Sarah H. Cleveland is Columbia Law School’s Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights, as well as the Faculty Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute. Her areas of expertise include National Security and International Humanitarian Law, Foreign Affairs and the Constitution, and International Law in U.S. Courts. Last night at 6 pm, she held a lecture on “Human Rights Connectivity and the Future of the Human Rights System,” and Daily Editor (and fellow human herself) Lila Etter was in attendance.
As I made my way up the steps of Low Library and entered the Rotunda, I began to notice that this was not just another lecture. I had thought that I was one of the early birds, and my plan had been to snag a seat up front by arriving a whole 20 minutes early. Little did I know, people had begun flooding in as early as 5:15 pm. The Rotunda was full by 5:45 pm, which is when I realized that the University Lecture only happens once a semester.
President Bollinger and Provost Coatsworth delivered two separate but equally-praiseful introductions for Professor Cleveland. PrezBo emphasized that there “could not be a more important subject in the world today than human rights,” and after affirming his love for the word “global,” he called Cleveland a brilliant mind and the embodiment of what Columbia stands for intellectually. Coatsworth was similarly complimentary, and for those who knew nothing about Cleveland up until this point (which I’m sure were very few), this opening may have seemed almost adulatory. I myself had known of only some of her numerous accomplishments, including her position as a beloved professor at the Law School, as well as her work with Amal Clooney at the Human Rights Institute. I arrived at the lecture already impressed. But when this semester’s University Lecturer was finally welcomed to the podium, it was immediately clear that she deserved the praise.
Professor Cleveland began by announcing that 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of two major covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These two documents, along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 (pictured above) make up the International Bill of Human Rights and form the backbone of the international human rights system. The commemoration of 50 years means many questions must be asked, the most obvious— yet perhaps the most complicated—of which is, “How far have we come?”
Cleveland admitted that she had been tempted to call this lecture “The Human Rights System at Fifty: A Mid-Life Crisis?” But she also argued that, despite the seemingly endless list of current events that unnerve us, it can be encouraging to consider the state of the world now as compared to half a century ago. “It isn’t all bad,” she said. “After all, the human rights system was not created because we live in a perfect world, but rather because we live in an imperfect one.”
She explained that the history of human rights can be divided into three stages: universalization and internationalization, institutionalization, and finally the current age of connectivity. According to Cleveland, our goal in this era should be “to maximize our resources in order to improve conditions for real people in the real world.” She went on to describe her work with the Venice Commission, the UN Human Rights Committee, and the Human Rights Institute, addressing both the history that has affected these institutions and what they hope to achieve looking forward. She proposed that the greatest challenge in today’s age of connectivity is answering the question, “How do we make the whole greater than just the sum of its parts?” Ultimately, she declared that as far as we have come in formulating responses to this question, “We are not there yet.”
In closing, she asked the audience, “So, what can universities do?” The answer is, unsurprisingly, not so simple, but it includes: supporting comparative research, promoting transnational dialogue between human rights bodies, and providing resources in the form of undergraduate and graduate students by granting fellowships and internships. Here, Cleveland walked a fine line. She praised Columbia’s work thus far, but she was also careful to emphasize her call to action. “It’s been fifty years,” she said. “We need to reflect backwards and look forwards.”
Over the course of the fall semester and into this semester, I’ve heard a lot about the Human Rights Department. I initially wanted to pursue a joint major in Human Rights at Barnard, so I want to hear anything and everything people had to say about their own experiences. Much of the feedback I’ve received reflects two ideas in particular: first, the concept of human rights is outdated and no longer relevant to our world. Second (and this lies somewhat in direct opposition with the first idea), is that human rights are still relevant, but Columbia and Barnard’s approach to human rights is antiquated and inaccurate. Some argue that many professors only present one angle of human rights, and that this angle is largely a white, privileged, neocolonial perspective. I’ve even heard people use the terms “white savior complex” and “neoliberal” when describing their professors’ points of view. Other students lament that their human rights courses barely ever scratch the surface.
All of this has made me wary — and almost weary — of pursuing Human Rights. Yet, I’m still interested in the field, and the University Lecture provided the opportunity to explore another perspective on Human Rights. It’s safe to say that I got what I came for by attending last night’s lecture. Professor Cleveland is one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever had the opportunity to listen to for an hour, and her approach to human rights is not what I would call “antiquated.” Her emphasis on the age in which we live indicated an awareness of human rights in the context of modernity, acknowledging the relevance of human rights in today’s world. It’s one thing to say that human rights is the most “important subject in the world today.” It’s another thing to prove that statement to be true every day, and in everything you do.
Eleanor killing the game via Christoph Braun/Wikimedia Commons