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Schell Center Human Rights Workshop: A Forum for Practitioners, Activists, Scholars--and Students

The formula is as pure as any educational enterprise can be: a location, students, and teachers. Laptops aren't necessary, nor is an Ethernet connection or audio-visual equipment--because the Human Rights Workshop at YLS centers on discussion. The presence of a table heaped with snacks and drinks may help boost attendance a little, but everyone is most interested in the consumption of ideas and information.

"I started the workshop," explains Paul Kahn '80, the Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities and director of the Orville H. Schell, Jr., Center for International Human Rights, which sponsors the Human Rights Workshop, "because I had a sense that students . . . needed a place where they could have an ongoing discussion" of human rights issues.

If you visit the Faculty Lounge on a Friday at 12:30 p.m., you'll find it filled with students engaged in this colloquy--some sitting on the floor or standing to make room--with a few faculty mixed in the crowd. According to Kahn, the workshop has been "spectacularly successful," his vision of a discussion group of 15 or 20 people often swelling to more than 100 participants.

Each week, a speaker gives a talk on a different area of human rights. Usually, the presentation centers on work that the speaker has been actively engaged in. For example, the November 9 iteration of the Human Rights Workshop brought David Cole '84 to YLS for a talk titled "Cautionary Tales for Cautionary Times: Secret Evidence, Guilt by Association, and the War against Terrorism."

Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, described his experience representing immigrants charged with terrorism over the previous decade. He reported that in 13 cases where the government fought to use secret evidence because they deemed the defendant to be a threat to national security, when the evidence was eventually revealed, "it became clear that the charges were just guilt by association." All of his clients were eventually released, and none actually posed a threat.

Cole went on to discuss the recently enacted USA Patriot Act, which he said "reserves its harshest provisions by far for immigrants." He worried that it officially made guilt by association a deportable offence. "I think it is wrong, ineffective, and will come back to haunt us," he concluded.

Second-year student Sari Bashi particularly enjoyed Cole's presentation for its "insights into the balance between security and civil liberties. . . . It was interesting to get [his] perspective on how his work has changed" since September 11.

Eric Friedman, a third-year YLS student who attends the workshop, says that he finds sessions in which speakers describe their experiences facing particular challenges to be the most engaging. He recalls a presentation in which reporter Philip Gourevitch detailed the lack of attention that the U.S. paid to atrocities in Africa as "very, very powerful." But along with his interest in these individual stories, Friedman values the "detailed understanding of a number of issues" that he has accumulated.

James Silk '89, the executive director of the Schell Center, believes that the workshop is most effective when the presenters are "people who are themselves both practitioners or activists and scholars." This double perspective allows the workshop to "[ask] some interesting big questions, while dealing with a really troubling and compelling factual situation."

Indeed, Paul Kahn emphasizes that the workshop is "not just a current events discussion group." He wants a serious academic inquiry to "raise the level of discussion on practical matters" and look at the theoretical side of human rights law. "I want human rights to be taken out of a purely practical context," he says.

Kahn himself begins the exchange that follows each speaker's presentation with the first question. His goal is to generate a discussion that goes beyond the simple affirmation that human rights is an important subject. "I always enjoy pushing people's ideas," he says. "To me, it's exciting when you get into a conflict and have a real discussion."

Students and others follow with their own questions or descriptions of their experiences. Sari Bashi says she particularly values hearing from her fellow students. Many of them, including Bashi herself, have done human rights fellowships through the Schell Center or have other expertise to contribute.

"Human rights has become an important international language," says James Silk. He notes that interest in international law in general is growing as people realize that events far away can have applications close to home, and he thinks that the opportunity to explore these events is vital.

Students in the workshop may pursue a career dedicated to human rights work, or they may enter a more conventional career track. But Silk hopes that exposure to the workshop will lead people one day working in government and corporations "to make a decision that is more protective of human rights." Eric Friedman, for one, is actively applying for fellowships in the field, while his classmate David Marcus says he'd like to pursue other areas of law first, then get more involved in human rights. But both have found the workshop to be a vital part of their education.

In fact, Marcus avows that the Human Rights Workshop was "my entree to really liking the law." It engaged his interest in history by "drawing comparisons between things happening in the present and things in the past." He was captivated by how one can use judgments of past events, such as the Holocaust, to help evaluate more recent events, such as the genocide in Rwanda.

Furthermore, the workshop helped Marcus see the role that lawyers can play in the struggle for international human rights, through "the process of articulating standards and norms" and applying them to the practices of various governments. He adds that "a lot of that can be done in the library at the Law School."

James Silk concludes that the workshop "tries to step back a little and look at human rights issues from a variety of perspectives." And he hopes that the discussion of "the problems in our work . . . will make better advocates."