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Why a human rights certificate?

Few themes dramatize the challenges of the 21st-century better than human rights.

Egyptian gays alleging rights violations get journalists to press conferences that vanish as soon as police appear with clubs raised. Indigenous communities fight climate change by expressing rights to ancestral lands seized centuries earlier. In the United States, “Dreamers” base claims for university education on rights guaranteed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rights moves policy and millions of dollars (and pounds, pesos and marks) in aid, sanctions and, increasingly, armies, prosecutions and prison time. Rights thinking has expanded statistics, satellite technology (with watchdogs basing claims of genocide on photos taken from space) and architecture, shaped in bricks and mortar in South Africa’s Constitutional Court and Chile’s Memory Museum, among other places.

Universities are part of this trend, with expanding human rights programs and degrees. At a time when the very purpose of a college education is in debate, you might ask, why human rights?

The faculty that make up the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute came up with a powerful answer in a new human rights certificate proposal that garnered overwhelming support at a Fall 2015 Arts and Sciences Council meeting. Starting this semester, students eager for knowledge that connects to real world problems will find a rich pathway in this certificate.
And there are few more compelling arenas than North Carolina.

While many assume human rights abuses only happen far away, in fact they exist as much here as anywhere. Take, for example, the “torture taxis” based at the Johnston County Municipal Airport an hour south of Raleigh. After 9/11, the Bush Administration used the airport to link the Middle East and so-called black sites in Romania and Afghanistan where detainees were tortured. One of America’s largest anti-torture grassroots groups, North Carolina Stop Torture Now, is based in the Triangle. NCSTN works to promote accountability for torture, and is organizing a Commission of Inquiry to document how the state supported torture through providing airport facilities.

The Triangle is also a center of refugee resettlement. Mostly church-based groups take in hundreds of desperate families from Nepal, Iraq, Sudan and Syria, among other places. Despite anti-immigrant electioneering by some politicians, the Triangle is considered a welcoming place according to Ellen Andrews, director of the Durham offices of Church World Service, a resettlement group. With restrictive voter identification laws and diminished access to health care, the state is also a model for how civil and social rights are at risk. All of these elements—from refugees through the right to health care, housing and education—are contained in the Universal Declaration and under assault in North Carolina.

In collaboration with the Forum of Scholars and Publics, the DHRC@FHI sponsored a series of events this year looking at the human rights implications of gentrification in Durham. Locals, Blue Devils and activists packed every event, passionate about if and how rights conflict with economic development, freedom of movement and social welfare. The Pauli Murray Project seeks to connect the legacy of this Durham daughter—a noted human rights activist—to social justice work through community dialogues and ongoing documentary projects. Although the American south gave rise to the civil rights movement, race and gender inequalities are persistent.

As we discovered when we drafted our certificate curriculum, the definition of what constitutes a “right” and the means by which these rights are defended shift and are disputed, even (perhaps especially) among activists. Human rights as a phrase may be young, but the concept of determining right and wrong is as old as human society. Knowing this deep history informs new transformations of how people hurt—and defend—each other.

The classics are rich with examples of how early societies grappled with these questions, from slavery to the treatment of the poor and conduct in war. Even when armies were engaged—as the Greeks were around Priam’s Troy, according to Homer’s epic—the grieving Trojan king could sneak into the tent of the warrior Achilles to beg for the body of his slain son, knowing that the Myrmidon leader understood he had committed a war crime by defiling Hector’s body behind his chariot.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the former first lady and chair of the American delegation that helped shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, knew that the real challenge was not the draft but “actually living and working in our countries for freedom and justice for each human being.'” She and the framers could not have foreseen how new generations would interpret Article 16, which guarantees the right to marriage without limiting the definition to a union between opposite genders—or even limited to two people.

The hundreds of treaties that flow from the UDHR now protect indigenous peoples, women, children and the disabled and regulate or ban landmines and chemical weapons, among other things.

Advances in rights protection have fundamentally reshaped our world. Some scholars describe the 1990s as the beginning of the “justice cascade,” the emergence of national, regional and international enforcement mechanisms. Enforcement is especially robust in Europe, where the European Court of Human Rights has issued more than 10,000 rulings related to rights protection as diverse as racial discrimination and the mistreatment of prisoners and improper trial conduct.

However, to the Flint, Mich., child or Honduran environmental advocate, these advances seem a distant development. To that group one might add the chronically jobless in West Virginia or Miamians facing the very real effects of climate change as their city begins to sink beneath their feet. Even as we gain important venues like the International Criminal Court, which hears cases involving genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, we are faced with new and thorny challenges, like the current refugee crisis.

One thing is clear. These complexities demand scholarly, interdisciplinary engagement. This lies at the heart of Duke’s new human rights certificate: to immerse students in the study of human rights from a legal, critical and deeply historical perspective; engage them with its substantive contradictions; and require them to do the hard work of puzzling out how human rights can be used to create a better (if not perfect) world.

The writers are faculty and members of the DHRC@FHI Executive Committee. Students interested in the human rights certificate should contact


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