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Syria and South Sudan focus of human rights panel

By Maya Kalman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 5, 2014

Building on the conversation about the ethics and politics of humanitarian intervention in Syria and South Sudan, Human Rights Through Education hosted a panel discussion with about 50 attendees Wednesday evening in the Rackham Amphitheater.

The panel featured Megan Schmidt, outreach officer at International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, an organization of NGOs that advocates increased for human rights measures, and Eric A. Heinze, associate professor of political science and international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma.

The hour-long discussion began with an introduction by Schmidt, who joined the panel via Skype, where she described the goals of the ICRtoP. The RtoP movement aims to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, Schmidt said.

She also described the critical role civil society plays in responding to violations of human rights and the difficulty in finding an adequate way to respond to these violations.

“This really serious response gap left the international community to essentially choose between the lesser of two evils,” Schmidt said. “So you have on the one hand doing nothing, largely in part to the principle of non-interference, or on the other, misuse of military force.”

Conceding that many advancements have been made in addressing issues of human rights violations, Schmidt said there are still many pressing challenges ahead, including raising awareness, monitoring indicators of human rights violations and assisting in recovery efforts.

The discussion continued with a short lecture by Heinze, who discussed the internal and external dimensions of human rights. Heinze described the internal dimension as “the state’s responsibility to protect its own people,” and the external as “the international community’s responsibility to assist other states in developing the capacity to prevent those sorts of atrocities within their own boundaries, as well as the international community’s responsibility to protect people in other countries.”

Heinze also discussed the establishment of international norms of human rights and the conflict between adhering to those norms while maintaining state sovereignty. He added that because these standards of expected conduct aren’t binding for governments, violations of human rights are allowed to continue.

“Just because the norm prohibiting torture is frequently violated, (it) doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” he said.

He also addressed the question of when humanitarian intervention should take place, adding that this shared responsibility by the global community conflicts with the principle of state sovereignty. Sovereignty — the principle that governments have the right to act as they please within their nation’s boundaries — makes humanitarian intervention even more difficult.

Heinze added that while important progress has been made in strengthening international norms of human rights, there is much work still to be done.

“At least as it pertains to humanitarian intervention, my observation is that RtoP hasn’t really changed the consensus that much,” Heinze said.

However, he stressed the importance of educational events on human rights intervention.

“I think events like this are critically important to raising awareness on these issues,” Heinze said. “It’s one thing to be aware of what RtoP is. It’s another thing to have knowledge about some of the challenges associated with it.”

LSA junior Courtney Rygalski said the panel offered interesting ideas about how political entities face issues of morality related to human rights.

“I don’t think there’s an easy solution but I think that debate will help make it better than the situation is right now,” she said.

Another event organizer, LSA junior Shelbie Rose, said she hopes to “be able to educate the wider campus on humanitarian intervention because it’s such a relevant topic right now.”

LSA senior Allison Punch, another event organizer, noted that the event presented two different perspectives on the topic of human rights.

“But unfortunately we haven’t been able to hear from the voices of people who are directly affected by these atrocities that we’re seeking to prevent.”


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