This post from POLSIS PhD student Iván Farías Pelcastre is a report on a recent trip by POLSIS students to Amnesty International in London.
On 28th March, students from the undergraduate second-year POLS 214 IR Theory and first-year POLS 105 Introduction to IR modules, as well as PhD students and GTAs from POLSIS, visited Amnesty International UK’s Human Rights Action Centre in London.
In the visit, the students listened to a presentation by Hannah Shaw, AI’s Student Manager, and Bethan Cansfield, AI’s Women’s Human Rights campaigner, on the work of Amnesty International for the defence of human rights in the United Kingdom and abroad.
Hannah introduced the work of Amnesty International in the UK and abroad, including their various campaigns for the regulation of international arms trade, for respect to human rights of economically deprived communities in West Africa, for respect to women’s human rights in the Middle and North Africa, and against death penalty, illegal imprisonment and torture worldwide.
Bethan elaborated on the question of whether human rights are universal or specific, a question which had been previously discussed and analysed by the students in POLS 214 and POLS 105 seminars. Speaking on behalf of AI, she established that human rights cannot be overlooked or not recognised on the basis of differences in cultural and social values.
Taking as an example the issue of women’s human rights, and bringing examples on the practice and defence of human rights in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, she advanced the argument that “no government can justify discrimination against fifty per cent of the population based on culture”, a position which she claims most activists in the world “completely agree with”. Quoting Sussan Tahmasebi, human rights activist from Iran, Bethan also advanced the idea that, “human rights reflect the collective experience of humanity and at their core is a concept of dignity”. Ultimately, “dignity is a not concept that is Eastern or Western. It is a human concept”.
Heather R. Owen, a second-year BA International Relations student, commented that Bethan’s presentation had specially contributed to further her understanding on the debate on human rights. Heather considered that, by going beyond “issues of culture, tradition and religion, which are often areas that conflict with human rights and make them appear ‘Western’”, Bethan had shifted the debate towards the preservation of “human dignity” – a notion that should be acceptable to all of us “despite culture, religion, tradition” or any other considerations.
Heather and other students agreed that both presentations had contributed to build on the existing knowledge she had acquired throughout her IR module. For instance, Shabaana Kidy, a second-year BA International Relations student, considered that the visit “was a great opportunity to see the practical application of what we study on a day-to-day basis” and that it had contributed to enhance her understanding of the “implications of academic debates on the universality/culturally relativity of human rights”. Shabaana also commented that, through her participation in this activity, she had “learnt more about the arguments surrounding the universality of human rights” and that the visit had in fact increased her interest in further “exploring the cultural relativism arguments”.
Most students agreed that the visit had positively contributed to enhance their knowledge of the issue of the specificity or universality of human rights. Odilija Guntoriute, a second-year BA International Relations student, stated that the visit allowed her to hear points of view on the topic not only from theorists, but from “those who deal with human rights issues in practice” and on a day-to-day basis. Carmen del Moral Blasco, second-year BA Political Science student, said that the visit “was an amazing experience, which allowed me to have an insight of one of the most important Non-Governmental Organisations in the world. Getting to know how it works and where does it stand in certain international issues” had contributed to expand her knowledge on the topic, and International Relations as a whole.
PhD students and current GTAs at POLSIS also benefited from this activity. Flor Gonzalez, a PhD student at POLSIS, said that the visit “was an excellent idea for students to put into practice some of the knowledge they had gathered across different modules in this academic year”. Commenting on the academic value of the activity, Flor added that it had provided students with “the opportunity to understand why theory is crucial to make sense of the political debates and the day-to-day activities of groups like Amnesty International”.
Among PhD students/GTAs participating in the activity, the general opinion was that the visit had positively reinforced their views on the defence and advancement of human rights. For instance, Nino Kemoklidze, PhD student at CREES and POLSIS, said that although she has “always believed in the universality of human rights”, the visit had constituted a “fantastic opportunity” for both undergraduate and PhD students “to take a closer look at the work” of Amnesty International. Shaf Zafeer, PhD student at POLSIS, considered that this closer look at the work of AI, helped students to understand that International Relations is ultimately not about promoting good offices among states, but preventing human suffering.
The trip was made possible by a grant from the University’s Centre for Learning and Academic Development (CLAD) as a result of a joint proposal by Otto Simonsson, a second-year BA International Relations student, and Iván Farías Pelcastre, a third-year PhD Political Science and International Studies student and GTA at POLSIS. The funding completion called for projects, proposed by students for students, which enhanced their learning, knowledge and understanding in one or more modules and topics in their programmes of study. This was the only successful student-led project from the School of Government and Society. Three additional staff-led projects – one from IDD, one from CREES and one from POLSIS – were supported by the CLAD.
The proposers of this project would like to thank:
The Centre for Learning and Academic Development for their kind and generous support for this initiative; Lisa Coulson, Projects Advisor at CLAD; Colin Thain, Head of Department at POLSIS; Sandra Glenn, PA to Colin Thain; and Dee Partridge, E-Learning Manager at the School of Social Policy, for their kind assistance to the organisation and undertaking of this activity; Marco Vieira and Jill Steans, Lecturers at POLSIS for their support to the proposal of this activity; and Greta Morris, second-year BA International Relations student and Chair of the Amnesty International University of Birmingham group for her kind help in getting them in contact with Amnesty International UK.
A videocast of the event will be soon released via the POLSIS and School of Government Society websites.