Human Rights Activism and Scholarship
By Tim Longman, Director
Human rights groups not only conduct advocacy but also extensive research and are major producers of information on issues such as political conditions, rule of law, and the impact of violence on civilians. Scholars rely heavily on reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, particularly in conflict settings and authoritarian states where academic research may be difficult or face obstructions. The role of human rights groups as producers of scholarly data, however, has been little discussed.
Boston University’s Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs organized a conference on September 13 and 14, 2019, that explored the relationship between human rights work and scholarship, looking in particular at the work of Human Rights Watch in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. A group of sixteen individuals who included former employees in the Human Rights Watch offices in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, activists from the region, and scholars who work on these countries discussed the similarities and differences between human rights research and academic research, the contribution of human rights research to scholarship, the role of scholars as human rights advocates, and ongoing human rights issues in the region.
This conference was also an opportunity to reflect on and honor the legacy of the late Alison Des Forges. 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of her tragic death and also the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the book that she wrote on the Rwandan genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story. Des Forges was trained as an historian but became involved in research for Human Rights Watch in the early 1990s. When the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda began in 1994, Des Forges became a prominent advocate for human rights and ultimately came to manage HRW’s work throughout the region. Conference participants reflected extensively on the example that Des Forges set as a scholar-activist and the impact that she had on a generation of scholars and activists.