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Human Rights Initiative

The Human Rights Initiative is a joint effort of the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs to support interdisciplinary engaged research and teaching in the field of human rights with a goal of strengthening practice and the profession overall. The Initiative arises out of years of collaborative and engaged research by faculty who work and teach on topics related to human rights.  

The Human Rights Initiative receives recurring funds from the Provost's office to support grants of up to $50,000 for faculty-led interdisciplinary human rights research. Led by a group of senior faculty, the Human Rights Initiative Research Fund provides direct research funding to University of Minnesota faculty to carry out human rights projects; to learn more about future funding cycles please visit this page

Current Human Rights Initiative Projects  

Signs that Portend Atrocities: Enriching Early Warning Systems

Elizabeth Heger Boyle (Sociology) 

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Center for Victims of Torture are collaborating to improve early warning systems (EWS). EWS are statistical models designed to identify factors that can contribute to conflict, providing a robust understanding of causes to help develop mitigation and preparedness responses. As EWS evolved, individuals who have actually experienced conflict have become more involved in developing the statistical models, broadening them, for example, to recognize the importance of class- and gender-based inequities. Nevertheless, many EWS continue to rely largely on coarse measures to predict violence. Many of the statistical models continue to privilege traditional geopolitical measures over gender or health indicators, although recent research shows the latter can be important precursors of conflict. This project will construct innovative new EWS measures, test them quantitatively, and consider holistic feedback from focus group discussions of violence survivors on how, why, and when indicators may predict atrocities. The project findings will expand effective EWS, be shared with humanitarian organizations, and be published in a variety of venues.

Public Third-Party Observers’ Perceptions of Procedural Fairness in U.S. Immigration Court

Jack DeWaard (Sociology) and Linus Chan (Law) 

Our 2019 HRI-funded project, “Promoting transparency and engagement in U.S. immigration court by ensuring the quality and utility of data collected by volunteer observers,” resulted in a three-year $1,589,212 grant proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation that is currently pending. If funded, this will expand our research on the Bloomington, MN, immigration court to immigration courts in Arlington, VA, Los Angeles, CA, and Chicago, IL, resulting in the largest immigration court observation project ever conducted in the United States. To prepare for the possibility of this significant expansion and to ensure a smooth transition, the current HRI-funded project will spend the next several months developing and coordinating: 1) a comprehensive set of onboarding, training, and debriefing materials for third-party immigration court observers, including detailed coding instructions to guide how observations are made and recorded in the courtroom; 2) a uniform set of questions and response categories that will be used to collect information about third-party observers and their perceptions of procedural fairness and other procedures and outcomes in immigration court; and 3) systems for data entry, processing, storage, and sharing.

Advancing Respect for LGBTQI+ Rights Through the United Nations Human Rights Framework

Jennifer Green (Law) and Janet Walsh (Humphrey School of Public Affairs)

This project will study and develop advocacy strategies with the United Nations human rights system to defend and advance the human rights of people who suffer violence, discrimination and economic, social and cultural rights violations on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The project builds on and complements other University work, including initiatives by the Law School's Human Rights Center (a partner in this project) and the Nursing and Medical Schools' groundbreaking study on health needs and experiences of LGBTQI+ urban refugees in Kenya. The first partnership will document and present findings to key UN monitoring bodies about LGBTQI+ refugees in Kenya who face continuing rights violations after fleeing violence, discrimination and other rights violations in their home countries. The project’s second focus will be on the role and responsibilities of global business in tackling LGBTQI+ discrimination and examine how the UN Standards of Conduct for Business released in 2017 have been and should be taken up in the Americas. We will work with partners in the region to assess the role of the private sector and the impact and potential of the UN standards in advancing LGBTQI+ rights. 

History in Whose Hands? Gendering the Collective Memory of Perpetrators in Serbia

Joachim J. Savelsberg (Sociology)

This project interrogates the effects of gendered power relations on the acknowledgement or denial of genocide and mass violence for the case of Serbia. By focusing on the context of a post-conflict “perpetrator” country, it engages with the role of women in establishing a “cultural trauma of perpetrators.” Men typically, but not exclusively, commit these atrocities. Yet, women are uniquely affected by and participate in managing the after-effects of such violence. They thus partake in the collective remembering (or forgetting) of that violence. Focusing on Serbian women who are part of an organization dedicated to memory issues and a control group of women who are not organized and have to process (or avoid) the past in everyday interactions. The project will involve ethnographic observation, interviews and document analysis to be conducted in Serbia. This study will contribute to academic literatures around memory studies, denialism, gender, peace, security, and cultural trauma of perpetrators. It will also inform human rights policymaking and practitioner work around (gendered) memory activism.



Past Human Rights Initiative Projects



Animating Children's Views: Implementing the UNCRC's Article 12 Using Innovative Survey Methods

Deborah Levison (Public Affairs) and Frances Vavrus (Organizational Leadership, Policy and Development)

Funding Years: 2018, 2019

Children have the right to be heard on matters that concern them, yet their views are marginalized in research and policy. To address this, Professors Levison and Vavrus, along with graduate student collaborator Anna Bolgrien, are developing a human rights-based survey methodology specifically for use with children ages 12-17. In this second year of piloting, they will build on results from Tanzania and will test the methodology in Brazil and Nepal. This new research tool will allow researchers to include the voices of children in large-scale household surveys, which will in turn have a significant effect on human rights policy and programming.

