I. Making my debut
On June 14th I had the immense pleasure of participating in my first academic conference; “Human Rights in an Age of Ambiguity”, arranged by the International Studies Association in New York City. Earlier this year my dissertation had been accepted for a panel on the media and human rights, and with the generous funding of the School of Politics & IR, I set out to subject my research to thorough scrutiny by one of the largest academic communities in politics and international relations.
Though I missed the first day of the conference as a result of a flight delay, Fordham University helped me get settled and prepared for the second day of the conference. I woke up to an incredible view of the New York City skyline the following morning, and was set for two days jam-packed with a host of different talks and panels, addressing a range of diverse human rights related issues.
My debut at the ISA couldn’t have been in better company; Dr Joel Pruce and Dr Alexandra Budabin introduced their research on mass media and elite politics in human rights advocacy, whilst Sandra Ristovska tackled the use of visual technologies in human rights. Meanwhile, my own research set out to investigate whether experimental, digital technology forms of human rights governance can generate greater accountability than IGO-based human rights governance. Specifically, I looked at the effectiveness of human rights reporting “apps” such as eyeWitness to Atrocities and CameraV.
Delivering the presentation to a room full of academics and practitioners had been an exciting prospect for me, particularly as this was an opportunity to discuss my ideas more concretely with people who were far more experienced and knowledgeable about these issues than myself.
I was very pleased to receive a lot of constructive feedback, which I intend to use in rewriting and developing my project further over the summer, in an attempt to get it published. The conference was far more than an opportunity to gather feedback however, and the individuals I met made for conversations about future collaboration, and potential work opportunities.
I look forward to seeing the aftermath of this experience play out, which for the moment has resulted in an invitation to participate in yet another media and human rights panel at the ISA 2017 conference in Baltimore.
II. During the conference
I spent the first day listening to a plenary talk by Elin Gursky (Senior Programme Officer on the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Health Practice), addressing the connection between global health crises and human rights. The talk concerned itself with what seemed to be a red thread throughout the conference: tensions between global norms and practices, and local iterations; the eternal conflict between universalism and the particular. A call for further independent review of health practices from within the state seemed to be the consensus amongst practitioners, though academics present at the talk, were more sceptic; who will fund these independent reviews? Do they really make a difference if the state doesn’t have the capacity to deal with its current global health-related issues in the first place?
The day continued with several concurrent panel sessions. I ended up attending one titled “Contesting the Universality and Indivisibility of Human Rights”, with Dr Daniel J. Whelan, Dr Itai Sneh, Dr Dennis R. Schmidt, and Dr Antoinetta Elia. Dr Sneh was a particularly ardent voice on the topic of maintaining the universality of human rights, and coming to terms with it (and indeed embracing it) as a western concept. Nevertheless, there was great contestation both within the panel and among the audience concerning human rights in principle versus human rights in practice, vis-a-vis pluralism in both definitions and practices.
I attended a final panel on “The Politics of Human Rights in International Organizations”, which introduced research on the politicisation of the Human Rights Council and the EU, before wrapping up my first day at the conference with a talk by the Gender and Women’s Rights Advisor to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Gaynel Curry.
“Violence against women is rooted in systematic discrimination as a result of stereotypical perception of women as being less than men.” – Gaynel Curry
Curry recalled stories she had encountered whilst in the field, dealing with the pervasiveness of violence against women. She reiterated how, in recent history, women have been raped, killed, handled as cattle, and forced to carry babies against their will; how they had been disempowered by law, policies and practices.
With little time to fully process all the thought provoking insights, the final day was approaching, and after a quick meal in Hell’s Kitchen and walk to Time Square, I returned to Fordham to prepare for my panel.
The first plenary talk of the morning was on the refugee “crisis” – an area that I’m particularly invested in. The talk, titled “Resisted, Restricted, Re-located”, was led by Norah Niland (former Director of human rights in UNAMA). It was a stimulating talk, addressing some of the push and pull factor, as well as the critique of treating refugees as bargaining chips, for example to the end of a Turkey-EU deal.
Prior to my own presentation, I also had a chance to listen in on the “Ambiguous and Uncertain Human Rights in an Age of Terror” panel, led by the inspiring Professor Monshipouri, who looked at the role of governments and human rights organizations, in tackling non-state armed groups (Daesh, specifically). As these actors are not subject to “naming and shaming” in the same way as states, how do we defeat them, or at least prevent them from committing human rights atrocities? Are drones part of the answer? Could a reform of the refugee convention aid in dealing with the human costs involved?
My time at the conference was incredibly rewarding, and it gave me great insight into what is perhaps the grievance of a practitioner, and the craft of an academic; the fact that there are an ever-multiplying number of unanswered questions in human rights (hence the title, “… in an age of ambiguity”), rendering it a wholly pluralistic, complex and often contested, if not controversial, discipline. I nevertheless look forward with a sense of encouragement, knowing that these questions are being discussed, and amidst the discourse giving birth to new ideas, initiatives and potential solutions. I hope to one day be a part of this, as I pursue a career in human rights defence and advocacy.
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the School of Politics & International Relations, Professor Adam Fagan (Head of School) and Dr Lee Jones in Particular for supporting my participation.