Archive for Institute for the Study of Human Rights

Columbia’s First-Ever Indigenous Mother Tongues Book Fair

by Marial Quezada, an Indigenous ally and a 2018 graduate of the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

In late April, the first-ever Mother Tongues Book Fair took place at Columbia University, organized by the Runasimi Outreach Committee at New York University and the New York-based Movimientos Indigenas Asociados in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of Human Rights and the Columbia Human Rights Graduate Group. Coinciding with the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 2018, the fair celebrated written works in Indigenous mother tongues from various communities and geographic regions. 

Movimientos Indigenas Asociados and La Zenka Sunqu representatives. // Marial Quezada

Languages represented at the fair included Amharic, Arikara, Crow, Hidatsa, Lakota, Mandan, Maya Mam, Mixteco, Nahuatl, Omaha-Ponca, Quechua, Tsou, and Zapoteca. Authors along with publishers displayed and sold a variety of mother tongue works including trilingual and bilingual children’s books, poetry anthologies, novels, zines, dictionaries, CDs, and more.

The fair’s goal was to raise awareness of Indigenous mother tongues and works as well as to connect authors and publishers with each other and the public. Some authors including Alem Eshetu Beyene from Ethiopia; Baitz Niahossa from Taiwan; Elva Ambia, Odi Gonzales, Rina Soldevilla, and Sandy Enriquez from Peru; as well as representatives from Hippocrene Books Inc., Grupo Cajola, the Endangered Language Alliance, Hawansuyo bookstore,  La Zenka Sunqu and The Language Conservancy were present in person. A U.N. reporter from the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues also covered the event, interviewing the authors and Indigenous organizations on their perspectives and contributions to the fair.

A Hippocrene Books Inc. representative selling the first-ever trilingual Quechua dictionary. // Marial Quezada

Overall, the fair was a first-time success, serving as a space to value and honor Indigenous mother tongues and works written in them, a space that is too often not present in higher education institutions. This reality itself was central to the organization of the fair.

Indigenous languages have historically been excluded from curriculum, classrooms, and public places. Even today, schooling for Indigenous students will often take a “subtractive” form, in which the teaching medium is a dominant language of the society rather than an Indigenous language, effectively leading to the “transferring [of] their children to the dominant group,” according to an paper written for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues by Ole Henrik Magga et al. This not only may have a negative effect on academic achievement of Indigenous children but also on language maintenance for an entire Indigenous community.

The proceedings from the Expert Group Meeting of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2016 declared that providing education in the Indigenous mother tongues improves educational outcomes and reduces dropout rates of Indigenous students. Furthermore, it contributes to the strengthening of Indigenous languages and creation of new generations of speakers.

Author Alem Eshetu Beyene displaying his children’s books in Amharic. // Marial Quezada

To celebrate Indigenous languages and advocate for Indigenous language education alike, the U.N. General Assembly announced that 2019 will be the The Year of Indigenous Languages.” UNESCO will lead this initiative to promote Indigenous languages, highlighting the significance of Indigenous peoples and critical role that Indigenous languages play in education, science, technology, and the future of Mother Earth.

The organizers of the first-ever Mother Tongues Book Fair hope to support this work, ensuring Indigenous people are at the forefront of these efforts by celebrating and collaborating with Indigenous authors for a second Mother Tongues Book Fair in 2019. Until then, please visit this year’s website to learn more about the 2018 event, or reach out if you are interested in getting more involved.


Marial Quezada is an Indigenous ally and a language and cultural rights advocate. Last week, she received her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, where she studied in the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights program and concentrated in education rights. Supported by the FLAS fellowship, she studied Quechua through the Indigenous and Diasporic Language Consortium and participated as a member of the Runasimi Outreach Committee at NYU. She is also a member of Movimientos Indigenas Asociados and a writer for the affiliate newspaper, La Zenka Sunqu.

What Does a Career in Human Rights Look Like? The Experts Weigh in

By Rowena Kosher, a blog writer for RightsViews and a student in the School of General Studies at Columbia University

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel last month, offering students the chance to hear from individuals in a variety of human rights careers. The panel was an opportunity for future practitioners to gain insight into human rights in action outside of academic study at Columbia University.

The undergraduate and graduate students who attended the event held at Columbia’s International Affairs Building posed questions about their professional futures in human rights. The panelists, all career veterans in the field, helped answer student concerns by sharing stories about their career paths, their experiences, and other practical advice.

What are the most rewarding parts of a career in human rights, and what are the challenges?

The Institute for the Study of Human Rights held its annual human rights career panel in February. // Michelle Chouinard

The panelists agreed that the human rights field can be complicated and frustrating at times. Victories don’t always happen, but it is important to be happy with the measurable successes that do occur. Sofia Coelho Candeias, a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law, said that accumulative successes are a huge source of pride over time: the results you want may not happen immediately, she said, but in retrospect successes do occur. In the DRC, where she works currently, for example, they went from zero police units for sexual violence in 2008 to 12 today.

Whether on a policy or field level, it is very rare to have the opportunity to make a real difference in any job, said Aida Martirous-Nejad, the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. “What job would I rather do?” she asked, speaking to the unique ability of a human rights career to impact real change through action, policy and community-building.

Rosalind McKenna, who works for the Open Society Foundation’s public health program chimed in to say how rewarding it is to support individuals so that they can may make their own voices and challenges heard. Yes, there’s a lot of bureaucracy in larger organizations, added Farnoosh Hashemian, a human rights lawyer in Iran. But you spend your time connecting with like-minded human rights defenders, all of whom are incredible people dedicated to their jobs, she said. Coelho concurred, saying that people who do public service tend to really like their job. Otherwise, they would all have to quit, she said.

