by Bella Harvey
Reflecting on my experience this summer, I think that human rights work can take many forms, from raising awareness to speak out about human rights, to mobilizing and engaging in human rights activism, to drafting human rights legislation and administering law, to conducting research and beyond. It can be both top-down and grassroots, but ultimately, it’s about pursuing the realization of a minimum set of goods, services, opportunities, and protections that are widely recognized as essential prerequisites for a life of dignity. While there are serious critiques of human rights (e.g., that they are a by-product of western imperialism and American power), and related criticisms of their universality (e.g., that rights are a construct consisting of a universalist language used to defend highly particularist causes), I nevertheless believe that human rights have an inherent appeal in their empowerment capacity to promote of human dignity and hopefully improve quality of life. Human rights work is, in part, a recognition that systems and structures in society privilege some to the detriment of others who are exponentially impacted as their vulnerability increases. Therefore, whether human rights become increasingly used to camouflage other ulterior motives, or are pursued for socially progressive and altruistic purposes, human rights work remains of great value to ensure their normative power is exercised with care for those who are vulnerable. Ultimately, human rights work is fundamentally about helping others and responding to societal challenges and inequalities that adversely affect people. Challenges need to be responded to with compassion and humility, and a recognition that it is a privilege to be in a position to be able to do human rights work.
As such, my time as an intern at the Forum offered me valuable experience for learning and mentorship. Things are so often quite different in the field or even in the office in contrast to the ways in which we read about and understand them through formal study. As an intern at the Forum, I learned much about commonalities and differences in understanding when it comes to human rights practice and its intersection with law. I also got to see witness the power and limits of the law and how the law can act as a mechanism but also a barrier to the realization of rights. as you can read about these things, learning by doing and through other pedagogical methods is so essential for truly understanding how things operate. Actively participating in human rights work and learning through collaboration and cooperation, seeing how transnational ideas such as human rights become meaningful in local settings and are vernacularized, offers so much in terms of understanding reliance and struggle.