Human Rights Panel: 'Unexpected Disasters, Surprising Successes'

Human Rights Panel: 'Unexpected Disasters, Surprising Successes'


June 17, 2008 (NEW YORK) -- The state of international human rights in our post-9/11 world was the central theme of a Columbia Law School- and Columbia Alumni Association-sponsored panel on June 11 at the Morgan Library.

The discussion, called “Unexpected Disasters, Surprising Successes,” was moderated by Sarah Cleveland, the Louis Henkin Professor in Human and Constitutional Rights, and Peter Rosenblum ’92 LL.M., the Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein Associate Clinical Prof. in Human Rights. They co-direct the Law School’s Human Rights Institute (HRI). Six panelists contributed to an insightful and nuanced discussion on human rights from a number of vantage points, including human rights in China and Latin America and women’s reproductive rights.

Reed Brody ’77, who is European press director for Human Rights Watch in Brussels, said that it’s harder to be an international human rights activist after 9/11. “When [the U.S.] tortures, it becomes more difficult to approach the Sudans, Syrias and Cubas of the world [regarding their human rights violations],” said Brody. “The United States’ human rights abuses are thrown in our face.”

President of the Center for Reproductive Rights Nancy Northup ’88 argued that, despite some advancement, women’s reproductive rights have been negatively affected by America’s foreign policy over the past 10 to 15 years, citing the country’s relative abandonment of commitments it made to family planning at the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995.   

Eduardo Bertoni, an Argentinean former fellow at HRI and now executive director of the Due Process of Law Foundation in Washington, D.C., added that the effects of U.S. human rights violations are longer-lasting in other countries that don’t have as strong a legal infrastructure as the United States, which, he said, historically has been able to correct its human rights violations, as with the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

While acknowledging setbacks in human rights advancements, the panelists also discussed a number of “surprising successes” in human rights in the post-9/11 period, and since Columbia’s Human Rights Institute was founded ten years ago. 

Phyllis Chang ’88, the founder and president of China Law and Development, a Hong Kong firm designed to support nonprofit work in China, said that much progress has been made in the area of human rights there. While acknowledging continued restrictions to freedom of speech in China, she said that the term “human rights” is now much more widely used than 10 years ago. For example, Chang said that Chinese people might even hang a banner that reads, “Protect human rights,” to protest a local building on a site that could be devoted to open space or used as a children’s playground.

Bertoni reminded the crowd of alumni that while countries like Mexico and Argentina have recently suffered from human rights violations, last year Peru prosecuted its former president, Alberto Fujimori, on charges of human rights violations. Additionally, Peru was aided by the Chilean Supreme Court, which ruled that Fujimori, who had fled to Chile, could be extradited back to Peru to be tried for criminal charges.

The other panelists included Chris Avery ’82, founder and director of the Business & Human Rights Resources Centre in London, and Steven Shapiro ’72, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.