What skills do I need in order to have a career in human rights? What are employers looking for?

The panelists answered student questions by sharing their experiences and advice. // Michelle Chouinard

Every human rights career is different, but there are definitely skills that come in handy, the panelists agreed. Every single person in the human rights field is there because they care deeply about human rights issues and are willing to “fight the uphill battle,” said Matthew Kennis, the program director of the Libertas Center, an organization located in New York City that provides medical, emotional and structural support to victims of torture. Kennis talked about what he would look for in a prospective applicant. He currently leads staffing for the Libertas Center. Important to him is the ability of the candidate to learn quickly. The candidate must have a genuine narrative of why they actually want to be there: how will they connect their interests to their career goals? Build yourself as a whole person, Kennis suggested. Trust the path that your career takes.

Coelho mentioned the importance of fieldwork, especially for young advocates just starting their careers. Each member of the panel spent a significant amount of time on their career journey doing fieldwork. Coelho also pinpointed kindness to others as the most important character trait needed in human rights jobs. Being open to listening to others is the only way you will survive in this field— you will get so much more done when you are kind to people, she said.

Martirious-Nejad also stressed optimism. In human rights work, you will be told “No!” nine times out of 10, she said, but you can’t be a pessimist in this work. You have to be able to adapt and move forward despite challenges.

Hashemian spoke of the fact that getting jobs in the field is highly competitive, but she encouraged students to persevere. All panelists agreed that networking is essential to success, along with development of interpersonal communication skills. Human rights is a team effort, and you’ve got to be a team player, said Hashemian. Humble, too, added Coelho. McKenna recommended taking the time to have a cohesive, polished CV and working on your ability to sell yourself as a person, not just as a list of achievements on paper. Other technical skills the panelists recommended include knowing at least two if not three or four languages. “Take immersion courses!” said Coelho.

Do I have to go to law school?

The panelists offered advice on continuing studies in law school and pursuing fieldwork around the world. // Michelle Chouinard

McKenna, Coelho, Martirous-Nejad, and Hashemian all have law degrees. Broadly speaking, they said, law school is probably a good idea, even if you do not become a practicing attorney. The critical thinking skills alone are worth learning. Martirous-Nejad mentioned that because she is a lawyer, she has had more access to jobs than her peers who are not attorneys. The decision, however, is up to the individual student. Law school is costly. Perhaps do some fieldwork first, said Coelho, before committing to that investment.

You keep talking about the field. What is it?

Fieldwork is an integral part of a lot of human rights work, the panel said. Fieldwork can take place domestically or internationally, although often international work is the most common. You can look for jobs with larger organizations such as Amnesty International or the UN, says Hashemian, but you can also contact smaller local nonprofits in the location where you want to work.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. // Michelle Chouinard

Regarding the question of where to go based on geography or issue area, Coelho said, “What you want to do defines the field.” Sometimes, she said, issue areas are more important than a certain location. McKenna recommended that individuals looking for fieldwork check out the database of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which has a list of the non-profits that OSF has funded.

Fieldwork will teach you to be humble and follow a leader, said Kennis. It is your chance to interact with those you’re helping directly on the ground, added Coelho. Yes, some places can be dangerous, as Hashemian pointed out, but you will receive security training and are often well cared for, especially when you focus on building strong relationships with the locals.

At the conclusion of the career panel event, students were offered some time to network with the panelists. It was clear that the panelists are enthusiastic and passionate about the work they do in the human rights field. The panel represented an invaluable opportunity for students to get a taste for what a future in human rights might be like.

For more professional development and career advice, check out ISHR’s website.

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Career Panelist Bios:

Sofia Coelho Candeias is a member of the UN Team of Experts on Sexual Violence and Rule of Law. In this position, she focuses on sexual violence prevention and accountability in the DRC, CAR, Mali, Nigeria and Iraq. Her job frequently entails flying from the UN headquarters in New York to the various countries where she covers and surveys the status of sexual violence. She has spent significant time in the field, holding positions such as senior associate and criminal justice coordinator at the International Center for Transitional Justice, project manager of UNDP’s Women’s Access to Justice in the Eastern DRC, and coordinator of the Sexual Violence Unit of the European Union in the DRC.

Farnoosh Hashemian is a human rights lawyer who focuses on national security and human rights, constitutional reform, access to justice, and women’s rights. Also an author, she has written the book, “The Trial and Diary of Abbass Amir Entezam, the Longest-Held Prisoner of Conscience in the Middle East.” Growing up in Iran, Hashemian was an activist from a young age, always inclined toward justice and human rights. Currently, she works in Iran supporting various advocacy organizations and provides technical support to organizations in Afghanistan.

Matthew Kennis is the program director of the Libertas Center, located in New York City. He is also a graduate of the ISHR’s Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies program. The Libertas Center provides medical, emotional and structural support for victims of torture who are rehabilitating back into society. As director, Kennis hires people and supports and runs the Libertas advocacy work.

Rosalind McKenna works for the the Open Society Public Health Program within the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a philanthropic organization that supports governance for health, health rights and law. OSF funds health projects overseas. McKennna helps to find individuals, non-profits, and NGOs to whom OSF can provide funds. She has also worked as the coordinator for Amnesty International Ireland’s program on economic, social and cultural rights.