Collected Writings on Sri Lanka
VV Ganeshananthan (English)
Funding Year: 2017 

This project aims to depict the parts of Sri Lankan society that have gone the least recognized over the course of its long conflict: civilian political dissidents and resisters of extremist violence. Through fiction, essays, and poetry, Professor Ganeshananthan documents the history of the shift to a more polarized society via efforts of the Sri Lankan state and Tamil militants and the resistance to such efforts.

Related Materials: 

Using storytelling to capture nuances of the Sri Lankan civil war - Human Rights Program, August 2, 2018

A Contested Home: Memory, Commemoration and Rights around Forced Migration of Palestinians in the Galilee
Sonja Kuftinec (Theater Arts and Dance) and Avigail Manneberg (Art)
Funding Year: 2018

This project uses artistic representation to engage with issues of forced migration and displacement. It explores how visual and theatrical storytelling can redress historical amnesia by seeking to foster dialogue between two groups who have a long and contentious history, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and Jewish Israelis. Professors Kuftinec and Manneberg will work with eight local artists to develop an interdisciplinary body of work culminating in an exhibition and public art installation.

Related Materials: 

CIVIOS Podcast: A Contested Home healing through art and storytelling

HRI Research Symposium Presenter Spotlight: Sonja Kuftinec and Avigail Manneberg - Human Rights Program, October 18, 2018

Do Self-Reporting Regimes Matter? The Impact of Dynamic Regulatory Processes in International Human Rights Law
Cosette D. Creamer (Political Science)
Funding Year: 2017 

This project asks if self-reporting by governments on their human rights record actually contributes to improved human rights conditions. This research will provide important guidance to those involved in reform efforts of the human rights treaty bodies, thereby positioning the University of Minnesota as a global human rights leader and a key participant in discussions over United Nations reform.

Related Materials: 

Researching Their Future: What Professor Creamer's RAs Learned Through Their HRI Work - Human Rights Program, March 26, 2018

Does Self-Reporting in Human Rights Work? - Human Rights Program, March 6, 2018

Equal Rights & Unequal Remedies: Understanding Citizen Perceptions of and Engagement with the Judicial System
Lisa Hilbink (Political Science)
Funding Year: 2017 

This project examines how citizens develop opinions of judicial institutions, how these perceptions are affected by inequalities, and how such perceptions impact how willing citizens are to claim their rights within the judicial system. This initial research with focus groups in Chile and Colombia—two countries with robust judicial institutions and high degrees of inequality—will give researchers a clearer understanding of how citizens’ opinions and perceptions impact the ways in which justice is sought in cases of individual rights violations. These findings will allow for informed discussion with foundations, policymakers, and activists interested in human rights outcomes and an examination of direct implications for policy.  

Related Materials: 

Engaging justice amidst inequality in Latin America - Open Global Rights by Lisa Hilbink, Janice Gallagher, Juliana Restrepo Sanin & Valentina Salas, April 4, 2019

Understanding Justice in Chile and Colombia: Valentina Salas's HRI Grant Work - Human Rights Program, February 9, 2018

Equal Rights & Unequal Remedies -CLAgency, January 5, 2018


Family Commissioners: Fostering Justice, Security, and Peace in Colombian Families in the Post-Conflict Era
Greta Friedemann-Sanchez (Public Affairs) 
Funding Year: 2017 

This project explores the gaps in accessing justice in Colombia in cases involving partner violence. Although Colombia has model legislation addressing violence against women, the goals of the legislation remain largely unmet. Given that post-conflict peace processes are often marked by a surge in partner violence, the time is critical for Colombia to understand this discrepancy more fully, as the country is emerging from more than 50 years of internal conflict. Working in collaboration with officials and broader civil society in Colombia, University researchers will contribute research data critical to positively impacting the fundamental human rights of women in Colombia.

Related Materials: 

Effecting Tangible Change at the United Nations - Human Rights Program, April 25, 2019 

Working Across Disciplinary Fields - Human Rights Program, June 14, 2018

A Rift Between Law and Reality on Intimate Partner Violence in Colombia - Human Rights Program, June 14, 2018 

Effects of a Country in Conflict: Intimate Partner Violence in Colombia  - A CIVIOS Podcast

General Background on Colombian Laws on Violence against Women, Orders of Protection, and Shelters - United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Submission to the Human Rights Council Universal Period Review, available in English and Spanish


From IDPs to Refugees: Forced Migration in El Salvador
Patrick J. McNamara (History)
Funding Year: 2017 

This project seeks to provide better understanding of the plight of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in El Salvador. Researchers are conducting a series of interviews with IDPs, NGO representatives, and government officials to determine the scope and humanitarian needs of dislocated persons in the country, some of whom are forced to become IDPs after having been deported from the United States. This research will provide organizations and policymakers in El Salvador and the United States with important information to influence more effective solutions for these individuals in need.

