UW News

November 12, 1999

UW reaches across globe to pioneer interdisciplinary study program on human rights

Imagine sitting down to these exam questions:
„h Are human rights universal or culturally bound?
„h Do rights exist prior to law?
„h Which should prevail: human rights or national sovereignty?

Tough as those questions are, they?ve been dominating the headlines and inspired the creation of the University of Washington?s trail-blazing Human Rights Education & Research Network (HRERN).

The year-old interdisciplinary project has begun to offer scholars new channels for research while giving students a chance to take part in history being made, said Bruce Kochis, the network?s director and a senior lecturer at UW Bothell.

As a fledgling academic field, human rights study explores the realities of the post-Cold War world order. Not only do rights abuses provoke policy dilemmas that demand scholarly investigation, Kochis said, but the field offers a career path for thousands of students preparing to join international courts and relief agencies.

?A lot of students,? Kochis said, ?are finding a home in this work.?

And not just after they graduate.

Recent grants from the network sent international studies major Roni Amit to Israel to review the role of international law in guaranteeing Palestinian rights, and third-year law student Meagan Smith to Sarajevo to help resettle returning Bosnian refugees.

Smith, working since June as an intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is setting up legal-aid centers for displaced families trickling back to their homes. Despite the provisions of the Dayton Peace Accords, the refugees face financial and legal roadblocks.

Smith said in a recent e-mail that she might well return overseas after completing her UW law degree, but she has mixed feelings about international organizations that fail to let troubled regions sort out their own problems.

?The international community has many resources which could be invaluable for the peace process,? she said, ?if used properly.?

The chance for students like Smith to witness and even intervene in global problems, said Kochis, ?just changes students? lives ? they aren?t the same when they come back.?

Kochis wrote a proposal for the rights project back in fall 1997, which evolved a year later into a $270,000, two-year Tools for Transformation grant. A three-campus committee of scholars ? advised by rights activists and experts in the community ? is developing plans for permanent UW and external funding.

The network plans to soon make human rights an undergraduate minor, as well an optional speciality for those pursuing a master?s in public policy.
?The bulk of the curriculum work is done,? Kochis said, ?and future funding will be devoted to coordination and the development of a major and possibly a future degree, as well as ongoing research in the complex issues of human rights.?

After that, possibilities include an international center for victims of torture and other abuses, plus a Human Rights Law Clinic to engage law students in actual cases.

Scholars taking part run the gamut of disciplines, from language, to business, to nursing, to the genetics research of medical professor Mary-Claire King, who has gathered DNA evidence of massacres in Kosovo, Argentina, Rwanda and elsewhere.

Bill Talbott, an associate professor of philosophy, credited a grant from the project with enabling him to take the summer off from teaching to write the first half of a book on human rights. Without the support, he said, ?I would not have had time to work on the manuscript.?

Major participants in the human rights network include the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies; the UW Center for Labor Studies; the Comparative History of Ideas program; and Suzzallo Library?s Treaty Research Center, which is developing one of the most important databases on human rights treaties worldwide.

As faculty expertise grows, Kochis hopes the network will become a policy resource to be tapped by governments and port authorities grappling with boycotts, trade questions and other rights-related matters.

?It?s past the time,? he said, ?when Seattle can hide its head in potholes and not deal with global issues. The question is how we?re going to globalize ? not whether.?


For more information, contact Kochis at (425) 352-3364 or bkochis@u.washington.edu.