Aida Martirous-Nejad works as the special assistant to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in New York. Much of her work takes place at the UN Headquarters where she covers Europe as a desk officer. Part of her job includes working toward integrating human rights language into codified national and international policy.

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Rowena Kosher is an undergraduate student at Columbia University School of General Studies. She plans to major in human rights with a possible focus on gender and sexuality studies. Her writing can be found on her personal blog, fromvermiliontoviolet.wordpress.com, and at elephantjournal.com, where she is an occasional contributor. Rowena is a blog writer for RightsViews.

Reflections on the UN Human Rights Committee: 40 Years of Practice

by Ido Dembin, a blog writer for RightsViews and a M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

On January 24, Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee with David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law. Kretzmer served as a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, including a two-year term as its vice-chairperson.

The discussion with Kretzmer focused on the evolution of the UN Human Rights Committee since its establishment 40 years ago. Having personally served on the committee, Kretzmer offered distinctive lessons on how the committee’s role and perception by other actors such as nation states, NGOs and individuals— as well as its self-perception— have changed.

He began the discussion by emphasizing the historic background of the committee: The UN Human Rights Committee is a treaty body comprised of 18 renowned experts from across the world who meet three times a year for three to four week sessions to consider reports submitted by no less than 169 states on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The committee also considers any individual petitions concerning 116 states parties to the Optional Protocol. It is one of ten UN Human Rights bodies responsible for overseeing implementation of particular treaties.

Kretzmer emphasized the decade-long debate at the heart of the committee’s work regarding its actual role and scope of its mandate. For many years, the committee’s role was unclear, and its mandate to investigate states’ actions and commitments to the covenant’s ideals was undetermined, even overlooked, to avoid causing unrest among member states. With the committee established at the height of the Cold War in 1977, its work was further obstructed by members from the Soviet bloc. As the discussion at Columbia noted, the underlying message in the early days was that the committee should refrain from criticism of states and serve mainly as a means of constructive dialogue between committee members and representatives of states.

David Kretzmer, an Israeli expert in international and constitutional law, speaks to students during a discussion on the role and impact of the UN Human Rights Committee. // Michelle Chouinard

This meant the committee was a place of “friendly relations among nations,” Kretzmer told RightsViews. The committee was not allowed to use any information pertaining to human rights maintenance or violation other than the information submitted in states parties’ reports. In other words, so long as a country did not voluntarily report its own wrongdoings, the committee was largely toothless in examining, reprimanding or even recommending changes to its policies.

Furthermore, all decisions within the committee had to be decided by consensus, rather than by a vote. This reality was true for most of the first 23 years of the committee’s existence. Since the end of the Cold War, the unwritten rules that once limited the committee so heavily have changed in rapid fashion.

The committee began to shift from being a mere scene of “friendly relations” to becoming more informed, less limited and thus more able to actually monitor compliance with the Covenant under which it was established. It began receiving, for example, information regarding states’ behavior, mainly from NGOs— a phenomenon that became central to human rights advocacy in the 1990s onwards. Furthermore, political differences, while surely still felt, had changed: they weren’t Cold War-inspired and centric anymore. The committee could now finally arrive at concluding observations regarding a state’s compliance with the covenant.

The discussion also emphasized the differences between the committee and the better known, perhaps even controversial, Human Rights Council (which replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006). The later, a political rather than professional body, is a charter-based mechanism where states can debate human rights concerns. Kretzmer stressed the differences between the two bodies, their work and subsequent reputation during the discussion, emphasizing the need for better balance in the way the two bodies interact. Kretzmer hinted at some criticism of the council with regard to its failure to deny membership to nation states known for serial and consistent violations of human rights.

Before concluding, Kretzmer addressed further issues raised by members of the audience, such as the role of international and national courts and other legal institutions, the global effort at criminalizing aggression, and more. He stressed the importance of the human rights treaty bodies and treaty signatories while also acknowledging the gap between a nation’s willingness to declare its loyalty to human rights ideals and actual actions to advance human rights-based morality, legislation and enforcement.

In concluding, Kretzmer discussed the paradox of human rights monitoring: the countries with better human rights records are generally more open societies. Thus, there is a great deal of information available on their human rights violations. In contrast, the countries with the worst human rights regimes (North Korea, for example) are often closed societies, meaning there is an overall lack of information on their human rights practices. Thus, from the treaty bodies’ concluding observations it may sometimes appear that the more open and democratic societies suffer from more human rights violations than closed and non-democratic states.

Ido Dembin is pursuing his master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. He is focusing on the right to free speech in margins of society and the silencing of critical speech and conduct toward governmental policies in contemporary Israel. He is a Tel-Aviv University-educated lawyer (L.L.B.) with background in International Relations. Ido is a blog writer for RightsViews. 

From the Field: Building a Plurality of Memories in Spain

By Zina Precht-Rodriguez, Columbia College ’19

The story of Spain’s traumatic history is compelling because it is continuously unfolding. One of my most memorable experiences in Barcelona this summer was my visit to an air raid shelter that was designed during the Spanish Civil War to protect thousands of civilians during the fascist bombings of Barcelona. The existence of the shelter was only discovered a couple of years ago by a cable company. The company intended to build an underground landline to connect more people throughout Spain, but the irony of the situation is that something much deeper connects the people of Spain: a traumatic memory that tells the story of a vicious divide within Spain, as well as within Europe, of those who risked their lives for progressive change and those who compromised their own morality.

