This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.

  October 22, 2001

UConn Lands First UNESCO
Human Rights Chair in U.S.

The University of Connecticut has received the first and only UNESCO chair in human rights in the United States.

Amii Omara-Otunnu, an associate professor of history, executive director of the Institute of Comparative Human Rights, and executive director of the UConn-ANC Partnership, has been named as the first holder of the chair.

The chair is particularly significant in light of the fact that the United States is not among the 185 member states of UNESCO, having withdrawn from the organization during the 1980s.

The chair, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is intended to promote research, education, information and documentation in the field of human rights. It will serve to facilitate collaboration between high-level, internationally recognized researchers and teaching staff at UConn and other institutions in the United States and other countries, particularly South Africa.

"That UNESCO has selected the University of Connecticut to receive this chair, from among hundreds of prominent research universities, is a mark of distinction for the institution as a whole and particularly for the many members of our community whose work is focused heavily in the area of human rights," said President Philip E. Austin. "Notable among them, of course, is Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu himself, who spearheaded our partnership with South Africa's African National Congress and is an internationally recognized leader in this area."

The award of the chair was announced by Rudolf Joó, director of UNESCO's Division of Human Rights, Democracy, Peace and Tolerance, during the University's second annual Comparative Human Rights Conference Oct. 16.

"UConn brings simultaneously the national and local perspective - the United States and Connecticut - and at the same time a perspective through its cooperation with the ANC," Joó; said.

As the UNESCO chair in human rights, Omara-Otunnu will disseminate human rights information to the university, as well as across the state, nation and globe. He will also develop models and strategies for cross-national and cross-cultural dialogue on issues of race relations, democratic pluralism, and peace.

Omara-Otunnu will also head an Institute of Comparative Human Rights, which will be associated with the chair.

In the past, approaches to human rights have generally been developed from the standpoint of a particular nation or culture. Comparative human rights takes into account different perspectives, but is based on the notion of a common humanity, the idea that what the various peoples of the world have in common is more significant than the differences.

"To recognize our common humanity is to recognize that all of us, regardless of social background, nationality, gender, etc., are born with equal dignity and worth," Omara-Otunnu said. "The concept of comparative human rights seeks both to transcend the ethnocentrism of human rights dialogue and avoid the pitfalls of cultural relativism when we talk about human rights," he added.

Omara-Otunnu has led UConn's growing relationship with South Africa, a country that has rebuilt itself on the principles of social justice since the end of apartheid and that is widely considered a leader in the field of human rights. He was instrumental in establishing and is the executive director of the University of Connecticut-African National Congress Partnership, a collaborative initiative with South Africa's former leading anti-apartheid organization and current ruling political party.

He also founded and directed UConn's Center for Contemporary African Studies and established the University's linkage with the University of Fort Hare, South Africa's oldest and most illustrious historically black institution of higher learning.

"The criteria for selection of the network of UNESCO chairs are extremely rigorous," Joó; said. "We consider that Professor Omara-Otunnu's great experience in the field of human rights as well as in other fields, in particular in peaceful conflict management and conflict prevention, will permit him to successfully guide the activities of the chair."

Omara-Otunnu's longstanding involvement in and commitment to international human rights began during his days as a student leader at Uganda's Makerere University, where he spoke out against human rights abuses committed by dictator Idi Amin. Because of his stand, Omara-Otunnu was twice forced into exile from Uganda.

Omara-Otunnu has a bachelor's degree in social studies from Harvard University, a master's degree in political science from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor's degree in law and a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford in England.

UNESCO is one of several subsidiary specialized agencies that operate under the auspices of the United Nations. Headquartered in Paris, UNESCO was established in 1946 with the purpose of contributing to international peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture.

The UNESCO chairs program, launched in 1991, is intended to strengthen international cooperation between higher education institutions and programs. There are 53 UNESCO chairs in human rights worldwide.

Allison Thompson

Issue Index