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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


In 2018 the Human Rights Initiative made five grants to following projects: 

Human Rights in Islamic Law: Understanding Islamic Jurists' Perceptions of Human Rights

Hassan Abdel Salam (Sociology)

Throughout the world, Islamic jurists and clerics are engaging in conversations about the compatibility of human rights and Islamic law. Yet the media and academic scholarship often discuss Islamic law and human rights as being in opposition. This perception may be partly due to the fact that the fatwas (Islamic legal rulings) of most Islamic jurists do not explicitly invoke human rights. Professor Abdel Salam will systematically interview Islamic jurists and clerics living in the United States on a variety of human rights questions. This study will guide human rights scholars, activists, and decision makers in their conceptualization and implementation of human rights in Muslim societies.

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)

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.

Retooling U.S.-Based Human Rights Work for the Populist Era

Howard Lavine (Political Science) and James Ron (Public Affairs)

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.

Animating Children's Views: Implementing Article 12 of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Using Innovative Survey Methods

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

Children have the right to be heard on matters that concern them, yet their voices are often marginalized in research. Professors Levison and Vavrus aim to change that through this project, in which they are developing a human rights-based survey methodology specifically for use with children. The focus of the research for this pilot project will be on human rights in relation to children’s education and work/chores. This new 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.

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)

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.


These projects were supported by the Human Rights Initiative in 2017
Equal Rights & Unequal Remedies: Understanding Citizen Perceptions of and Engagement with the Judicial System
Lisa Hilbink (Political Science)

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: 

Equal Rights & Unequal Remedies By Maggie Bruneau

Understanding Justice in Chile and Colombia: Valentina Salas's HRI Grant Work By Anna Vitale

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

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: 

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

La Voz Del Buen Trato: La Mirada De Las Mujeres Victimas De Violencia Intrafamiliar Voz de Derecho radio program, Colombia

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


Collected Writings on Sri Lanka
VV Ganeshananthan (English)

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 will document 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.

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

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: 

Does Self-Reprting in Human Rights Work? By Alexander Kane

From IDPs to Refugees: Forced Migration in El Salvador
Patrick J. McNamara (history)

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.