GT in the EU

An extraordinary education

Author: Emily Finger

Human Rights Watch

Today we had the incredible opportunity to visit Human Rights Watch, an American-founded international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. While there, we were able to meet and talk with Andrew Stroehlein, the European Media Director at Human Rights Watch. As a media director, Stroehlein basically acts as the spokesperson for HRW on the European stage. He is extremely active on social media and noted that his work days tend to start at 6 am because that is the best time to reach journalists and prominent news outlets. He then briefed us on how Human Rights Watch works and the major human rights issues that the NGO is dealing with today.

Stroehlein began by explaining that HRW does three main things: investigate human rights abuses, expose these abuses and push for change in the areas they are committed. HRW also covers a wide range of human rights from LGBT rights to refugee rights. Each year, HRW publishes more than 100 reports and briefings on human rights conditions in some 90 countries. HRW implements public and private advocacy by meeting with governments, the UN, regional groups like the European Union, financial institutions, and corporations to fight for changes in policy and practices that promote human rights around the world.

Stroehlein encouraged more of a discussion-based briefing and urged us to ask questions. A range of topics were covered by our questions. For instance, someone from our group asked how HRW deals with uncooperative governments when HRW wants to enter a country for research. Stroehlein said that sometimes HRW struggles to obtain visas or even be able to talk to people once in the country. He used North Korea as an example by saying that HRW obtains most of their information regarding North Korea’s human rights abuses by people who have escaped the authoritarian regime. He also added that HRW had been denied visas to countries like Israel and Azerbaijan recently.

Someone then asked which country has the most investigative funding going into it, and to my surprise, the answer was that the US has had the most articles published on its human rights abuses annually. The reason being, as HRW is an American NGO they are more easily able to look within their own country and identify when individuals’ rights are not being recognized. It was also explained that the human rights abuses in the US are not systematic as they might be in other countries and may be less severe. Most investigation in the US is about domestic issues, but there are still a good number of issues that arise out of how the US projects its power in the international arena. Stroehlein then mentioned how HRW was highly critical of former President Obama and his administration regarding issues like the use of drones and the closing of Guantanamo Bay.

I’m amazed at Human Rights Watch’s power to affect change, especially given that they are a staff of 450 covering 100 countries. When asked how they got to be so widely known Stroehlein responded “be big and be loud.” This site visit was definitely one of my favorites so far as we learned a great deal of information. The briefing was a great introduction to our human rights course and Stroehlein was an engaging and enthusiastic speaker!

Human Rights Module with Dr. Markley

Starting off our last full week in Brussels, we began our final class of the program, Human Rights in Europe taught by Dr. Eliza Markley. After spending the past two months discussing security and European institutions in lecture and at our site visits, I think it will be refreshing to have a new topic, human rights, to round out our general understanding and analysis of current and past European issues.

On Tuesday, we welcomed Dr. Markley to Brussels with a delicious lunch at a local crêpe food truck, and today, we dove right into lecture. The lecture for the day was based off a couple of chapters from our assigned reading, International Human Rights by Jack Donnelly. The chapters covered everything from the history of human rights to human rights applied in foreign policy.

Dr. Markley started off the lecture by giving a brief history of human rights. She told us that the beginnings of the human rights movement arose from the Declaration of International Rights of Man in 1929. We started to discuss how at first, human rights were considered a state sovereignty matter and how World War II and the Nuremberg Trials changed that by bringing international human rights and the concept of “crimes against humanity” to the forefront. Our discussion then transitioned around the international institutions that contribute to the international human rights debate. We mainly discussed the United Nations and how it has evolved and adapted to address human rights with initiatives like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the International Human Rights Covenants in 1966. Before our lunch break, we wrapped up the discussion by focusing on what the sources of human rights are and the various models of human rights. As a class, we concluded that human rights are sourced from humanity, basic needs, morality, and dignity and that human rights are independent and indivisible.

After lunch, we discussed a South African apartheid case-study from our reading. Dr. Markley elaborated a little bit more on the South African government’s deep-rooted and wide-ranging systematic racial domination and then talked about some major turning points during apartheid such as the murder of Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist and philosopher. After the murder of Steve Biko and ensuing riots and protests, an international campaign against apartheid started. Powerful states reduced or ended diplomatic, cultural, and commercial relations with South Africa and the United Nations even prevented the country from taking its seat in the United Nations General Assembly in 1970. After the discussion, we learned that international pressure undoubtedly played a major role in the abolition of apartheid in South Africa.

We ended our day of lecture by briefly discussing the legitimacy of transnational human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs). We discussed their roles and how some human rights NGOs can define themselves by addressing human rights generally or focusing explicitly on a subset internationally recognized human rights, or even a single right. This was a perfect way to end the lecture because we are visiting Human Rights Watch, a transnational human rights NGO, tomorrow! We all look forward to using the knowledge we gained from today’s lecture as we prepare to embark to The Hague and Berlin in order to become truly immersed in current human rights issues through relevant site visits!


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