Center marks 40th anniversary with symposium on international human rights
The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, as its name suggests, has long focused its work on the United States, particularly the question of public trust in American institutions. But to mark its 40th anniversary, the center turned to a global theme.
It celebrated the milestone with a multidisciplinary symposium titled "Humanitarianism and Human Rights in the 21st Century." The gathering Oct. 10 to 12 at the Bloomington campus's Indiana Memorial Union featured panels and presentations on such topics as international rights considerations in religion, education, philanthropy and global development.
Richard B. Miller, director of the Poynter Center, said the symposium was designed to promote serious thought about moral and political obligations, questions at the heart of the study of ethics. A premise was that boundaries between nations, cultures and religions have become increasingly porous -- and also increasingly contested.
"With that porousness and contestedness," Miller said, "there is an increasing sense that we need to think creatively about what we owe each other beyond national, cultural and other borders. I wanted to expand the frame of reference of institutional obligations in a cosmopolitan way. The global human rights project provided the conceptual vocabulary for carrying out that kind of inquiry."
Focusing on humanitarianism and human rights, he said, provided a framework for addressing ethical issues from the multidisciplinary perspective that the Poynter Center values and practices. The three keynote speakers exemplified that approach:
- Sumner B. "Barney" Twiss, distinguished professor of human rights, ethics and religion at Florida State University, spoke on "Religion, Global Ethics and Human Rights."
- David Alan Crocker, senior research scholar at the University of Maryland Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, addressed "Human Rights, Democratization and Development."
- Diane Orentlicher, professor of international law at American University, presented on "When Is International Justice Transitional Justice? Lessons From the Balkans."
The keynotes "were all excellent," Miller said, "and they came at the human-rights project from distinct areas of competence: one in religion, one in global development and one in international law."
Twiss, a leading authority on theories of religion and comparative religious ethics, examined the presence of religious themes in contemporary thinking about human rights. He contrasted two influential documents: the Parliament of World Religions' Declaration Toward a Global Ethic and UNESCO's Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities.
Religion may not be the foundation of the documents, he said; but religious thinking informs the insights and commentaries that surround them, with their appeals to selflessness and moral suasion and their language of hope, faith and healing.
Crocker explored the rise of international development after World War II and its evolution from focusing solely on economic growth to also being concerned with human and civil rights. Going further, he said, questions are now being raised about the relationship of development to the rights and aspirations of peoples and cultures, and even whether there is a "right to democracy."
"My own view," Crocker said, "is that development is incomplete unless it includes broad and deep, impactful citizen participation."
Orentlicher, one of the world's leading experts on human rights violations and war crimes tribunals, discussed similarities and differences between two forms of human rights work: securing international justice in criminal tribunals, on the one hand, and advancing transitional justice in societies seeking to rebuild after legacies of violence, on the other. Drawing on her work in Argentina and the Balkans, Orentlicher noted that the special challenge facing agents of transitional justice is reckoning with a society's "core values and restoring public trust in institutions."
Interactions between speakers raised the intellectual level of the discussion and brought multiple perspectives together. During Twiss' keynote, for example, Crocker sat at the front of the room and asked questions that took the conversation in new directions.
"In many ways the keynote speakers educated the attendees for the entire symposium," Miller said. "They engaged with each other and served as mentors to the other participants."
He added that, in addition to coming from multiple disciplines, participants brought different generational perspectives. "We had senior scholars, mid-career scholars, junior faculty, graduate students -- there was a way in which it became an intergenerational intellectual community," he said.