Faculty Focus

Peter Rosenblum

Human Rights

Through his work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Professor Peter Rosenblum shows that economic development is crucial to the promotion of human rights

By Joy Y. Wang

Winter 2010

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In an average year, Professor Peter Rosenblum LLM ’92 travels to the Africa three or four times to monitor ongoing human rights projects. His work also takes him to Latin American and parts of Asia. But his current stay in Bangalore, India, is out of the ordinary.

“I’m on my first sabbatical ever,” explains Rosenblum, the Law School’s Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein Clinical Professor in Human Rights. At the moment, he is taking time off from international fieldwork to pursue more intensive scholarship. “I publish a fair number of reports and advocacy papers, but don’t typically have time to reflect,” he says. “Now I’m writing a chapter for a book on national human rights institutions. That’s prepping me for more reflective pieces on the state of the human rights movement.”

New Indian visa regulations have conspired to make Rosenblum stay in one place for a relatively long period. He admits that it is a welcome respite. After all, in a couple of months, the professor will return to Africa, where he is scheduled to meet with students from the Law School’s Human Rights Clinic to work on a project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Rosenblum is the director of the clinic and faculty co-director of the Law School's Human Rights Institute. He and several Law School students have spent the last four years advocating for and assisting in the review of mining contracts the country entered into with private companies. Their goal has been to increase transparency and ensure that profits from the DRC’s natural resources are used to benefit the nation’s people. The country’s rich natural resources have long been a primary source of corruption and conflict, most recently sustaining a rebellion in the eastern part of country, even after formal peace was established.

Rosenblum, who has been working in the DRC on-and-off for two decades, first conceived of the project in 2006, when he and Karin Ryan, director of The Carter Center’s Human Rights Program, were there monitoring elections. The two realized that a large part of the country’s future would be shaped by how it dealt with the massive inflow of mining investment. So the Human Rights Clinic partnered with The Carter Center, an organization begun by President Jimmy Carter to promote health and human rights, in an effort to make the mining contracts open to public and international scrutiny. Change has not come easy. “We got the government to disclose most of the contracts, which was, itself, unprecedented,” he says, “but the review wasn’t as transparent and open as we had hoped. A lot was still done behind closed doors.”

The clinic’s partnership with the Carter Center remains strong, and Rosenblum is particularly excited about a new joint project: an online map that will track the impact of mining. “We are developing an interactive, web-based resource that will identify who is where, doing what, and where the money goes,” Rosenblum says. “Our goal is to make complex economic and social data and analysis available to local activists, legislators, and international organizations.”

The new project, like much of his recent work on natural resources, is interdisciplinary, requiring professionals familiar with financial modeling, environmental data analysis, and mapping technology. So Rosenblum has enlisted help from students and faculty at Columbia’s Business School, Earth Institute, and School of International and Public Affairs. In the past, he also solicited the help of experienced business lawyers from the International Senior Lawyers Project, a nonprofit organization that places experienced lawyers around the world to perform pro bono legal work. 

Rosenblum and those involved in the clinic’s work, students and activists alike, have “had to fight to be taken seriously by the World Bank, mining companies and investors,” he says. “We’ve had to show that we’re not a bunch of soft-headed do-gooders on the one hand, and we’ve also had to argue to people in the human rights movements that they’ve got to develop the competence to deal with sophisticated economic data.”

The importance of connecting human rights work with economic development is a concept Law School students grasp quickly, and one that Rosenblum particularly appreciates, as he admits it was not always apparent to previous generations of activists. “At any given time, there are still horrendous civil and political rights problems that brought many of us to this work,” Rosenblum says, “but if we want to affect human rights in the long term, we have to confront the economic incentives that underlie those problems.”

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