In 2017, these casual rediscoveries of a traumatic Spanish past are triggering an outpouring of civilian, intellectual and political inquiry. The European Observatory for Memories (EUROM) addresses these so-called “black spots in history” that have resulted in a pact of silence and brought Spanish society to an inevitable tipping point. In essence, an avalanche of unaddressed and unvalidated memories has come falling down, and there is no time to methodically pick up the pieces. To complicate this mess further, we must be reminded that the hands picking up the pieces are more likely to belong to the descendants of those witnesses of the Spanish Civil War, and later, of the Franco regime.

How does the intergenerational nature of the situation influence perspectives of justice? In order to explore this question, it is necessary to dive into my personal perspective and attempt to explain the nature of my own psychological matrix as I woke up everyday and went to work at EUROM. Toward the middle of my spring 2017 semester, I became transfixed with a pending national lawsuit called Juliana v. The United States. In short, the case posits 20 youth plaintiffs against the government. The youths are fighting for a right to a stable climate society; they explicitly argue that the government has disproportionately disfavored younger generations by leaving them with a turbulent climate system. My fascination with the case pushed me to challenge my understanding of generational trauma and justice. Similar to climate change, generational justice cannot be achieved by pointing the finger. It is easy to say that someone is “responsible,” but at the same time, responsibility gets lost in translation as generations elapse.

EUROM and Juliana are similar in the sense that they attempt to reinvent societal consensus; just as Juliana pushes the justice system to reevaluate how crucial climate is to a stable society, EUROM pushes people to finally recognize the gruesome realities of the war and the traumatic impacts it had on collective societal consciousness. In this vein, both actors attempt to evolve a moral spectrum by tapping into a unique emotionality.

Visitors explore the internal structure of La Model // Zina Precht-Rodriguez.

I was lucky enough to witness EUROM succeed in this mission; one of their most exciting recent developments includes the closure of a former men’s prison, La Model. The organization worked alongside the city government and other bilateral community organizations in a participatory process to close the prison, which served as one of Franco’s torture centers of innocent people during the Spanish Civil War. The process transformed the prison into a cultural and memorial space. The logic of this transformation is to recognize the significance of this space and to dismantle the tortuous and imprisoning aspect of it. Refashioning the space to facilitate activities that promote justice signifies to society that communities cannot only come to terms with the cruelty once committed in this space but also can positively address it.

But the impacts of the transformation go beyond mere symbols; the men once imprisoned in La Model are now emancipated and starting to integrate back into society. They have the opportunity to work during the day to earn money and then are required to return to government supervision at night. This experiment is called the “open prison model.” The model releases the men from the panopticon watch that the prison was designed to promote.

Projects like La Model exhibit how EUROM advocates that justice cannot be achieved when paired with amnesia. The process of remembering, recovering and retelling is central to the process of healing. Just because first-hand memories are gradually dissolving in numbers, it does not mean that younger generations facilitate civil society with a clean slate. I am returning to Columbia College reinvigorated by my experience at EUROM. I am approaching my studies with a strong belief that we inherit history, and as civilians, it is our duty to deal with and learn from it, passing this philosophy onto others when we leave earth.

This summer, Columbia College student Zina Precht-Rodriguez participated in an eight-week international internship program sponsored by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR). Her research interests include climate policy and intergenerational justice. In this entry, she reflects on her time in Barcelona, Spain, at an ISHR affiliate organization, the European Observatory on Memories (EUROM), a “transnational network of institutions and organizations committed to the analysis and promotion of remembrance public policies.” The mission of EUROM is to “reflect on the recent history of the struggle for democracy and freedom in Spain and Europe, and to advocate for a plurality of memories.”

Questioning “Resilience”

By Stephanie Euber, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 2017

Individuals fortunate enough to have survived traumatic events are commonly referred to as “resilient.” In fact, a resilience framework/agenda has become part of commonly-accepted humanitarian and human rights language and programming. But what does this framework, which attempts to foster resiliency among trauma survivors, actually accomplish? This is the question I have spent the past year attempting to answer. My paper titled “Genealogy of Resilience: Women’s Resiliency to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence” was recently chosen as a winner of the 2017 Human Rights Essay Contest through the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

The application of the term “resilient” to women who have experienced gender-based violence, either locally or globally, remains unclear. What is more evident is that linkages can be drawn between the usage of resilience theory and the popularization of describing women as “survivors.” Referring to women who have survived gender-based trauma as “resilient” pays homage to the extreme emotional and sometimes physical struggles involved in carrying on with one’s life following the worst imaginable circumstances. As such, the terms “survivor” and “resilient” commonly overlap, and at times, they may even be used interchangeably.

Yet, the “survivor” identity would not exist without the “victim” identity. If the “victim” is pathetic and undesirable, then the “survivor” is radiant, warrior-like, and maybe even “a little sexy.” New York Times literary critic Parul Sehgal references Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as an example of a “survivor.” What woman would choose the “victim” identity over the “survivor” identity? It becomes almost compulsory for women to wear the “survivor” identity as a badge of honor and proof of their heroism. “Survivor” becomes the obligatory replacement for “victim.” Resilient women, then, may as well be forced into being just that.

Stephanie Euber, winner of the 2017 Human Rights Essay Contest through the Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

Recognizing women who have been traumatized as “resilient survivors” enables these women to occupy a space of strength rather than a space of  stigmatization. It calls attention to the agency of women. Referring to women as “resilient” also sends a message to other women and girls who may someday endure such trauma and injury at the hands of men. It tells them something they may not be accustomed to hearing: “Yes, you can survive.”

