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The University of Human Rights

April 19, 2017

Portrait of Barbara Frey in her office

Portrait of Barbara Frey in her office
Photo by Matthew Weber, CLAgency

Professor Barbara Frey describes the University of Minnesota as "the human rights university." Having served as director of the Human Rights Program (HRP) since 2001, Frey is heavily involved in engaging students and researchers with real-world human rights issues.

"The visibility of the University on human rights issues has grown substantially," Frey says. "We connect University centers that are working on related issues. We work with civil society organizations as well as institutions like the UN on urgent and critical projects."

One of the most notable cases the HRP has assisted with involved grave desecration in Thailand. A group of Hmong refugees reached out to the HRP because the burial grounds in their homeland were being excavated by the local Buddhists who owned the land. Thai officials stated the reason for moving the bodies from the burial ground was for water sanitation. However, accounts from the Hmong people living in the Thai refugee camps depicted disrespectful acts towards the bodies like dismemberment. Thanks to videos of these incidents from the refugees and the work of Frey's project team members, the program was able to contact agencies of the US and Thai governments to help put an end to these excavations.

In another case, a "lost boy" of Sudan, who was a student here at the University, learned of the abductions of his two nieces in Sudan by the Murle, a neighboring tribe. The HRP was able to draw attention to inter-tribal conflict which led to incidents including abductions and other forms of violence. Organizations like UNICEF  began to address the lack of child registration in response to stories like this. One of the two missing girls eventually turned up at her home.

This spring the HRP is focused on a research-based project in Mexico in which students are coding Mexican newspaper articles concerning the crisis of forced disappearances of individuals. After coding the articles, the students are working to analyze the data to identify trends in the disappearances.  "We're trying to build a database to understand as much as we can about those disappearances and how the media covers them," Frey says. "We want to examine what cases get covered and try to analyze why this happens." Two students accompanied Frey at a meeting with Mexican students and scholars over spring break in Mexico City.

Learn more about how University of Minnesota researchers are protecting human rights.