What do we mean by ‘Human Rights’?

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Updated 11/15: View a webcast of the first Human Right forum event here.

By Alessandra Benedicty, assistant professor of literature; director of Masters program in the Study of the Americas at the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies,Center for Worker Education, City College of New York

The “Human Rights: A Yearlong Forum at City College of New York” series is, first and foremost, an invitation, and then, as most invitations are, a gesture. The invitation is to all those who are in our City College community—faculty, students, advisors, staff, alumni, community member, or just a visitor passing through—to partake in this yearlong forum. The gesture is offering a space for all to listen, learn, and exchange within the CUNY system, but also with and alongside specialists and friends of our larger extended community.

The lecture series came about as a collaboration among various divisions and centers at CCNY, spinning off of a series organized by Juan Carlos Mercado at the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies at City College and a breakfast series organized by the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

There were a couple points of resonance that emerged in discussions as we began to organize the human rights forum. First, we agreed that regardless of whether our disciplines were more “humanistic” or “scientific,” so much of our engagement as administrators, advisors, faculty, staff, and professionals involves human rights. Second, we realized we must first raise an elementary question: “What do we mean by human rights?”

This salient question, which is also the title of the opening lecture on December 10, points to the fact that, yes, many of us, are working within the realm of ‘human rights,’ but we also consider the term through different lenses and myriad engagements. Dean Eric Weitz, one of the premier scholars on human rights internationally, will consider this question, along with Joel H. Rosenthal, president of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, who will be further discussing an approach to addressing human rights with Dean Weitz after his lecture.

More Aware of the World’s ‘Wrongs’?

In 2010, I attended a discussion at the French Institute Alliance Française held between artists, actors, and writers Wajdi Mouawad and Jane Birkin, in which Mouawad asked the following:

“How do we connect private happiness with unhappy collective life, especially in an information age when you know of all the unhappinesses of the world, and there is a guilt of your own happiness […] What is the right opening of the window between insulating oneself and opening up to the realities of the world?”

Maybe things are worse now than they were in our collective human past. Maybe they aren’t. What is clear is that the age of the Internet has made us aware of suffering—perhaps not so much of how people suffer, but that they do suffer:  immensely, both privately and publicly. With that, hopefully, comes a desire to do away with as much unneeded suffering as possible. It’s in this quest for justice that we consider the notion of inalienable rights for every one of us, regardless of country, politics, and religion.

The lecture series is thus meant to offer us—that is, anyone who wakes up in the morning and uses any form of modern technology—a forum to work through what human rights are in an age that desperately needs them defined and protected.

Colloquia and Coursework

Beyond this forum of public events, it’s important to note that CCNY students will be considering human rights in devoted courses across disciplines. During the spring 2014 semester, classes will include those examining human rights issues as related to political science, international relations, diplomacy, and humanitarianism. In the Fall 2014 semester, we will continue to concentrate on the above, but we will also expand to consider how ‘human rights’ connects to issues related to our local and daily lives: in medicine, urban planning, youth culture, and through gender expression and sexuality. Throughout the year, we will also tackle harder issues that question why civil rights, anticolonial movements, and human rights have not always found common discursive ground.

A Forum for Us All

Whether we are engineers, architects, or urban planners working to improve infrastructure; scientists engaged in saving and improving the quality of the many lives on this planet; economists debating how best to spread wealth; professionals offering our services as doctors, nurses, therapists, artists, teachers, nannies, administrators, or social workers; philosophers, psychologists, or mathematicians coding the complexities of existence; social scientists or humanists observing and working through how persons live their lives; artists, filmmakers, or writers offering solace and vectors of creative aspiration; or an interdisciplinary or inter-professional mosaic of multiple associations, we are all working to understand how human injustice comes about, to find solutions to these injustices, and/or to heal from them.

When Dean Weitz asks ““What do we mean by human rights?” he asks for all of us struggling to make this world a better space, not just for ourselves, but for all those, who reside within the panorama of Mouawad’s fully open window: in our physical landscapes, cyberscapes, and mindscapes.

For a full list of speakers and events, visit our website.

To RSVP for the upcoming event, “What do we mean by human rights? An Historian’s Perspective,” a talk by Dean Eric Weitz followed by a discussion with Joel Rosenthal from the Carnegie Council on Tuesday, December 10, visit the eventbrite page.

CCNY courses on human rights offered in 2014

IAS 31300, 4CWE, Special Topics: Human Rights (hybrid course)Division of Interdisciplinary Studies  Thursdays, 6:00-9:20 p.m. 

HIST 31556 Age of Human Rights, Tu./Thurs. 2:00-3:15 p.m. Reg. Code 3984, Prof. Anne Kornhauser

HIST B0910 History of Human Rights, Thurs. 4:50-6:50 p.m. Reg. Code 3978, Prof. Anne Kornhauser

Thanks to support  from President Lisa Staiano-Coico, Vince Boudreau, Maura Christopher, Leslie Galman, Amanda Krupman, Kathlene McDonald, Rajan Menon, Juan Carlos Mercado, Wanda Mercado, Dee Dee Mozeleski, Jeff Rosen, Susanna Schaller, Elena Sturman, Leslie Timothy, and Eric Weitz.

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