UChicago event reflects on human rights challenges facing our world

Pozen Center’s 25th anniversary features discussion exploring past, future of scholarship

When human rights first formed as a field of knowledge in American universities in the 1970s, it was primarily taught in law schools, and its programs were affiliated with public policy or law faculties. Twenty-five years ago, the University of Chicago charted a different course to exploring global human rights by engaging disciplines across the humanities, social sciences, law and medicine.

A distinguished panel of scholars and practitioners recently gathered at UChicago to reflect on the 25th anniversary of the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights, as well as the future of scholarship in human rights.

“As we go forward, that vision infuses our approach to some of the most pressing human rights issues of our times, making the Pozen Center a critical site for helping global publics understand the true scope of the human rights dilemmas we face now and tomorrow,” said Mark Bradley, faculty director of the Pozen Center and the Bernadotte E. Schmitt Distinguished Service Professor of International History and the College,

Speaking at the “Human Rights at the Crossroads” colloquium, held at the International House on Oct. 20, Yale University scholar Samuel Moyn noted that many human rights programs across the country emerged at a time when there was implicit acceptance of certain political paradigms that are no longer considered unassailable fact.

“It’s an auspicious but also very perplexing moment to celebrate an institutional birthday, because you have to decide what to make the center into next,” said Moyn, the Chancellor Kent professor of law and history. “A center like this has to be at the forefront of thinking about what it means to practice and theorize human rights in the midst of these changes.”

For Yale Law School scholar Aslı Ü. Bâli, these new frontiers of thinking about human rights should include elevating the promise of holding one's own government accountable. Human rights abuses in the Global North, such as police brutality, displaced persons at the U.S. border, labor rights, and continual health inequities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, are areas where it’s possible to imagine citizens holding their own government responsible through civil society tribunals.

“People’s tribunals are just as important as official mechanisms to hold accountable the powerful states that constantly exceptionalize themselves and hold themselves above international law,” said Ayça Çubukçu, associate professor in Human Rights and co-director of LSE Human Rights at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“We’re living in a moment when international organizations are unable or unwilling to hold the most powerful states accountable. As far as the future of human rights is concerned, we need to think beyond these institutions and critique them at their roots,” Çubukçu said. “I think that’s going to be the challenge for human rights thinking in the 21st century.”

Engaging with ‘one of the most important topics of the world’

The Human Rights Program at UChicago was renamed the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights in honor of a generous gift from Richard Pozen, AB’69, and Ann Pozen and their family in 2014. Five years ago, an additional gift from the Pozen family endowed the Human Rights Lab, which allows students to take courses taught by UChicago faculty alongside incarcerated men at the Stateville Correctional Facility in suburban Joliet.

Every year, 1,300 College students take classes at the Center, which launched a Human Rights major for the first time this year. Its fully funded summer internship program, which began in the late 1990s, has sent more than 500 undergraduate and graduate students to do human rights work out in the world, and marked one of the first major commitments within the College to experimental education.

“The challenges of human rights today probably look very different than in 1997, as the arc of history has evolved,” said President Paul Alivisatos. “But I think the Center will be here as long as the University will be here, and it will help bring our faculty and students into engagement with one of the most important topics in the world.”

To the college students in the audience, panelists offered directions to take human rights work into the future.

“We need to think about the nature of structural inequality, how it works, how it is invisibilized, and what the consequences of that occlusion are,” said Kamari Clarke, distinguished professor at the Centre for Criminology & Sociological Studies and the Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto.

Juno Jill Richards, associate professor of English and affiliated faculty in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale, charged students to further critiques of individualist rights frameworks. “It’s about reimagining what a ‘right’ might refer to, or how to reimagine the relationship between an individual and a social good,” she said. “The freedoms of some can be premised on the unfreedoms of others.”

To close the colloquium, the panel reflected on an audience question about what role scholars can play in human rights, given the uneven history of many academic institutions being ineffective at stopping human rights abuses at best, and at worst, being complicit in perpetuating them.

The very concept of “human rights,” said Bâli, is an elastic construct that academics can and should critique and refine.

“You can think much more broadly than what does the doctrine of human rights do today, and ask what you can get the doctrine to do tomorrow.”