Summer School 2013

The 2013 U21 Summer School was hosted by the University of Connecticut from 7-19 July 2013 on the theme: Human Rights. 87 students from 20 universities attended and theme generated animated discussion. Delegates were asked to negotiate an international human rights treaty to be followed by five fictitious nations represented by the students. At various points, heads shook, eyebrows were raised, and hands pointed to the sky.

David Richards, Associate Professor of Political Science and Human Rights in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, led the treaty project session with Shareen Hertel, Director of the Graduate Certificate in Human Rights programme at UConn, and said of the discussions: “I love the process, seeing them go through the waves of excitement and frustration, and in the end just being happy that they came up with something…This is a simulation that’s been run in a lot of places. People come up with a variety of results. They’re going to have to find a way to reach consensus because they have to. That will be the frustration. They’ll have to work through that.”

Representing differing attributes of their fictitious nations that included specific concerns and national policies, it took nearly 90 minutes for the students to agree upon creating a treaty for “The Economic Empowerment of All Peoples.” Periodically, a negotiator at the table would step away to confer with his or her group members. At other times, all negotiators would huddle with their groups and return to discussions. In the end, a treaty with a preamble and six articles addressing workers’ rights, non-discrimination, and monitoring results was among the seven group projects completed by the students and presented the next morning.

Guided by a dozen human rights experts from U21 member institutions (brought together by UConn’s Human Rights Institute and the Office of Global Affairs) students participating in the two-week session examined key issues in human rights, visited the United Nations and met with major human rights non-government organisations in New York City. They also experienced first-hand several human rights agencies and activists in Connecticut, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Migrant Farmworkers Health Clinic and Center for Children’s Advocacy, Connecticut Fair Housing Center, and Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

Visiting agencies in the Hartford region provided a real-world perspective for the students, who in many instances had not previously recognised human rights concerns existing in the United States, a nation generally considered to be a land of opportunity and wealth. Watching a deportation hearing in a courtroom was a pointed example of the current immigration issues being debated in the US. Richard Wilson, Gladstein Professor of Human Rights, Professor of Anthropology and Law, and founding Director of the Human Rights Institute at UConn observed: “They didn’t expect to see that in a country as wealthy as ours, and the challenges in health care, education, and the immigration issue. They saw three people get deported. They were shocked. I told them this would be a gritty experience.”

Faculty who led the U21 students during the sessions say they were gratified to hear them express detailed knowledge of issues in their home countries and an intense interest in human rights.“We learned that there is a real hunger among young people for some pragmatic education in not just what these ideas are about, but what it really looks like to do human rights work on the ground,” said Glenn Mitoma, Assistant Professor-in-residence at the Human Rights Institute at UConn. “We got a tremendous response when they had a chance to interact with human rights practitioners.”

One of the other group projects involved soliciting participants’ personal perspectives on human rights, based on the two-week U21 Summer School experience. The idea was to provide a wide variety of responses on human rights issues and experiences. The responses were anonymous in order to allow students to express themselves who might otherwise be concerned about airing strong opinions at home.

“We wanted to make these submissions anonymous, so people can put in voices that haven’t been heard,” said Sandra Shaker, a student at the University of Maryland working on that group project.

The passionate interest in human rights demonstrated by the students at the U21 sessions provided confidence among the faculty that the issues will continue to be addressed in the future.

“What I’ve been struck by is a very switched-on generation of kids,” said Wilson. “I’m happy to hand the world over to them. I think they are well informed, balanced and measured. They’ve got inquiring minds without being paralysed with cynicism. I’m impressed. That’s been the discovery for me – this worldwide group of kids of a certain age who are interested in human rights issues.”


Kenneth Best
Senior Writer, University Communications
University of Connecticut