Considering the reasons for Applied Human Rights in the academia world where Human Rights programmes are already in existence.
The title of this piece of intellectual pursuit is a tribute to a close friend’s response to my recent announcement that I will be furthering my post graduate study in Applied Human Rights. His retort was not really distinct from the clusters of responses I received from others – family members, potential boy friends, and concerned neighbors. It is a relief that my daughter’s 3 year-old verbal skills hinders her from questioning my choice of Masters Programme or else it might add some level of doubt, if not discomfort to my academic choice.
Why MA in Applied Human Rights? Isn’t it enough that we have post graduate studies in International Human Rights Law? Are we implying that existing programmes are a mere academic practice or a qualification sought by many who wanted to join the Human Rights job market?
Allow me to apply my interest in music as a metaphor to answer this question. Since the inception of The Clash as the “godfather” of punk music in the mid-70s, we have witnessed the uprising of punk bands that drew their inspirations from the “punk rebel.” But then, do we ask NOFX to stop recording music simply because having The Clash is enough to preserve the political punk scene? Not really. In fact, as the former band drew inspirations from The Clash and rocked the American political punk scene, it innovates and expands the possibilities and acceptance of the genre; having their own niche in America as well as other parts of the World.
I believe the same can be said of the new baby in the Human Rights Academia world – The Centre of Applied Human Rights (CAHR) at the University of York, United Kingdom. The Centre that is currently offering two Master programmes – LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice and MA in Applied Human Rights. It was set up to offer a multi-disciplinary dimension to how human rights are being academically perceived, taught, and most importantly, applied in different disciplines.
Undeniably, knowledge and skills on human rights have been practiced and implemented in various fields either at the domestic or international level, but has it been viewed as an art, worthy not only for philosophical debates or diplomatic negotiations but also as a field that requires specialised skills and a certain degree of professionalism? Human Rights have been “packaged” for a while now as a set of values or standards of moral persuasion – some finding its way into Constitutions and legal statutes and if we are lucky enough, we will come across States incorporating human rights into their national policies or action plans.
Despite these promising developments, we are, at the same time witnessing state repressions, civil movements’ ethical downfall, social apathy, and military aggression in the name of democracy. It is a humbling observation that at this juncture; we are presented with two possibilities; either giving in to the cruel ending of letting might trump or seeing this as an opportunity to reinvent the way human rights function; be it as an inspiration or tool for change. It is a great relief to witness the establishment of CAHR in the midst of such trying time.
So, what is the mission of the Centre in offering both post-graduate programmes? Manufacturing more human rights enlightened souls to save the world? I am happy to note that the Center’s mission goes beyond that. As Paul Gready, the Center’s Founding Director mentioned in his welcoming remarks during our induction day at the Center recently; it is time for the human rights movement to reflect beyond the cliched strategy of “naming and shaming” the perpetrators of human rights violations and explore as well as strengthen other ways of advocating and fighting for human rights concerns.
In the same vein, it is worth mentioning here that the Centre also hopes to professionalise knowledge, skills, and culture of the human rights movement. It is commonplace to associate professionalism with physical sophistication or money oriented endeavors because professionalism has always been stereotyped as a quality embedded in corporate culture and the white-collar world. But the idea of professionalising human rights activism or the movement means having specialised skills and knowledge in carrying out our respective works as advocates, activists or policy makers while adhering to certain standards and ethics. It is essential for human rights defenders not only to have a progressive mind but the need to build our credibility and reputation in order for us to be heard, trusted, and respected not only at the grassroots but also at the decision making level.
Two damaging culture or perspectives identified in the human rights movement were also highlighted in Gready’s speech. The human right advocates have always been viewed as “sloppy radical individuals” who are only capable of being reactionary and not reflective and if I might add, not innovative too. Such an attitude needs to be eliminated, not simply by perhaps, dressing smartly for demonstrations but also to have a paradigm shift on how things should and can be done.
Another damaging culture is since human rights activism tends to be normally run by a small exclusive circle of advocates or activists, it is also easier to assume that “we know or understand everything.” This is perhaps due to the intensity and commitment we put in for the cause we believe in. The sad part about this is that more often than not, it hinders us from reflecting on our own weaknesses with the willingness to learn and accept our past weaknesses with a big slice of humble pie.
As Paul Gready stated in his remarks, the programme is designed in a way that could help students build enough confidence and assurance to continue with their work on human rights while at the same time having enough humility to learn and experience new unaccustomed ways and skills of doing things.
As a multidisciplinary programme, students will study and apply human rights not merely as a legal creature but an active notion that interacts with public policy and global realities. Under the MA programme, for example, the core courses offered are “Human Rights, Law and Policy”, “Human Rights and Global Politics” and “Defending Human Rights.” This means the outcome of the learning process will be enriched by a diversity of understanding, interpretations as well as application of human rights and recognised the union of human rights values with various areas which affect human dignity and livelihood.
It is for these reasons and reflections that I appreciate the Master Programme more. This is not just a rebranding exercise to make human rights seemed hip or trendy. This Programme is not a mere academic blueprint that I need to validate my passion and interest to help and empower the oppressed. Above all that, the Master Programme has timely enough, realises the urgency of translating our dreams for a better world that is inspired by human rights into practical actions or strategies that could realistically affect or realise the change that we hoped for.
For more details on CAHR as well as the programmes offered, please click here.
Shazeera is back in school. She will be in the Cold and Distant Land of York for a year pursuing her MA in Applied Human Rights. Despite that, she still detests PERKASA and misses the political drama in Malaysia.