At the same time, survivor discourse risks re-privatizing the societal problem of violence against women. The popular feminist slogan, “The personal is political,” derived from Carol Hanisch’s popularized paper from 1969, becomes reversed by survivor discourse, which makes the political personal once again. If those in power do not have to face the part they play in this oppression, they are able to avoid accountability.

Referring to women who have endured conflict-related rape as “resilient” personalizes survival in a way that moves the discussion of violence against women away from where it needs to be. Instead of calling attention to the problems of patriarchal violence and the very real effects it has on women and children, the resilience agenda applauds individual women for the personal characteristics that have enabled them to survive such horrors. It congratulates the “survivor” without criticizing the root cause of the violence that had to be survived. Patriarchal violence risks being normalized as something women must endure; it becomes a “fact of life.”

The “survivor” identity is compulsory for women who have endured gender-based violence.

As human rights, international law, and conflict discourses move to highlight rape as a weapon of war, sexual violence as a war crime, and violence against women more generally as a serious human rights violation, it becomes clear that resilience is not the answer it was once imagined to be within the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

Largely, at least in the case of the non-Western, South Sudanese women whom I have studied closely, it is not the women themselves who tend to comment on their own resiliency. Instead, this terminology comes from the mouths of Western humanitarian workers, psychologists, and media sources. As such, it is logical to remain critical of this sort of discourse that refers to women, and especially non-Western women, as “resilient survivors.” Advocates and activists must find a way to ensure that theory and practice be informed by those who have experienced violence without allowing the burden of responsibility for social change to rest wholly on those who have been victimized.

Stephanie Euber earned her MA in human rights from Columbia University in May 2017. Her research interests include gender-based violence, gender and conflict, and feminism.

Human Rights Career Panel

By Tim Wyman-McCarthy, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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As students across Columbia—both graduate and undergraduate—settle into the Spring term a series of questions echo around campus: What are your plans for the summer? Have you begun your dissertation? And, most dreaded of all: what’s next? It is this last question, of what comes after graduation, that seems to produce the most anxiety. This is especially true for students interested in fields characterized by less-than-clear paths to employment or uncertain job prospects. One such example is human rights, and so it was of great benefit to many that on February 26th the Institute for the Study of Human Rights held a career panel about what it means to pursue human rights as a profession. The event was comprised of a panel discussion with five human rights professionals followed by an open question and answer session.

Sheree Bennet and Zeke Johnson responding to questions at the Human Rights Career Panel.

Sheree Bennet and Zeke Johnson responding to questions at the Human Rights Career Panel.

The speakers were qualified, interesting, and informative. The panel consisted of: Antonio Cisneros de Alencar, Program Coordinator for the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Guatemala; Rose Anderson, a Program Associate for Protection Services at Scholars at Risk and an HRSMA alumnus; Sheree Bennet, a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at Yale who is working for the International Rescue Committee; Zeke Johnson, the Managing Director of Amnesty International USA’s Individuals at Risk Program; and Amanda Klasing, a researcher in the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.

To this diverse group were put questions about the content of their work, the specific challenges it poses, their career paths, the skills and personal qualities it requires, and what they look for if hiring for their own position. We heard fascinating accounts of the complexity involved in the OHCHR’s work on the rights of indigenous peoples in Guatemala; how research and practice come together in the IRC project in Haiti; and what is involved in identifying and protecting scholars at risk. While it would have been useful to get a sense of a ‘day-in-the-life’ of each of these individuals, the accounts they provided of their work and that of their respective organizations did communicate the variety of experiences, directions, geographical locations, forms of advocacy and research, and professional positions available through a career in human rights.

Specific advice was also offered for those thinking about pursuing further education. When asked about the role of research in human rights practice and the value of embarking on further graduate work, Bennet cautioned that “being a great student is not a good enough reason to do a Ph.D.” It is important to remember, especially for current students, that the Ph.D. is about contributing to a body of knowledge and requires a “tenacity that is hard to imagine”. Similarly, Klasing spoke to the benefits and drawbacks of the MA and JD. While the JD gets the attention of those at the table—perhaps more so than the anthropologist in the room—the MA can provide one with the critical tools to approach human rights work with sensitivity and intellectual rigour. Ultimately, both pointed to the fact that certain kinds of graduate-level education are not for everyone, though most kinds can be valuable in some way to a career in human rights. At the end of the day, what is important is that you find the kind of contribution that is most closely aligned with your goals and interests. Along these lines Mr. Alencar insisted that students follow their passions and avoid framing themselves by what’s most demanded by the market, for at the end of the day human rights is about believing in a cause and working on something that drives you. Additionally, he pointed out that you can work on human rights issues from many different types of organizations, and that, in fact, limiting your career path to only one sector is often less effective than gaining experience by going from one sector to another.

The panel was mostly in agreement on the kinds of skills, experiences, and qualities necessary for many of their positions or the human rights profession in general: languages (at least 2, if interested in international work), applied research, writing and communication skills (distilling ideas in a way that resonates), being a team player, showing that one is serious and respectful but also friendly, strategic thinking (seeing all the moving parts of a process and knowing how to synthesize them), quick thinking, methodological training, problem solving and sound judgment, world experience (living abroad, experience with other cultures), and drive, to name the most frequently mentioned. How does one gain such skills and experience? This was less fully addressed. The panel did suggest the importance of networking, internships, putting the word out that you’re looking for a certain kind of work, having mentors (informal and formal), error-free applications, and to “be a star intern!”

