Campus & Community

Undergrads spend summer studying international law, child soldiers

6 min read

Trevor Bakker ’10 spent this summer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the world’s first permanent war crimes court.

The Kirkland House resident followed the joint trial of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, two Congolese militia leaders accused of killing civilians and turning others into sex slaves.

Bakker may go on to law school, perhaps in combination with doctoral work that allows him to study human rights more closely. Even as a freshman, he said, “I felt that whatever I [was going] to do … it would have to be something that tangibly benefited people.”

Kelsey Quigley ’08/’09 spent her summer in New York City and Washington, D.C., scouring archives for documents on the plight of child soldiers. These enslaved fighters, some as young as 5, are often misunderstood by the law, she said, and battered by emotional traumas.

With a December graduation ahead, Quigley has sequestered herself in her room at Pforzeimer to write a senior thesis that investigates the legal and psychological implications of enforced soldiering.

Her interest may inspire a career in clinical/developmental psychology and counseling — and “hopefully,” said Quigley, “that will lead me back at some point in my career to human rights work.”

Bakker and Quigley are taking advantage of the increasing prominence of courses in the Harvard curriculum that explicitly examine human rights. The courses range over a host of academic perspectives — from those you would expect (law, history, government, and philosophy) and from those you might not (engineering, biology, and medicine).

Bakker is political advocacy chair of the Harvard Darfur Action Group. But human rights are no longer just about advocacy, he said. In the past two decades they increasingly inform a variety of disciplines.

According to a guide published by the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies (HUCHRS), more than 250 related courses are being offered this academic year, in most of the University’s Schools.

By a stricter definition — courses that explicitly mention “rights” or “human rights” in the title — there are 46 offerings this year at Harvard. That’s up from just 18 for the 2002-03 academic year, the first year the HUCHRS guide was published.

This fall alone, students drawn to human rights issues can explore child health in America, the history of the Holocaust, the laws of war, transnational labor migration, and scholarly perspectives on AIDS, poverty, race, social medicine, and the global economy.

“Human rights is something people can do right along with all the other things they are doing,” said HUCHRS Assistant Director Cynthia Mesh. “It’s a fundamental idea.”

Most of the human rights-related courses accessible to undergraduates are offered through the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

“On the curricular front, we still have a way to go,” said HUCHRS Director Jacqueline Bhabha, who five years ago co-taught Harvard’s first freshman seminar on human rights. (She is also the Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer at Harvard Law School and an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.)

But there are now four freshman seminars related to human rights, said Bhabha — and a menu of student internships, research grants, and related opportunities is available through HUCHRS. In the design stages, she added, is a semester-long Harvard pilot program for studying human rights abroad, which may start as early as this spring.

In the meantime, this fall represents a quantum leap of sorts in Harvard’s attention to human rights.

For one, HUCHRS for the first time is offering a yearlong Human Rights Scholars Seminar that will meet every other week to discuss key theoretical concepts and emerging research methodologies. It’s open to 25 College juniors and seniors interested in doing research on human rights. (The deadline for applications is Sept. 22.)

For another, HUCHRS is sponsoring a new Distinguished Human Rights Lecture Series — two public talks each semester, followed by seminar participants experiencing an intensive private workshop with the speaker.

The whole issue of human rights as an academic pursuit at Harvard is also energized this year by a University-wide commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The declaration was signed in December 1948 at the United Nations, just a few years after the murderous excesses of World War II — “a time,” Bakker said, “when rights had been so utterly trampled.”

There were four related events on the UDHR this week alone, including the first in a series of 30 lunchtime lectures — one each for the document’s 30 articles — sponsored by the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Next week (Sept. 24), Harvard’s Weatherhead Center is sponsoring a roundtable on historical perspectives on the UDHR. Harvard Law School, home of the Harvard Human Rights Journal and the direct-action Advocates for Human Rights, will sponsor a similar event in November. And the semester will be capped by a UDHR forum on Dec. 10, the day of the actual signing six decades ago.

“We’re using this anniversary to interrogate the achievements of the past years” and the ways the declaration has taken hold — or not, said Bhabha.

Anniversary or not, human rights is making its way into a disparate range of courses at Harvard.

Peter R. Girguis, an assistant professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard, is an expert in deep-sea microorganisms who sees room for human rights in the pursuit of science.

Girguis is the founder of Living Power Systems, in place to develop microbial fuel cells from backyard dirt. Low-tech and cheap, they could power reading lights or cell phone chargers.

“One thing that facilitates human rights, that certainly protects peoples’ rights,” said Girguis, “is when you give them tools that allow them to look out for themselves.”

Ingrid Monson, the Quincy Jones Professor of African-American Music at Harvard, teaches courses on the role of music in Africa — where music “is not simply to entertain,” she said, but becomes an instrument of social mobilization and public education.

In Mali, where 80 percent of the population is illiterate, she said music is a logical vehicle for public health messages (AIDS prevention, the need for vaccines) and social empowerment (women’s rights, the right to education).

“As we’re training our students, we want them both to master academic subjects and knowledge within the University,” said Monson, “[and to] realize that part of their mission as educated human beings is to reach out.”