Nation & World

Semester’s series ends with daylong panels

5 min read

Sixty years ago this month, the United Nations released to a war-shocked world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), a catalog of norms understood to apply to all human beings.

The document’s 30 articles seem self-evident today — the right to freedom of speech, belief, and property, for instance. Yet all these years later, experts say, there is still a gap between theory and practice — between the inspiration of landmark words and the way those words are implemented.

It was into that gap that experts stepped in a daylong series of panels last week (Dec. 11) at the Harvard Faculty Club. It was the last event in a semester-long interdisciplinary retrospective on the UDHR at Harvard.

In opening remarks, Wilhelm Krull predicted “an intensive cultural and academic exchange” — and perhaps a recognition that the humanities have a heightened role in the human rights debate. (Krull is secretary-general of the Volkswagen Foundation, a co-sponsoring organization that recently funded two humanities fellowships at Harvard.)

Krull got his wish for a flashbang event, in part because panel participants came from diverse disciplines. The law, medicine, literature, advocacy, education, and public policy are only recently beginning to view human rights implementation cooperatively.

“These debates actually unite,” and that’s rare, said organizer Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies (an event co-sponsor) and Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School.

The humanities and human rights can “dovetail,” said Harvard’s Dean for the Humanities Diana Sorensen, the James F. Rothenberg Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and professor of comparative literature, employing a carpentry metaphor. “If we put those things together, we’ll fly.”

Anja Mihr said human rights studies recently made a leap from law schools, their traditional nexus, into the social sciences and other disciplines. European universities alone now offer more than 100 master’s degrees with “human rights” in the title, she said, and in the United States Harvard offers the best example of this new interdisciplinary pathway.

The law has been the traditional “meeting place” in human right studies, agreed Homi Bhabha, director of the Humanities Center at Harvard. Lawyers and humanists alike “live in the realm of language,” he remarked, but literature and the arts have a special role in the “aspirational realm.” Any aspiration, said Bhabha, begins first by humans imagining it.

But human rights instruments like the UDHR have not gone far enough to champion “linguistic rights,” claimed Neville Alexander, a South African advocate for multilingualism. Linguistic rights, he said, are those that guarantee groups within a nation the right to speak and learn and teach in a language other than the dominant tongue.

Alexander, a co-founder of the National Liberation Front in apartheid-era South Africa who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela, said the hegemony of English threatens to marginalize his nation’s remaining 10 languages — a threat of “linguistic genocide.”

In the same way, French and Portuguese — the language of colonizers elsewhere in Africa — threaten to marginalize indigenous languages.

Krull’s wish for intensity came from more than creative friction between disciplines. By late afternoon, a fundamental paradox in the 1948 document had emerged, and is guaranteed to keep sparks flying both within the academy and in the field.

The UDHR champions individual rights, but within the context of respecting cultural norms. And panelists agreed that sometimes the universal ideal clashes with the local reality.

Take the case of female genital cutting, a practice considered not only ordinary but desirable in some majority-Muslim countries.

The practice is “an unquestionable violation of human rights” as defined in the UDHR and numerous conventions since, said Harvard Medical School assistant professor Nawal Nour, a Sudan-born surgeon and founder and director of the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Yet many Muslim women in Africa, without access to basic health information, believe the practice is both a requirement of faith and a guarantee of marriageability. “In this particular population,” said Nour of her patients, who face reconstructive surgery, “the human rights field has failed.”

In many countries, added Austrian human rights researcher Katrin Kinzelbach, “centuries-old traditions make it difficult to bring human rights to individuals.” Human rights violations forbidden by public law are often executed in the private sphere, she said, “within the shelter of families or clans.”

Old and new cultures also clash over issues not thought of in 1948, said the panelists, including the death penalty, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and even in the propriety of allowing head scarves in public schools.

Human rights — broadened by U.N. covenants in 1966 and reaffirmed in 1993 — “are universally accepted,” said Dieter Grimm, a professor of public law in Berlin. “The question is no longer open.”

Human rights covenants are little needed in countries with high legal standards, he said. But in countries without such standards, there’s little way to enforce the will of humanity.

“Here,” said Grimm, “is the dilemma.”