While it is useful to be reminded of the value of these skills and the strategies for showcasing them, looking back it is clear that the list of skills, experiences, and qualities the panel assembled is not unique to the human rights field. Even if the embodiment of all these qualifications does make someone an exceptional candidate, these skills and experiences fall in line with similar lists that one could imagine for virtually every profession. So even as these individuals all offered unique perspectives and valuable advice, I felt that an audience feeling ever more pressured by an ever-increasingly corporatized and bureaucratized human rights field would be better served by a more creative or reflective approach to ‘careers in human rights’. What I would like to hear, then, from those in the thick of the profession is what (academic, intellectual, social, cultural, etc.) backgrounds and skills they feel are underrepresented in their field? What kinds of individuals have surprised them by their contribution to their shared work? When have unexpected convergences of perspectives, individuals, or groups lead to fruitful collaborations? When have existing structures proved inadequate to the tasks of effecting change and how might these moments of failure point to potential spaces for innovation? What are the mechanisms by which a human rights perspective might be creatively introduced to all sorts of spaces—governmental, educational, corporate, personal, recreational? What are the limits or weaknesses of their organizations?

These broader conversations about creative solutions to pressing problems would enhance the value of human rights education and further complement a full CV.

Tim Wyman-McCarthy is an M.A. candidate at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. His research focuses on indigenous rights in settler colonial settings, human rights discourse, and disability rights.

“What is your vision of human rights work?” -Careers in Human Rights Panel Discussion

By Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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Human rights work can encompass a myriad of issues, projects, approaches and geographical locations. This wide range of opportunities can be exhilarating for human rights students; however, it can also be hard to find the right fit for students’ skills and passions. To address the possibilities and challenges of working in this field as well as provide students with guidance and advice, the Institute of Human Rights Studies at Columbia University hosted a panel discussion, “Careers in Human Rights,” on Monday, April 7, 2014.

The panel consisted of four professionals with a diverse range of experiences in human rights work: Sapna Chhatpar Considine, Program Director at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect; Larry Cox, Co-Director of Kairos: the Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA; Meg Gardinier, Director of Arigatou International-New York and Chair of the Campaign for U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and Refik Hodzic, Director of Communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice. The panelists described their present work and projects, as well as their paths to their current positions. Their presentations were followed by a Q&A session.

Panelists from left: Meg Gardinier, Refik Hodzic, Sapna Chhatpar Considine, and Larry Cox

A common theme that emerged in all of the presentations was the value of collaboration amongst their various lines of work. Gardinier noted that, on the one hand, NGOs offer more freedom and ways to focus on human-rights based work but the budget is often limited. On the other hand, larger institutions provide substantive resources and authority. However, well-funded inter-governmental organizations may offer fewer opportunities to directly contribute to rights-related projects. The answer, she said, lies in partnerships between these entities, as well as among civil society actors more generally. She also recommended that students consider the possibilities of collaboration with the private sector by exploring work in corporate social responsibility, for example.

Panelists also highlighted issues around obtaining funds for their work, and they agreed that fundraising can create undeniable tension because the process can be time-consuming and create competition with like-minded organizations. They noted pressures that are at times contradictory and make the process even more difficult to navigate, like the troubled economy coupled with the fact that there is more funding for human rights than ever before. Panelists underscored the need for creativity and “doing more with less,” and also exhorted students to work on gaining fundraising skills, an asset in the non-profit world.

The session ended with the question, “What is a specific skill, quality or qualification in the people you look to hire that these students can try to further develop?” The panelists’ answers included: strong writing skills, up-to-date knowledge of social media tools, solid interpersonal skills, knowledge of the particular issue being addressed, network-building capabilities, humility and the ability to listen. Cox advised: “Be self-critical and try to get rid of your ego, you don’t have to be the best and the brightest. Social justice is about another society, different values…if all you want to do is take the values we have now and bring them into social justice, you’re just going to be part of the problem.”

Despite the diversity of the panelists’ experiences and areas of expertise, they all communicated the value of staying true to one’s principles while inevitably having to engage in frustrating corporate dynamics. They urged students to maintain their sense of integrity and hope in the face of obstacles. For example, despite having quit his previous job twice over a sense of disillusionment with his former institution, Hodzic now finds himself in a rewarding role, advocating for human rights through communications methods: “I’m proud to count myself among the people who are trying to develop the thinking about how the fields of journalism and activism are merging, and to practice that theory in a way.” Considine mentioned the difficulty of watching the Syria crisis unfold, but went on to describe how much she appreciates being able to travel the world and talk to civil society members about the Responsibility to Protect. Gardinier described how the US Campaign to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child has been a long process, but that it’s deeply significant to her and her colleagues, saying: “It’s slow but important work.”

All of the panelists echoed the sense of having an innate pull towards human rights work that sustains them. Considine noted her dedication to her profession, even when it can feel impractical: “As I get older, it can feel harder to justify the pay I get and the hours I spend, but I’m one hundred percent committed to this work, which is why I’ve stayed in it.” Cox added, “You have to decide not only what you want to do, but what is your vision of doing human rights work? A well-paying job? Or does it mean something else? My advice is, if you really want to be in the future of human rights, try to go find those organizations on the ground, the Dreamers movement, the Gay Rights movement, go work with them for a while, take advantage of the fact that maybe you don’t have twelve kids yet. Go listen to them, and learn from them.” Hodzic noted, “I think this work chooses you, rather than the other way around. You have to be a certain kind of person, a certain kind of professional to do this work. I don’t think you could just ‘make it’ a career like you do in the corporate world.”

