Human Rights Conference on Center Stage

The USF community turns out to participate in thought-provoking sessions and research from more than 50 scholars.


Conference organizer and Humanities Institute Director Elizabeth Byrd is joined by David Hawk, featured speaker and human rights

activist, and Fraser Ottanelli, chair of USF Department of History. Photos: Aimee Blodgett | USF News.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 31, 2012) – Global citizenship has its rewards, such as trade, business, and educational and cultural exchange opportunities.  But there’s another side. 

The movement toward a more globalized world is something akin to moving onto a nice new street only to find there’s a house of horrors down the block. What to do? Report it? And to whom? Intervene? Who has the right to when there’s no real police force in this neighborhood?


The international community faces such a challenge. “Violence, Memory and Human Rights: An Interdisciplinary Conference” at the University of South Florida began exploring that challenge in all its complexities and dimensions with an extraordinary group of scholars and experts on Monday. The conference continues through Wednesday at the Marshall Student Center.


The conference is open to the USF community. With over 50 scholars sharing their research, conference organizer and Humanities Institute Director Elizabeth Bird welcomes participation from faculty and students at all levels.


“This is a truly exciting program that puts USF at the forefront of the international debate on violence and transitional justice scholarship,” she said.


Tuesday morning it was, “Is Recovery Possible?”  Other sessions looked at “Reparations and Redress,” and “The Language of Mass Violence;” and in the afternoon, “Witnessing and Reconciliation” and “The Power of the Body.” 


Tuesday afternoon, the featured plenary speaker was genocide scholar Frank Chalk from Concordia University, who spoke about “Mobilizing the Will to Intervene.”


On Wednesday, the conference concludes with the simultaneous panels “Enforcing Human Rights Through Judicial Accountability” from 8:30 – 10:30 a.m. chaired by Anthropology Assistant Professor Erin Kimmerle; and “Truth, Memory and Forgetting chaired by Musa Wakhungu Olaka of USF’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center. The final session, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. led by Government and International Affairs Associate Professor Michael Gibbons will focus on Memorializing Violence. 


For the full program, visit and more information, visit:


The panel sessions cover the world. Guatemala, Nazi Germany, Israel, South Africa, Argentina, Spain, Peru, Uganda, Cyprus, North Korea, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Colombia, Thailand, Nigeria, Rwanda, Czechoslovakia, Darfur and the United States. It becomes clear that the plight faced by victims of, and refugees from, genocide, torture and all manner of violations of human rights are – unfortunately – everywhere. Still some places in the world provide examples of greater extremes than others.


There was a time when the world could claim ignorance of crimes against humanity but today’s abuses are “taking place in real time in front of CNN and against groups and populations who have access to cell phones and cameras. Hours later the rest of the world knows about it and has the video of it,” said David Hawk, international human rights activist and former Amnesty International director. Everywhere, he said, but a country like North Korea.  


Hawk was Monday’s plenary speaker with a talk on “Crimes against Humanity in the Hermit Kingdom.” North Korea is where the scenes of the crimes are taking place in prison camps, police stations, and forced labor colonies – hidden away from prying eyes. It isn’t until two to three years later, when prisoners are released or escape and make their way to other countries that the truth gets out. Hawk has been gathering evidence for decades building the case for a world community outcry.


While his detailed listing of horrors seem to make his case an open and shut one, Hawk explained that the rule of law requires strict definitions that have to be met before the words genocide and crime against humanity can be used. On his list are a brutal feudal hierarchy that limits all mobility, near starvation and persistent hunger causing stunted growth, imprisonment for thinking or even being exposed to “wrong” thoughts and ideas, punishment meted out to three generations of relatives for the so-called crimes of individuals, no trials, no judicial processes, no constitutional provisions, prisoners held for life, incommunicado, sent to work in mining, logging, agriculture, textile factories, behind barbed wire and guard towers, typically in remote mountain areas. People are abducted, disappeared, deported, enslaved, maintained on the verge of starvation, tortured, physically punished, executed in public unless they die of malnutrition, exhaustion or accidents first. People in numbers “reaching the level of extermination,” Hawk said.


Local party bosses in some senses are equivalent to feudal lords,” Hawk said. “They assign jobs, decide how much education your children will get, control distribution of food and clothing” and determine the quality and quantity.


Though slow and painstaking, activists like Hawk are doing their best to comply with the world’s need for proof. 


“Now there’s evidence and documentation,” Hawk said and suggested the books, Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, Escape from Camp 14 and his own 2003 report The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps Prisoners. All tell the true stories of victims of torture and political imprisonment.


“Looking at attempts being made to get the international community to recognize and respond, progress is being made,” he said and noted that every year since 2005 the UN has issued resolutions condemning human rights violations. Still Hawk laments the fact that human rights issues have had to take a back seat to attempts to slow North Korea’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, North Korea denies it has political prisoners calling eye-witness testimony, “scurrilous political attacks.” 


Political issues and correct legal terminology are not the only reasons why it is so difficult to prosecute and put an end to crimes against humanity. The conference is shedding light on the many things that get in the way.


Walker at the conference

Margaret Urban Walker, a panelist on Monday who took part in the plenary session “Truth telling and Human Rights.”

Margaret Urban Walker, a panelist on Monday who took part in the plenary session “Truth telling and Human Rights” observes that “the phenomenon of violence is ancient but the process of analyzing and thinking about the institutions that perpetuate it are a late 20th century movement.” She noted that conferences like this one, though rare, are just beginning to happen more often and she found the interdisciplinary nature of this conference especially gratifying.


“It’s very challenging for scholars all trained in their respective disciplines, trained to look in a certain way and trained to expect a certain kind of answer,” Walker said. “All at once you’re with people with different mindsets who ask different kinds of questions and add the global perspective with very wide-ranging views and concrete situations.”


Unexpected questions arose in her session and she got a good sense of why things are not as simple as she once thought – even though such documents as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would seem to make matters clear.


“The very idea of human rights is surrounded by questions and controversies,” she said. “We do have to stop and ask, ‘What does it mean, really?’ ‘Can human rights be forced on people?’ ‘Does the violation of what we consider human rights empower outsiders to interfere in matters considered cultural or religious practices?’”


She also found interesting discussions around how individuals and societies that are not victims themselves can come to recognize themselves as perpetrators or as people who are just going along.


Remaining panel sessions pose more questions and look for more answers as will future events.


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.