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Approximately 200 students, faculty and interested visitors attended various parts of the first ever University-wide conference on human rights Saturday.
The conference consisted of an introduction and three panel discussions.
The panels featured scholars from diverse fields, and discussions emphasized the variety of perspectives on human rights concerns.
"We're trying to make people aware that there are individuals throughout Harvard who are seriously interested and involved with this issue," Henry Steiner, Smith Professor of Law and one of the conference's organizers, said in a University statement.
In a morning panel, three Harvard scholars aired their views on the issue of "The United States and Global Human Rights." The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a Divinity School professor, argued that multilateral organizations like NATO hold the most promise for improving human rights around the Globe.
But Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France Stanley Hoffman countered that the United States often needs to act alone.
He also said that in some instances, America must exploit its national power to advance the cause of human rights.
"Multilateral organizations can be paralyzing...and very often letting oneself be paralyzed by multilateral organizations can be worse than taking unilateral action," Hoffman said.
In some of the day's most controversial remarks, Debora Spar, an assistant professor at the Business School, argued that American corporations can often be positive forces for improving human rights overseas.
In the face of audible, disdainful chuckles from some members of the audience, Spar criticized philosophical and economic arguments holding that corporations are immoral and motivated only by self-interest.
"Corporations, paradoxically, may be one of the better tools the U.S. government has in pursuit of a human rights agenda," Spar said.
She listed a number of examples, most notably China. While acknowledging that the U.S. strategy of tying trade policy to human rights has not been successful, she credited the presence of American corporations in China for curbing starvation among the 800 million Chinese who live in agricultural areas.
"I find it hard to say that ending starvation is not an advancement of human rights," she said.
In afternoon panels, scholars discussed the relationship between population policies and human rights, as well as worldwide discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation.
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