HLS Alums Celebrate Rights Program

Graduates use reunion as a chance to critique today’s human rights agenda

Alumni of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program (HRP) gathered in honor of its 20th anniversary over the weekend to discuss the current state of human rights.

Graduates who descended on the law school also celebrated HRP’s growth from two classes at its 1984 inception to five times that many today.

But participants spent most of the reunion critiquing the human rights agenda they have helped shape over the past two decades.

“This event is meant to bring graduates of the program back to discuss pressing issues in human rights today,” said HRP Associate Director James L. Cavallaro. “It is not meant as a chance to pat ourselves on the back, but as a chance to evaluate what have been the major changes in human rights.”

The conference featured remarks by Irene Z. Khan, Amnesty International’s secretary general, and Navi Pillay, a judge on the International Criminal Court.

Khan warned a crowd at the conference’s Saturday banquet that the United Nations has not adequately addressed human rights issues worldwide.

“There is a dangerous gap between the rhetoric and the reality, between the influence and the impact of the human rights movement,” she said. “The UN consistently fails to hold states to account.”

Khan, who is the first woman and first Muslim to head Amnesty International, challenged listeners to shift roles from being passive critics to actively cooperating with governments to address human rights concerns.

“We are subversive because we agitate for change, we challenge the absolute power,” she said. “[But] subversives can become responsible citizens.”

The weekend also included panels on specific human rights topics, including the impact of Sept. 11 on human rights and divisions in the human rights movement.

Panelist Chris Jochnick said that the expansion of human rights to include economic and social issues as well as civil and political ones presents new challenges for the movement. Finding solutions to those new issues will require “a fundamental shift in focus, including attention to forces coming from outside the traditional human rights movement,” said Jochnick, a Harvard law school graduate who cofounded the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York.

The growth of human rights marks a “revolution” in the field’s global importance, Cavallaro said, noting the rise of seminars, speakers and events on campus.

“This 20th anniversary marks that revolution in thinking about human rights at Harvard and parallels that same revolution in the world,” he said.

At the banquet, HRP director Henry J. Steiner hailed the cause of human rights as “one of the great missionary, proselytizing faiths.”

Graduates who returned to Cambridge for the weekend also took time away from the conference’s panels to reunite with former classmates and friends.

“We’re family here,” Steiner said.

The program is a research center that funds fellowships and research projects for law students and now also includes about 10 visiting fellows annually.