Section 1


2005 Northern Trust Forum

Protecting Human Rights in the 21st Century

[Lecture Flyer]

The inaugural Northern Trust Forum on Democracy, Globalization and Societal Welfare, "Protecting Human Rights in the 21st Century," focused on the nature and role of international treaties in protecting human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, maintains that the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world." Thus, quite appropriately, the first Northern Trust forum focused on questions and concerns associated with building and maintaining that "foundation" in an international context. Its emphasis was on the role of the United States together with other nations and international organizations in providing the brick and mortar to protect the fundamental rights of human beings.

To date that brick and mortar primarily has come in the form of international treaties. Since the Universal Declaration a number of human rights treaties have been signed: the Genocide Convention, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Torture Convention, for example. The importance and effectiveness of these treaties in protecting human rights thus far gives rise to a number of core questions concerning the extent to which the international community should rely on such treaties to protect human rights in the future, such as:

  • What factors determine whether a country signs a human rights treaty?
    • Is it a matter of their self-interest?
    • A commitment to some notion of universal morality?
    • Other considerations?
  • When is the refusal to sign human rights treaties justified?
  • What determines compliance by the signatories of a treaty?
    • The internal politics of individual countries?
    • The nature and extent of pressure exerted by the international community,
    • Economic or regional concerns?

Recognizing of the importance and complexity of these concerns, the Northern Trust Forum addressed these questions by using three different venues: a keynote address, a public forum and roundtable discussion, and a set of small group discussions.

Professor Beth Simmons provided the keynote address on Thursday evening, November 3rd. Dr. Simmons is professor of government at Harvard University and an expert in international relations and international law. Her talk addressed the factors that affect why nations sign human rights treaties and reflect on when the refusal to sign is justified.

The public forum and roundtable discussion that took place on Thursday afternoon, November 3rd addressed compliance issues. Several experts in international relations from the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign faculty joined Dr. Simmons in discussing how compliance with human rights treaties is determined and enforced. The participant discussed such questions as:

  • Who establishes whether a human rights violation has occurred or is occurring?
  • What conditions or circumstances must exist before a coalition of nations or an international organization is justified in taking action against a sovereign nation for the purpose of protecting human rights?
  • What prevents these international actors from using the guise of "protecting human rights" to pursue hidden agendas? The potential for abuses of power and the possibility of unwarranted interventions at the expense of state sovereignty were topics that sparked debate and enliven the roundtable discussion.

The second day of the forum involved a set of small group discussions made up of exceptionally well-qualified UIUC students and lead by a distinguished assembly of alumni. These discussion groups are designed to provide for in-depth, concrete discussions of abstract issues by focusing on real world human rights issues. For example:

  • One group might focus on issues specific to the political rights of women.
    • Is it a matter of their self-interest?
    • Should a government's legal requirement that women wear a specific garment be considered illegal gender discrimination; or should this be accepted as the legitimate adherence to that country's religious doctrine?
  • Another group might debate the controversial positions the United States has taken recently on some human rights issues as it tries to balance its protection of human rights with protecting itself from terrorist attacks.
    • Is it a matter of their self-interest?
    • Is the U.S. justified in choosing not to sign a treaty that would establish an International Criminal Court?
    • Does trying to prevent another 9/11-type attack justify the detention of "�enemy combatants" and the operation at Abu Ghraib?
  • Some students and their alumni group leaders might tackle questions involving the situation in Darfur, Sudan.
    • Is it a matter of their self-interest?
    • When should a country or a coalition of countries intervene in another country's internal affairs to protect human rights?
      • How should such an intervention be structured?
    • Has the current international reaction to circumstances in Darfur been adequate?
    • What other responses were (or are) possible and appropriate?

These topics are both important and timely. The protection of international human rights took center stage at the United Nations this fall during the 2005 World Summit. At this summit, the international community addressed many of the topics that served as the focus of the Northern Trust forum. While these topics have no easy answers, grappling with them provided an informative and enlightening experience for all forum attendees.

Keynote Speaker: Professor Beth Simmons


Professor Beth Simmons - Is Professor of Government at Harvard University. Her fields of interest and course subjects are International Relations, International Political Economy, and International Law. Her current research focus is on the effects of international law and institutions on state behavior and policy choice. Her publications include Who Adjusts? Domestic Sources of Foreign Economic Policy During the Interwar Years, 1923-1939 (Princeton University Press, 1994), winner of the 1995 American Political Science Association Woodrow Wilson Award for the best book published in the previous year in government, politics, or international relations. She has also published articles on international institutions in International Organization and World Politics.

Professor Simmons' keynote address will examine when and why nations agree to sign human rights treaties and when and why they refuse to sign such treaties and the impact these decisions have on the international community.