions, the role of universities in the human rights movement, issues of globalization and human rights, gender and human rights, and U.S. human rights policies and practices. The United States is by no means exemplary in the human rights arena, said Joshua Rubenstein, director of Amnesty International’s USA Northeast Regional Office, noting that Amnesty has documented such practices as the sale of weapons to repressive regimes and the imposition of the death penalty on retarded people and people who committed crimes as minors. Philip Alston of the European University Institute, Florence, and former HLS visiting professor, reflected on the U.S. government’s reluctance to recognize economic and social rights. Attorney Sandra Babcock ’91 described her work drawing on international instruments in the defense of foreign nationals on death row (see story p. 22), and environmental justice attorney Luke Cole ’89 termed the prevalence of toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards in minority neighborhoods “environmental racism.”
The session on gender and human rights prompted an impassioned discussion about cultural relativism, an issue that has been divisive in the human rights movement. Marlyn Tadros, deputy director of the Legal Research and Resource Center for Human Rights in Cairo and a former HRP visiting fellow, said that various forms of violence against women, such as the Egyptian and Sudanese practices of female genital mutilation, are defended by some human rights activists as accepted cultural practices. One audience member who echoed Tadros’ critical view of such activists pointed out that “when the topic is torture or war crimes, people do not talk about cultural relativism.” Jessica Neuwirth ’85, president of Equality Now, urged audience members not to underestimate the influence of protest letters in furthering human rights. Neuwirth said Equality Now had organized a letter-writing campaign that was apparently responsible for the government of Gambia’s reversal of a policy permitting the media to promote female genital mutilation, but forbidding it to speak out against the practice.
Before Amartya Sen’s Saturday night dinner remarks, Dean Robert Clark ’72 reflected on the Human Rights Program’s extremely important place in the life of the School. Steiner announced the program’s $10 million fund drive and commitment to create a chaired professorship in human rights. “The human rights movement in the last half-century has forever changed our legal, political, and moral landscapes,” says Steiner. “The School’s Human Rights Program is right up there in fresh scholarship, engaged debated, critical education, and hands-on training for the next generation of scholars.”