By Shane Eric-Eugene Hensinger
Master's candidate in International Security
Josef Korbel School of International Studies
In a wide-ranging interview Dr. Micheline Ishay, director of the International Human Rights program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, laid out her views on issues impacting global human rights as well as answering questions put to her by students.
Q: Given our own history of ineffective human rights policy toward people within our own country (Native Americans and African Americans in particular), what grants us the agency or legitimacy to lecture to others about improving human rights in their respective countries?
A: Clearly, the United States cannot hold the scales of justice in the international community if it does not address its own human rights failures over history. The United States regains its legitimacy abroad to the extent it holds a mirror to its own human-rights behavior. Yet, one should remember that from the perspective of those who suffer, the provenance of assistance is irrelevant when real help consistent with human rights principles is provided. In those moments of duress when deeds command higher respect than past failures the heroism of those who fight for justice remains truly without borders.
Q: Will the Jerusalem Program be restarted again any time soon? And why isn't there any effort to expand the Human Rights program to other regions/countries? Even if it's for a short time. Human-rights issues exist all over the world and a study abroad program, in my opinion, should not just be focused in one area.
A: Unfortunately, I don't know the future of the Jerusalem program. I know that the faculty and students were very enthusiastic about the program and I am saddened that the program was interrupted this year. The Jerusalem program offered a unique opportunity for students to work with a world-class university along with great human rights NGOs. It was built on excellence, transparency and integrity; the program was not partisan and received great accolades from participants and others.
Of course, we need more such study-abroad programs. It took us many years to build the Jerusalem program and we did that with the assistance of exceptional individuals; I can only hope that with the various changes occurring in our school, there will be a renewed effort to reinstitute the Jerusalem program and to develop comparable programs elsewhere.
Q: Do you think the international courts, tribunals, and respective UN organizations are effective in using their limited power to protect and promote human rights? How influential do you think they are with major State powers?
I never stop lamenting the incompetence or legal limitations of these institutions. While they have no real influence over major states, they have the capacity to create fora for deliberation and they help to shame those who transgress human-rights norms. This in itself is something that cannot be denigrated. There is obvious room for major improvement and that?s one of the crucial places where the labor of human rights is still unfinished.
Q: Because human rights is such a competitive field, do you have any advice on ways students can make themselves more competitive? What are some good skills to acquire and strengthen? (Any particular management, writing, computer program skills that students might want to learn.)
A: Learn to understand all instruments of domination and power; master all forms of communication (writing, public speech, debating, campaigning, computer skills, etc); acquire the knowledge of another country, its culture and language; remain a truth seeker all your life, and never compromise your ideals and passions. Only then will you become formidable and competitive (OK, internships help too!).
Q: What are your views on humanitarian intervention and the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). In particular do you feel a state has a moral responsibility to intervene to halt massive human rights abuses, as Tanzania did in Uganda in 1979, without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council if it cannot be obtained?
A: We have failed to prevent or halt all genocides since World War II and yes, I think that states, consistent with the Genocide Convention, have a moral and legal responsibility to intervene to halt human rights abuses regardless of the authorization of the U.N. Security Council, which has been crippled since its inception by the sacrosanct veto power of the 'Big 5.'
Q. In your view what will be the biggest issue in the field of human rights over the next decade?
A: Extending human rights in the Middle East and Africa will remain critical over the next 10 years. Because of their political volatility and unequal development, these two regions have the capacity to send great shock waves through the international system. This should not mean that we should not be interested in human rights elsewhere. I am just trying to sense where the winds are blowing at this point in time But winds, subject to changing climates, may well reorient our focus elsewhere this is why we need to prepare ourselves, as agents of change, for more than one possible future.
Q. Do you have any concern that the Asian model used by China in regards to human rights, that development and order come first, may present a more attractive model to developing states than the western model?
A: Well it's interesting because the Western model went through a similar stage before the revolutionary period -- a time of order. I happen to believe that sequencing as in the Chinese model, is dangerous and believe that we need sustainable development that incorporates the five families of rights political, social, civil, cultural and environmental. This can be done by China without 'imposing' any model from the outside. But I did like what happened recently with Google, it's a form of pressure that can be very effective in opening Chinese society. But China's view that individual rights take a back seat to the development of its economy does concern me because you can never unveil corruption without freedom of speech, individual freedom of speech.
Dr. Micheline Ishay is recognized as one of the world's foremost experts in the field of human rights. Her 2004 book, "The History of Human Rights," was considered one of the top-10 non-fiction books of that year. Dr. Ishay holds an MA and Ph.D. from Rutgers University.