Related Materials: 

Unanimous Truths: RA Heider Tun Tun and the IDP Situation in El Salvador - Human Rights Program, April 17, 2018

The Global Diffusion of Anti-Terrorism Law and Its Impact on Human Rights

Jessica Stanton (Humphrey School of Public Affairs)

Funding Year: 2019

In this project, Professor Jessica Stanton examines the impact that changes in the global anti-terrorism legal regime have had on human rights worldwide.  Shortly after September 11th, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution urging countries to strengthen their anti-terrorism laws, to enhance the ability of domestic courts to prosecute those who finance or support terrorism.  However, efforts to promote criminal prosecutions of suspected terrorists in domestic courts have had unintended consequences for human rights.  This globalized legal regime has given governments new legal tools to undermine domestic political opposition – expanded power that in many countries has undermined government respect for civil liberties and human rights.  This project focuses in particular on non-Western countries, seeking to understand the impact of anti-terrorism law in countries often overlooked by existing research.

Mnemonic Struggles over the Gravest Human Rights Violations: The Armenian Genocide in Griswold v. Driscoll and beyond
Joachim Savelsberg (Sociology) and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (Law)
Funding Year: 2018

This project will look at struggles over denial of genocide and the role of law in regulating, remembering, and preventing genocide. Based on the understanding that genocide denial causes pain for survivors and enhances the risk of future occurrences, this project will analyze a Massachusetts court case which related to teaching guidelines concerning the Armenian genocide. Professors Savelsberg and Ní Aoláin seek to explain the legal case and the consequences this case has for teaching the history of the Armenian genocide. This project will add to a series of case studies on particularly significant human rights trials and will become an essential part of a book addressing struggles over the acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide.

Related Materials: 

Words Matter: How Rhetoric in Griswold v. Driscoll Shapes Our Understanding of Genocide and the First Amendment - Human Rights Program, April 8, 2019

Observatory for Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico: Media reporting and human rights accountability

Barbara Frey (Institute for Global Studies)

Funding Year: 2019

This project will help explain how the press can advance a culture of accountability for human rights violations in Mexico.  Previous research has shown that news reporting plays a crucial role in democratic societies in monitoring state practices, educating citizens, and disseminating information about human rights violations. (McLeod and McDonald 1985; Scheufele, Shanahan, and Kim 2002). Increased levels of newspaper readership correlate to positive change in a state’s human rights record (Clark 2012). Our work will produce academic, policy and training outputs that will encourage better reporting practices to promote human rights. To assess the relationship between reporting and accountability, the project is constructing a database of 5,000 press articles covering 900 cases in six Mexican states to analyze the extent and quality of reporting on disappearances in the past decade. We will (1) train students on database design, coding, and analysis; (2) complete and analyze our data set; (3) interview journalists and other key informants about the press’s work in covering disappearances and accountability; (4) hold roundtable sessions with journalists and NGOs to inform our methodology and findings; and (5) launch our database publicly for use by scholars and policymakers.

Retooling U.S.-Based Human Rights Work for the Populist Era
Howard Lavine (Political Science)
Funding Year: 2018

Professors Lavine and Ron are partnering with the leading human rights organizations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and The Center for Victims of Torture (CVT), to develop and conduct a nationally representative survey that will probe U.S. public opinion on human rights principles, policies and organizations. The survey will oversample conservative voters and feature a number of framing experiments to probe the sort of appeals, and source cues, that might sway this population. This data will feed directly into the advocacy and research of both HRW and CVT, and will help both organizations more vigorously defend human rights in this uncertain time.

Related Materials: 

No, Americans don't support airstrikes that kill civilians, even when they target terrorists - Open Global Rights and Washington Post

How Americans Understand Human Rights in a Populist Moment - Human Rights Program, March 27, 2019 

Transparency and Engagement in U.S. Immigration Court by Ensuring the Quality and Utility of Data Collected by Volunteer Observers

Jack DeWaard (Sociology) and Linus Chan (Law) 

Funding Year: 2019

This project addresses the need for greater transparency and participant engagement in U.S. immigration court in order to hold government agencies accountable for actual or potential human rights violations. Following the 2016 presidential election, the UMN Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans launched the Human Rights Defender Project, which enlists volunteer observers to attend immigration court hearings and report on issues of concern. In the swirl of activity after the 2016 presidential election, the capacity of the Binger Center was stretched thin, and two critical needs emerged that serve as the main objectives for this project. The first objective is to validate the data recorded by volunteer immigration court observers against other external sources. A key challenge here is that observers were not provided coding instructions to guide them in recording their observations. Accordingly, this project will interview volunteer immigration court observers and use anchoring vignettes to establish baselines for each observer. Given that most data on immigration court are quantitative, the second objective of this project is to transcribe and analyze the qualitative data collected by volunteer immigration court observers to identify key themes and relationships that cannot be glimpsed in quantitative data.