Nation & World

Seminar focuses on human rights

5 min read

Provides forum for discussion of research, methods, practices

The undergraduates who gather around the seminar table at 61 Kirkland St. have a lot on their minds. Not just final papers, athletic matches, and music performances, but a range of issues that run far beyond the daily stresses of college: Refugee resettlement. Human trafficking. Child soldiers. These human rights issues — along with many others — are the challenges that have inspired this group of passionate students to add another course to their jam-packed schedules.

This fall marks the inaugural semester of the Human Rights Scholars Seminar, a biweekly, noncredit class for juniors and seniors with a dedicated interest in human rights-related research. The yearlong course provides a forum for the discussion of human rights scholarship, research methods, and practices.

“The seminar aims to introduce students to a range of methodologies relevant to human rights research, to put them in touch with ongoing human rights research by faculty and leading experts in the field, and to give them an opportunity to discuss this material in a small, interdisciplinary group context,” said Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the Harvard University Committee on Human Rights Studies (UCHRS).

Conceived and developed by UCHRS committee members, the course is one of many Harvard initiatives to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The seminar is led by Cosette Creamer, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government and a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School.

“For me … the most rewarding aspect of teaching this seminar is what I hope is also the most rewarding aspect for the students: a broadened perspective on how to think about conducting human rights research,” Creamer said.

Entry to the seminar was determined by a competitive application process in September. The group numbers 24 students from a variety of concentrations, including government, history and literature, social studies, and biology.

Sara O’Rourke ’09, a social studies concentrator, applied to the seminar to “learn about the dominant discourse and literature on human rights, and to meet other students whose work has to do with human rights.” She is interested in women’s rights, current issues facing Islam, and the relationship between international and domestic law.

On alternate Thursday evenings, Creamer and students like O’Rourke gather to discuss various aspects of human rights scholarship. They have addressed ways to conceptualize human rights, how human rights norms develop, and the relationship between advocacy and scholarship. The class has also considered sociological, anthropological, and political science approaches to human rights research.

“The study of human rights can play a key role in introducing students to ethical dilemmas, normative approaches to their resolution, and cutting-edge contemporary problems and research findings,” said Bhabha. “This is an inherently interdisciplinary field which offers students a wide range of disciplinary methodologies and the possibility of engaging with urgent real-life issues in a way that is both academic and practical.”

The theoretical framework of the course is complemented by practical examples. Students read case studies from leading scholars and enjoy talks by practitioners and researchers whose work is shaping the field. In early November, for example, Tamara Kay, assistant professor of sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, presented her work on the ways in which Sesame Street International helps to promote human rights worldwide. Workshops with scholars and practitioners will continue in the spring.

At the most recent course meeting on Nov. 20, the students discussed research methods with Beth A. Simmons, Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs and director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. The group analyzed two chapters from Simmons’ forthcoming book, “Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2009). The text explores how the ratification of international treaties influences state behavior, to see if such treaties actually lead to better protection of human rights. Simmons uses both qualitative and quantitative analysis to evaluate issues such as equality for women, the prevalence of torture, and children’s rights.

Simmons answered questions about how she came to the topic, why she chose certain case studies, and the challenges of approaching human rights research from a social science perspective. She also recounted the difficulties of translating, or “coding,” qualitative descriptions of human rights violations into a quantitative system for statistical analysis.

“I fully expect that this book will make people mad,” she said. “There are those who will have a moral reaction — ‘Why should we be quantifying human suffering? Is it not dehumanizing to cram this information into a regression?’

“I don’t want to belittle that point of view,” she continued. “But my goal is to systemize the data as best we can to get a broad sense for what’s going on, so that we can add to — not supplant — the literature and accounts we have of individual cases of suffering. This will enable us to provide a different kind of reference.”

In addition to the workshops with scholars such as Simmons, the seminar also provides undergraduates the opportunity to present their own research projects. Many of the students are working on a junior essay, senior thesis, or independent project that is focused on human rights issues.

O’Rourke, for example, is writing her thesis on the French Muslim Council, the official interlocutor between the Muslim community and the French state. She is exploring the politics of recognition and political representation in relation to national narrative.

“It has been rewarding to have a place where I can discuss ideas with students from a variety of fields and with a variety of interests, but who all share a common foundation — a deep interest in human rights,” said O’Rourke.