October 24 , 2005
Human rights make for thoughtful discussion
BY Eric Rangus
Issues of human rights were examined from political, legal, environmental and health viewpoints at the third Classroom on the Quad, Wednesday,
Previous classrooms, such as the inaugural event in 2003, held during the run-up to the War in Iraq, featured spirited debate of the pros and cons of an issue. But there aren’t very many “cons” to human rights—at least not on the Quadrangle last week. Therefore, this year’s classroom served as more of an informative and thought-provoking session than a knockdown battle.
Gerald LeMelle, deputy executive director of Amnesty International, delivered the keynote address. He gave a history of the human rights organization, detailed its work, and described the freeing of “prisoners of conscience” as its backbone.
“Our goal is the immediate and unconditional release of such prisoners,” said LeMelle, adding that prisoners of conscience can be held for decades often for reasons, such as their political beliefs, religion, race or language.
He also said Amnesty International would never support the suspension of human rights for any reason, such as war. “Human rights are indivisible,” he said. “There are no excuses for the commission of human rights violations.”
LeMelle’s description of prisoners of conscience made Abdullahi An-Na’im’s five-minute address all the more moving.
Twenty years ago, An-Na’im said, he had been a Prisoner of Conscience in his home country of Sudan. Amnesty International worked to get him out. When he was released and came to the United States, he visited several Amnesty International offices to personally thank volunteers for the scope of their work.
“Human rights struggles are real,” said An-Na’im, Candler Professor of Law, one of eight faculty to take the stage. “And the chance to make a difference is real.”
During his address, An-Na’im defined the difference between civil rights (rights of a country’s citizens) and human rights (the rights of every human being) and called for a combination of the two.
“Citizenship tied to a territory is terribly unimaginative, at least, if not irresponsible,” he said. “Acknowledge our privilege, and celebrate our civil rights by engaging in global struggles for citizens everywhere.”
An-Na’im and the Carter Center’s Karin Ryan spoke of human rights from the justice and civil liberties angle. Politics and economics were covered by political science’s Eric Reinhardt (who said globalization is not an enemy of human rights) and economics’ Gordon Streeb (who spoke of the right to development), respectively.
In discussing health and human rights, public health’s Stanley Foster listed five rights (including peace and a living wage), then told of Emory efforts to provide them. Dabney Evans, also from public health, gave examples of human rights violations in the area of health—such as denying women an education in some developing nations, which often leads to greater numbers of at-risk children.
The one debate centered on the environment and sustainability. “People have a right to clean water and proper sanitation— they lead to everything else,” said philosophy’s Jack Zupko.
History’s Patrick Allitt said introducing human rights language into environmental debates was a mistake. His example was that environmentalists could accuse industry, such as logging companies, of ignoring the environmental impact of their work, while the logging company—using the same language—could accuse the environmentalists of ignoring the economic impact of lost jobs. That leads to stalemate.
Prior to the five-minute presentations and LeMelle’s keynote address, President Jim Wagner recalled Emory’s imperfect history of human rights and expressed excitement about its very bright future.
“The heritage of the university, which goes back more than 1,000 years, pushes for respect for others,” Wagner said in his opening statement, then acknowledged that this University hasn’t always done that.
“Our history as a university is marked by both shameful and proud moments—of rights defied and defended,” he said. “Emory College was founded in a state that at the time permitted the enslavement of one human being by another. However our faculty and others raised their voices to challenge Jim Crow segregation. And Emory’s own Carter Center has expanded the scope of the common world. We have much to learn from our errors and much to regard with pride.”
Tone wasn’t the only thing new about this year’s classroom. “Learning, discussion and inspiration” were the goals of the event, Student Government Association Executive Vice President and moderator Christine Reeves told the crowd. The faculty presenters handled the learning and discussion, while the a cappella vocal group No Strings Attached (which performed four songs) and religion Senior Lecturer Bobbi Patterson (who recited a poem written by psychology’s Marshall Duke) provided the inspiration.
An hour-long debate featuring two members each of College Republicans and Young Democrats wrapped up Classroom on the Quad, and conversation touched on various human rights related-questions such as the invasion of a sovereign nation and foreign aid to developing countries.
Attendees came and went throughout the event and the numbers were a bit spotty on occasion. No more than 35 people ever sat in the many rows of chairs up front at any one time, but the perimeter of the event area was a nearly constant circle of activity.
More than 30 information tables (another new feature of this year’s classroom) ringed the central Quad, each highlighting a campus organization, and attendees bounced from one to another. Several students also brought out blankets and enjoyed the afternoon sun, and still others mingled around a set of tables making T-shirts.