Kathryn-LibalThis interview was conducted over email with Kathryn Libal by Sarah Kerman, a freshman undergraduate student, majoring in Public Policy and working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Sarah Kerman (SK): Why do you believe it’s important for students to study human rights at the university level?

Kathryn Libal (KL): In the United States human rights education is not “mainstreamed” in public education like it is in many other countries. Often undergraduate students’ understandings are shaped by media coverage of human rights “violations” abroad, with a focus on civil and political rights issues. This violations-approach that emphasizes the denial of rights to political participation, equality before the law, freedom of religion, or freedom of speech in other countries contributes to an impression that people within the United States have already fully realized their human rights. Studying human rights while attending university affords a chance to develop a fuller understanding of the historical processes that led to the creation of the United Nations, the bodies that have defined, monitored and encouraged governments to implement laws and programs to realize human rights; and to understand why there is such limited public recognition of education, health care, housing, food, and work as human rights concerns not only abroad, but in the United States. Studying human rights, then, provides a lens to not only understand global processes such as transnational mobilization for human rights, such as in the movement to recognize gender-based violence as a human rights concern over the past 30 years, but also to challenge “American exceptionalism” that has fostered a climate in which the United States fails to robustly participate in the UN and regional human rights systems.


SK: You are part of a human rights program at the University of Connecticut. After having taught on this topic, what are the difficulties and the rewards of teaching human rights?

KL: One of the greatest challenges has been to introduce complex international legal systems, norms, and practices to undergraduates who may not be familiar with governance domestically or internationally. Students must be willing to gain understandings of global politics, history, and legal practices to go beyond an introductory understanding of “what are human rights” and “how has the human rights system unfolded,” to a deeper knowledge of the strengths and limitations of the international human rights system. Practically, as I gain more experience in the classroom, I focus less on teaching the fine-grained details of how each human rights treaty was constructed and how it works. Rather, I seek to balance attention to human rights law with focus on other processes. For example, examining the role of social mobilization in shifting human rights norms and practices is as important as a legalistic focus on conventions, human rights committees, monitoring mechanisms, regional human rights bodies and processes.

Engaging students in the classroom in project-based learning efforts has been one of the most rewarding processes – when students consider how human rights applies to their everyday lives and communities and are able to articulate those connections clearly, I feel we have accomplished a lot. We often participate in group projects to analyze a social policy from a “human rights-based lens” or to develop a briefing for a local government on a pressing social problem from a human rights framework. For example, students as a class have examined the extent to which local food systems adhere to human rights principles on the right to food (including accessibility, affordability, cultural acceptability of food, accountability of governments to securing that right, and adhering to principles of equity and non-discrimination). Pursuing a rights-based approach to food allows students to better understand how U.S. policies and programs have the capacity to perpetuate marginalization and social inequality, or lead to positive social transformation. Seeing students grasp that human rights work is also centrally about tackling structural discrimination, poverty, and inequality in the United States has been enormously rewarding.

Finally, working alongside colleagues in the University of Connecticut Human Rights Institute has allowed me to engage in my own research and teaching more effectively. One of my richest experiences has been the opportunity to co-instruct courses in human rights. I have had a chance to teach alongside and learn from Dr. Shareen Hertel (a political scientist who is an expert in economic and social rights), Dr. Serena Parekh (a philosopher whose work on Hannah Arendt and statelessness helped inform my interest in refugees), Dr. Lynne Healy (a social work professor who has innovated social policy regarding poverty and development at the United Nations) and Dr. S. Megan Berthold (a social work professor who had more than twenty years’ experience in research and clinical practice with survivors of state-sponsored torture). In my view, collaborative teaching embodies a human rights-based approach to education and enriches both students’ and instructors’ experiences.


SK: Your appointment is in the school of social work. What’s the connection between social work and human rights? How did you become interested in human rights?

KL: I am an anthropologist and a social work educator and researcher. My interest in human rights was latent in graduate school when I studied anthropology. I developed a research project to examine ethnic education and cultural rights of Kazakhs in Northwest China. I conducted preliminary research on that topic until it became clear that I could not do the research ethically because of the politicization of ethnicity in the region. I continued to be interested in children’s rights and focused on the emergence of child welfare in Turkey in the 1930s for my dissertation. I became a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, in part because of my work on child welfare and children’s rights mobilization in Turkey and my broader interest in human rights. This has become a very productive “fit” for me, because in 2008 the Council on Social Work Education mandated that all social work educational institutions should address human rights learning within their programs.

