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  October 22, 2001

Common Themes in Human Rights
Brought Alive at Conference

The gripping reality of past and current human rights struggles throughout the world were passionately personalized by activists, government leaders and scholars from South Africa, China, the Middle East, and the United States at the second annual international comparative human rights conference Oct. 16.

"I am responsible for every Palestinian or Israeli killed, for every woman raped in Bosnia. We're all responsible," said Galia Golan of Israel, an activist for peace and for women's rights. "And if we see it, feel it, we have to do something about it."

Golan, professor of government, policy and diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzlia, Israel, was among the dozen speakers who stirred the hearts and invigorated the minds of some 500 conference attendees during the conference on "Education for Human Rights: Global Perspectives."

While dialogue on human rights issues remained the focus of the conference, the attack against the United States on Sept. 11 served as a terrible and timely backdrop.

"As we gather here today, the tragic events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath are at the forefront of all our minds," said Amii Omara-Otunnu, executive director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and the Institute of Comparative Human Rights, which organized the conference.

"Even though planning for this conference began more than a year ago, these events have brought a new meaning and a new urgency to the topics we will discuss today," he said.

Welcoming the audience of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, and about 150 students from more than half a dozen Connecticut high schools in the packed Rome Commons Ballroom, President Philip E. Austin said "There is no field more significant to humanity than human rights, and no time at which its examination is more important than now."

Rudolf Jo- of Hungary, a top official in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that "in a world where more than 100 million children still do not attend school and 150 million drop out without learning to read or write, achieving basic education for all is of paramount importance." He noted that education is a human right and an indispensable condition for the realization of other human rights.

Keynote speaker Naledi Pandor, chair of the National Council of Provinces, the second chamber of South Africa's Parliament, reviewed her country's progress and the remaining challenges in the field of education and human rights in the post-apartheid era.

"The deep scars of inequality - the legacy of apartheid and colonialism - are nowhere more marked and more painful than in the education sector," she said.

Although the post-apartheid government moved swiftly to ensure equal access to education for all, "we soon realized that rights on their own are not enough." She said more was needed in terms of resources and curricular change, two areas on which the government is now focusing.

Pandor noted that last year only five high school students out of thousands in one of the biggest black townships in Cape Town passed mathematics and science at a level that would allow them to pursue a science or commerce-related degree.

Allison Dussias, a professor at the New England School of Law and an expert in the rights of indigenous peoples, expressed concern over the current education of Native Americans.

"A greater commitment needs to be made in addressing the longstanding socioeconomic problems that make it difficult for Native American students to stay in school," she said.

Children's right to an education is a right that has not yet been fully guaranteed to Native American children, she added.

Rolf H. Stumpf, deputy vice chancellor at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, a former white, Afrikaans-speaking institution, discussed the role of values in the transformation of higher education.

He said although Stellenbosch has done everything to comply with South Africa's 1997 Higher Education Act, "something still is missing.

"We require much more than compliance with legal stipulations to promote values," said Stumpf. "We need heart and lots of it."

There was plenty of heart in the personal testimonies of three human rights activists.

Lionel Basil Davis, an artist and longtime anti-apartheid activist said he was born into a society highly stratified by race. He became involved in politics and ended up in the maximum security jail on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Since the end of apartheid, the jail has been turned into a museum.

"It was on Robben Island that my actual education started," said Davis, who now spends his days as a tour guide and educator on the Island.

"I was thrown together with all types of people," he said. "Lying on our mats at night, we talked about our differences. It was this form of education that made us wise."

Many of the prisoners also educated themselves during their incarceration. "We came with little education - maybe grade 6 - and left with university degrees," he said.

Former South African student leader Mukesh Vassen took the audience through a dramatic sequence of events that began before his 15th birthday, when police tried to arrest him for his involvement in a boycott of schools during the mid-1980s, a time when the apartheid government was at its most oppressive.

The goal of the apartheid education system was "to create a subservient black population," said Vassen, now a lawyer and the research officer to the Speaker of the South African Parliament. "Despite our fears, the youth slogan, 'We are the future, nobody can stop us,' explains our determination in the face of danger," he added.

Although an older student when his government opened fire on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989, conference speaker Xiao Qiang reflected similar determination and passion in standing up for human rights.

"Tiananmen Square was a turning point in my life," recalled Qiang. "I was pursuing a doctorate in astrophysics at Notre Dame, but when I heard the news of what was happening I got on a plane and flew back to China." After returning to the United States, he began working full-time as a human rights activist.

Qiang, who remains in political exile in this country, is executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China, an international, non-governmental organization that monitors and advocates for the observance of human rights in his country.

Qiang said sharing his experience with people from other parts of the world has given him a sense of solidarity. "You want to speak freely without fear in English, I want to speak freely without fear in Chinese," he said.

He challenged members of the audience to think about the personal relevance of human rights and to take action in their everyday lives, asking: "How do you make the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into a living document?"

Claudia G. Chamberlain

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