Interpreting human rights among the dead and disappeared.
The Global Justice Workshop wasn’t what I expected. I had just arrived as a graduate student at Stanford after a series of jobs at nonprofit organizations, most of them in what could broadly be defined as the “human rights sector.” Eagerly joining a group of fellow graduate students and faculty to discuss scholarly articles, I soon found that global justice, and human rights, seemed to mean something very different in the seminar rooms of Stanford than in the offices of my former employers. My new colleagues could talk for hours about different accounts of the foundations of human rights, the varieties of liberalism and communitarianism, or the best theory of a just international order, often without specific reference to any real place, institution, or group of people.
Encountering theory for the first time, I was both intimidated and repulsed. This particular discourse of justice and rights seemed hopelessly disconnected from the realities to which I had been exposed: the photographs of mass graves, full of the commingled bodies of genocide victims, that I had organized into files as a research assistant to the forensic program at Physicians for Human Rights, the maps I had drawn in the South Texas “colonias” (unincorporated settlements) to show the floodplains where poor residents had been tricked into buying land, and the stories long-time human rights activists told me of receiving death threats in Guatemala or being cross-examined by Bosnian war criminals.
People who spend their days conducting human rights work in the field have different priorities, vocabularies, and ways of thinking about human rights than people who spend their days writing and teaching.