In the United States, social workers have long espoused human rights claims, including such foundational foremothers as Grace Abbot and Bertha Capen Reynolds in the United States. Internationally, social work professional organizations have embraced human rights processes at the United Nations since the time that the major human rights covenants came into force in the mid-1960s. At its best, social workers facilitate the participation of marginalized groups in political processes; help to develop policies and programs that foster social and economic rights realization; and carry out community-based, family or individually-based practice with core principles of human rights in mind. Yet, social workers and the profession have also helped create or carry out policies that either intentionally or inadvertently violate human rights. In the United States, consciousness about human rights in everyday professional practice is often limited. So, for example, some of my social work colleagues at a number of universities are developing curricula that highlight how human rights is entwined with, for example, work with newcomer immigrants and refugees; those who have been incarcerated; elderly individuals with disabilities who have been placed in “congregate care”; children who have been placed in foster care on the grounds of “physical neglect” or poverty; the criminalization of poverty and homelessness; and pervasive food insecurity.


SK: What do you see as the desired outcome for students studying human rights? Should professors teach students to become activists?

KL: One of my primary goals in university-level human rights education is to foster students becoming knowledgeable about human rights from an interdisciplinary perspective. This includes gaining understanding of philosophical and historical foundations of human rights; sociological or anthropological perspectives on how human rights mobilization unfolds in diverse settings (and times); legal and political systems in which human rights law is formed and practiced; and varied ways of examining the implementation and realization of human rights. Certainly space to disagree about human rights principles and practices should be afforded throughout the educational experience. And, professors can indeed teach students skills for critical engagement and modes of advocacy and “human rights practice” that can be carried out at local, state (governmental), and international levels. This is akin to studying to be a public health practitioner and taking a course on policy analysis and advocacy – one learns skills of persuasion and analysis that may be of use in any range of disciplines or careers. I feel fostering understanding of how to engage in human rights work at the United Nations, regional human rights bodies, or much more locally at a state or community-level is appropriate in the university setting. Moreover, in international human rights law there is an obligation for educational systems to provide human rights education. Such education requires going beyond learning about which human rights treaties exist and how they work. It entails gaining insight into how to draft a “shadow report” and participate in UN human rights monitoring processes or collaboratively draft a new human rights convention or general comment on an existing convention. It may mean examining a local or state budget with human rights-based principles in mind. A broad interdisciplinary approach builds a deeper understanding of the struggles and limitations faced by human rights advocates and broadens advocacy beyond that carried out by human rights lawyers.


SK: How do you see the connection between poverty and human rights? Explain a little about your own research in this area.

KL: This is a complex question which has dominated the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and myriad organizations at the United Nations and within global civil society for a long time.
Based on my experiences both in the Middle East and in the United States, I regard poverty as one of the primary forces that prevents the full realization of human rights. Addressing poverty as a human rights concern means tackling structural inequalities (at both national and global levels).

Despite considerable attention that has been given to the relationship between poverty and human rights by such luminaries as Thomas Pogge, Amartya Sen, or Mary Robinson, poverty and the related issue of social inequality are still not widely understood as human rights matters. In the United States this is particularly so given the legacy of “U.S. exceptionalism” and official resistance (of the federal government) to recognize that economic and social rights exist (these include the right to work, housing, health care, education, food, water, sanitation, and social security). The United States has failed to ratify several human rights treaties that address the effects of poverty and the obligation of governments to secure social and economic rights, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While the United States has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Article 5) – both of which address aspects of economic and social rights as linked to principles of non-discrimination—there is still not widespread understanding of what these treaties encompass and how they might be tools to help us address poverty as a human rights concern.

Failing to consider the relationship between poverty and human rights means that it is easier to think of poverty as an “intractable social problem” that is almost inevitable. A human rights-based approach to poverty takes seriously the right to an adequate standard of living, which is addressed first in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) and in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11). It is also highlighted in Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – underscoring the notion that every child has a right to an adequate standard of living. I have done some writing with my colleague Ken Neubeck (emeritus sociologist from the University of Connecticut) on the child’s right to an adequate standard of living. We argue that the Committee on the Rights of the Child should draft a general comment on Article 27 that outlines in depth what fulfilling the child’s right to an adequate standard of living means. Doing so may also prompt the Committee to pay greater attention to child poverty and inequality in its own monitoring processes. We also consider the implications of Article 27 in light of persistent, widespread child poverty in the United States, pointing to the lack of governmental effort to eradicate child poverty, which arguably could be accomplished in a country with such substantial resources.


SK: Do you think the classes you’ve taught on these issues have changed your students, the way they see the world, their place in it, or the people in it?

KL: I think that the courses I have taught have allowed students a chance to expand their understanding of the struggles to recognize human rights both domestically and internationally. The focus of most of my teaching in on “bringing human rights home” – in other words, on applying international norms, practices, ideas to human rights issues that are at stake in the United States. My hope is that students can grapple with dominant constructions of U.S. superiority (whether in terms of military or economic might, or in terms of the quality of education and health care, for example) and critically consider other means of achieving equity and social justice through human rights practice that is simultaneously attentive to universal norms and responsive to local conditions.