Many human rights students attended this event, including several from various other programs at Columbia. Numerous students stayed afterwards to talk to the speakers individually. This panel was useful in providing an honest, open forum for dialogue about the challenges and rewards of this line of work. The panelists’ anecdotes and straightforward advice gave students a sense of where their own interests might lead and which skills to cultivate. Through the stories of their own professional trajectories, the panelists encouraged students to pursue what they find meaningful and to sustain their vision of what a more just world will look like.

 

Caroline Fidan Tyler Doenmez is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. Her main areas of interest concern the collective rights to culture and education for girls and women in indigenous communities. She is also currently interning at UN Women. 

“Justice is given to whomever is louder”

By Jenna Wallace, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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Penelopa Gjurchilova, a former Macedonian diplomat and visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) quoted this popular Macedonian proverb during her opening remarks at a symposium entitled “Foreign Policy Makeover: Women’s Roles and Rights in Diplomacy,” held on November 14, 2013 at Columbia University.

ISHR and the Gender and Public Policy Specialization at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) hosted this symposium, consisting of two panels of former and current ambassadors and foreign policy professionals from around the world.  The panelists discussed personal experiences within the field of diplomacy and shared their professional perspectives on the issue of including women’s rights in diplomatic affairs. Chaired by Yasmine Ergas, Associate Director of ISHR and Director of the Gender and Public Policy Specialization at SIPA, the symposium created a unique opportunity for women and men to be heard on the role of gender and women’s rights in foreign policy.

From left, Yasmine Ergas, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, Ambassador John Hirsch, Ambassador Karen Tan, and Ambassador Greta Gunnarsdotir engage in a panel discussion with Columbia students and faculty.

From left, Yasmine Ergas, Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo, Ambassador John Hirsch, Ambassador Karen Tan, and Ambassador Greta Gunnarsdotir engage in a panel discussion with Columbia students and faculty.

Penelopa Gjurchilova began the symposium with a call to younger generations to be guided by principles of equity and equality, which other panelists echoed in their discussions.  She pointed out that although the status of women in diplomacy is improving, many countries have not seen progress on this issue, which is not only a matter of human rights but is essential in maintaining peaceful international relations and equality worldwide.

The distinguished speakers spoke about how women in diplomacy tend to face particularly difficult challenges, not least among which include existing stereotypes regarding traditional women’s roles and the always-in-conflict tug of war between family life and career.  There are, however, ways for women to improve their experiences in the diplomatic corps.  Women must communicate with each other, exchange ideas, and form networks within which they can help each other as they enter and rise through the diplomatic ranks.  As more women achieve higher-level diplomatic positions, stereotypes break down and access to more prestigious positions increases. Women in diplomacy in the past, and even now, are the pioneers, and despite the difficulty of that position, it is their responsibility to make that workforce easier for women in the future.

Also voiced throughout the panel discussions was the conviction that the engagement of women in diplomacy absolutely does not mean the disengagement of men. Gender equality is especially necessary for peace processes, or lasting peace will be impossible to achieve.   Creating opportunities for women in diplomacy and post-conflict processes will take a considerable amount of work, and mostly from women. For example, the United Nations Women branch was established only when a group of female ambassadors got together, lobbied for its existence, and put massive effort into its creation. Another example of proactive women came from Ambassador John Hirsch, who explained that women played an immense role in ending a junta rule in Sierra Leone and in instituting elections.  They became role models for other nations, and we must remember that women are integral to the processes of peace and reconciliation.

Another crucial point, which became a topic of discussion in the second panel, was the lack of governments’ political commitment to putting gender issues on their agendas.  While an awareness of gender issues in governments is important, there also must be the political will to do something about them, without which nothing can truly be accomplished. In order to achieve change, governments must budget for gender issues and ensure that the structures in place promote equality.  The individual is very important, but if the correct structures are not in place, there is only so far women can go. Leadership is terribly important as well, as H.E. Mrs. Tine Mørch Smith, Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN, highlighted. A whole generation of girls in Norway was empowered by the female Prime Minister at the time, and this played an immense role in the ambassador’s aspirations to begin a career in diplomacy as well as her access to higher-level positions.

Carne Ross, Executive Director of Independent Diplomat, presented a powerful opinion on the issue of gender itself.  Of utmost importance is “de-gendering.” As long as diplomacy remains infused with a male-dominated environment, made up of zero sum negotiations, heavy drinking, long hours, and other traditionally male workplace characterizations, it will be challenging for women to rise in the ranks.  Hiring more women, though it sounds like a solution, cannot alone address the problem.  A systematic analysis into the political and institutional structures needs to take place.  Diplomacy, he confidently stated, is a gendered archetype in itself.  Win-lose modeling takes precedence over a consensus-seeking model, hard issues are valued over “soft” issues, empiricism is valued over emotion, and there is a priority to security over all else.  Complete with a historical notion of hierarchy, the diplomatic corps is male-oriented, as are states.  Therefore, global issues will not be solved by states at all, but rather, by a mass movement of men and women who are not bound within a hierarchical system.

Mr. Ross’s bold views on de-gendering were appreciated; it was also pointed out that we must talk about the differentiation of experiences between men and women, maintaining two perspectives but being careful not to recreate gender dichotomies.  We must, Ms. Ergas mentioned, move beyond the question of gender and find the next step.

