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.

Human Rights Activism and Scholarship:
Exploring the Relationship
A Conference in Honor of Alison Des Forges

Friday, September 13
Photonics Center, Boston University

Keynote Lecture – Ken Roth – “The Legacy of Alison Des Forges for the Human Rights Movement and Academia”

Saturday, September 14
African Studies Center, Boston University

Panel 1 – Human Rights Research and the Academy
Timothy Longman, Chair; Noel Twagiramungu, Joanne Csete, Christopher Huggins, Catharine Newbury

Panel 2 – Academic and Human Rights Concerns in the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa
Sara Rakita, Chair; Francois-Xavier Nsanzuwera, Philbert Muzima, Maria Burnett, Timothy Longman

Panel 3 – Lessons from Human Rights Watch’s Work in Rwanda
Jennie Burnet, Chair; Aloyse Habimana, Trish Hiddleston, Janet Fleischman, Leslie Haskell

Panel 4 – Remembering Alison Des Forges
Roger Des Forges, Tony Tate, and Karen Stauss, Chairs

Remarks by Francois-Xavier Nsanzuwera

Organizing Committee: Timothy Longman, Boston University, Maria Burnett, Independent Consultant, Noel Twagiramungu, Boston University, Christopher Huggins, University of Ottawa

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