We live in a world in which many social problems and deeply rooted injustices threaten the lives and livelihoods of many people around the globe. But the chronic character of these problems does not have to be our permanent, irresolvable reality. Individuals and institutions have the capacity to create lasting solutions that will overcome any socially constructed problem. But concrete solutions to human rights abuses demand that we bridge the gap between reflective academic analysis of human rights concepts and their practical application. Finding these solutions will require us to provide the intellectual resources to a new generation that will make social justice the new reality.
From my perspective, the study of human rights suffers from being considered an appendage, or merely a secondary thematic focus of other established disciplines such as the law, political science or philosophy. Perhaps precisely because of the extraordinary interdisciplinary scope of human rights discourse, analysis and practice, the comprehensive study of human rights has not been given the dedicated institutional support it deserves. But the multifaceted and interdisciplinary character of human rights studies coheres around specific theoretical concepts, methodologies and interpretive frameworks worthy of rigorous analysis and application. I believe that academic institutions should offer and sustain comprehensive research and curricular programs to educate students in understanding the historical, normative and theoretical implications of human rights.
Human rights studies is a discipline of increasing global significance that seeks to explore the meaning of human rights and the means by which people secure and defend them. Broad recognition of the importance of human rights as both a significant socio-cultural force and a specific analytical lens into contemporary politics has expanded in the form of programs and concentrations in major research institutions. Concepts of human rights and the application of both universal and culturally specific principles to extend and secure human rights have deep historical roots in social thought. These concepts and applications are dynamic and continually evolving in the contemporary world.
Human rights issues have become central to substantive political action by individuals, states, multilateral institutions and international non-governmental organizations. Human rights discourse, principles and practices have emerged as the most widely acknowledged grounds for a common moral basis on which to approach issues of universal concern such as climate change, global health, and collective security. Human rights holds the best potential for developing a moral, value-based global discourse in order to enhance trust internationally, to overcome collective action problems and protect the most vulnerable: the poor and future generations.
For two years I have worked to create a human rights major at Yale with the sustained support of my faculty advisors and the administration. This proposal is still being formulated and although I cannot predict the ultimate outcome, I will continue to assiduously advocate for its implementation. In the process, I have realized that we must address a broader question. What is the place of human rights in an academic context? In order to address this question I decided to organize a conference, scheduled for April 2, bringing 20 leading academics and practitioners of human rights to Yale to participate on three panels. I believe these pioneers of social justice agreed to come because they realize a transcendentally important principle: that human rights knows few boundaries and demands no exceptions. They understand that education is critical to the advancement and understanding of human rights and that there needs to be sustained conversation, debate and creative collaboration among academics, practitioners and institutional administrators that will invigorate, expand and advance human rights education in the United States and beyond.
This is a critical moment for human rights in education. Few programs in human rights exist at academic institutions, but universities across the country — including Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago and the University of Connecticut — are in the process of expanding existing human rights centers and creating new programs and degrees. Yale has historically been at the forefront of academic scholarship in diverse disciplines, and given our purported focus on international issues, social justice and environmental sustainability, it would appear that human rights studies is particularly suited to our broader mission. This is Yale’s time to lead a new movement of scholarship and institutional responsibility.
I end by asking: why are there vastly more think tanks for war than there are for human rights? Why do we assume that intellectual inquiry is an abstraction and must not leave the confines of dusty libraries? Let us join in using our education to resist the comfort of inaction, to fight in making an informed ideal the new reality.
Justine Kolata is a junior in Morse College.