The symposium raised a lot of important issues, shining a light on gender inequality in diplomacy and opening the door for further discussion and analysis of gender questions. This symposium has set the stage, and now we must work together to find, analyze, and take that next step so that we, eventually, do not have to talk about gender at all.

Distinguished panelists included:

  • H.E. Mrs. Rosemary A. DiCarlo (U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN)
  • Ambassador John Hirsch (former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Sierra Leone and a current SIPA Professor)
  • H.E. Ms. Karen Tan (Permanent Representative of Singapore to the UN)
  • H.E. Ms. Gréta Gunnarsdóttir (Permanent Representative of Iceland to the UN)
  • H.E. Mrs. Tine Mørch Smith (Deputy Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN)
  • Mr. Carne Ross (Executive Director of Independent Diplomat)
  • H.E. Mrs. Natalia Quintvalle, (Consul General of Italy)
  • Ms. Fiyola Hoosen-Steele (Head of the Plan International South Africa Office to the UN and former Diplomat in South Africa)

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Jenna Wallace is an M.A. candidate in the Columbia University Human Rights Studies program. She is specializing in indigenous women’s rights, and is looking forward to a robust career in international human rights advocacy. 

Welcoming the Fall Semester at ISHR

By Amy Sall, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University

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On September 17th, The Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) hosted their annual Fall Reception where human rights advocates, scholars, and students gathered to welcome the new school year. Hosted on the top floor of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the backdrop of the New York City skyline was a befitting scene for the diverse crowd of current and future human rights practitioners. The attendees included incoming and returning human rights students and professors from across Columbia, as well as scholars and fellows at the ISHR.

The reception was a great way to meet students, professors, human rights advocates and fellows. Hedayt Selim, a first-year student from Cairo in the Master of Arts in Human Rights Studies program, was among many of the guests attending the ISHR Fall Reception. “It’s a great opportunity to branch out and meet professors and fellow students that you wouldn’t otherwise meet.” Selim, like many other first-year students, ws drawn to Columbia’s human rights program for many reasons.  “What I liked about this program was its interdisciplinary character and I think New York is a great place to be studying human rights.”

Yasmine Ergas, the Associate Director of the ISHR, and the Director for Gender and Human Rights addressed the crowd with a warm welcome and introduced a group of human rights leaders participating in the Human Rights Advocates program. Elazar Barkan, the Director of the ISHR, and Professor of International and Public Affairs at SIPA, introduced this year’s participating fellows in the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability program. Then the advocates and fellows each introduced themselves and spoke about the work they do in their respective countries. Coming from countries around the world, the advocates and fellows represent a diverse group with a collective common goal to raise awareness of human rights issues affecting their countries in order to push for peace and justice.

Geoffrey Mayamba (left) and Isaiah Chabala (right)

Geoffrey Mayamba (left) and Isaiah Chabala (right)

Geoffrey Mayamba, an advocate from Zambia participating in the Human Rights Advocates program, represented Prisoners Future Foundation which is an organization he founded that aims to improve the welfare of current and former prisoners in Zambia. “Our vision is to see a society in which the rights and other needs of prisoners and ex-prisoners are understood, respected and upheld.” Prisoners Future Foundation has been running for five years but has only been funded for two. Mayamba, having been a prisoner in his home of Zambia for over 10 years, was inspired to create the organization based on his own experiences. “Having seen the sufferings that prisoners are subjected to, I felt I could form an organization to address these issues and be a voice for the voiceless.” Some of the main priorities of the organization include working with the Zambian government in an effort to establish ways to decongest the prisons, provide access to adequate health care in the facilities, and find ways to improve prisoners’ access to justice. Mayamba’s organization also works with the Minister of Justice to develop judicial reform policy.

Another advocate who discussed his work that evening was Biel Boutros Biel from South Sudan. Biel is the Executive Director of the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA). “I’m learning a lot in the program and it is helping me do far better in my work in South Sudan.” Part of the work he does is inform people on human rights issues, as well as working to educate women, youth, local government officials and local authorities on human rights.

Serhat Rasul Cacan, one of the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability fellows introduced at the event, is a historian from Turkey that specializes in oral history. As part of his work and research in oral history, he works on projects that analyze narratives and life stories of Turkish people. Cacan focuses mainly on Kurdish narratives, and analyzes how Kurdish people have memorized events in the past. “There is a motto ‘we cannot change the history, but we can change our memory about the history.’” During his time at Columbia, Cacan plans to create a project which incorporates historical dialogue within Turkish and Armenian communities.

Isaiah Chabala, a former ambassador of Zambia to the United Nations and the European Union, was also among the distinguished, global leaders and advocates. After his career as an ambassador, Chabala became president and founder of a non-profit called Visionary Empowerment who’s mission is “to empower women and girls of under-served communities in Zambia, and to teach them how to sustain and enable themselves.” This in turn helps to combat poverty, gender inequality, and vulnerability. Visionary Empowerment was founded in 2005, and has successfully trained more than 600 women and girls by providing skills and vocational training.

The work of the ISHR’s advocates and fellows, as well as human rights students under the guidance of accomplished and enthusiastic professors was greatly recognized at the Fall Reception. The room was full of human rights actors and was an inspiring way to set the tone for the academic year.

Amy is a first year graduate student at Columbia University’s M.A. in Human Rights Program.  Her interest is in human rights in Africa, with a special focus on children’s rights and youth development in the continent.