Gladstein Lecturer Says Study of Human Rights
Requires Integrated Approach
"The Sudan I used to know, the Sudan I used to fit in, is no longer there. At the same time, there is a part of me that can never be outside Sudan. I will always miss being home. The exile experience is that you are neither of this place nor of the other place."
That quote from Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im in an Emory University magazine helps place in context the Emory law professor's passion for human rights.
An exile from the Sudan since 1985, An-Na'im was in Storrs March 9 to speak in the Marsha Lilien Gladstein Human Rights lecture series.
An-Na'im, who teaches courses in criminal law, human rights and Islamic law, urged his UConn audience to press for interdisciplinar y studies in human rights.
"I am a lawyer by profession, but the nature of the subject and policy implications mean it should be treated as an interdisciplina ry subject academically, which should inform human rights advocates," he said.
An-Na'im suggested that the topic also be approached by historians, sociologists and anthropologists, philosophers, as well as scholars in religious studies, ethics, political science, and even in "so called distant subjects," such as sciences, environmental studies and education.
"We need to find a way of integrating different disciplines in the study of human rights as an autonomous, independent field," he said. "Your initiative (the Gladstein Visiting Professor program, which encourages interdisciplinary collaboration) is a way of breaking away from the legal and political science approach to the subject."
An-Na'im noted that such an approach is a challenge to universities, where different academic disciplines have different methodological approaches. They may be vested in their own expertise, he said, which can create an "exclusive" state of mind.
"Educational institutions are structured in ways to promote a sense of ownership and exclusivity. But human rights is such a fundamental concern that no one should have exclusive domain over it. Human rights is who we are, not what we do from 9 to 5."
Antecedents of modern human rights movements grew out of such 19th-century action as the anti-slavery movements. "That culminated in the (United Nations) Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948," An-Na'im said. "The Holocaust emphasized that national regimes are not to be trusted to protect the rights of their own citizens."
He acknowledged the inherent contradiction in human rights enforcement - it requires international action, but individual states have to reach those international agreements and the states must enforce them.
"States are major violators of human rights," he said. "And corporations seem to be beyond state control, even though they also are major violators of human rights."
He said human rights advocates must not assume the problems will be easily solved, just because human rights is such an appealing subject.
"By the very nature of the subject, whenever advocates are going to be effective, there will be opposition to them," An-Na'im said. "There is a lot of self-congratulation about human rights. Usually people who say that have a stake in the status quo."
He said it "diminishes our humanity if we're not concerned with human rights of people everywhere."
He said America should not be so judgmental of other societies' record on human rights, when it has many human rights problems of its own.
"You do have an impact on other societies in so many ways," he said, "through your government, corporations and security forces. You should promote human rights in those societies and in your own."