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Human Rights Research and Education: Between Empathy and Detachment

Human Rights Research and Education: Between Empathy and Detachment

For the past several years, I have held concurrent positions as a human rights researcher and educator. As the research officer at Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, an international network of non-governmental organizations (NGO), I conduct field-based research on grave violations of children’s rights in situations of armed conflict, with a particular focus on attacks on schools and hospitals and denial of humanitarian access. As a postdoctoral fellow at New York University (NYU), I teach courses on the theory and practice of human rights education. Both prompt me to reflect often on how to document and talk about violence and suffering that are cause and effect of rights violations–that is, how to navigate between empathy and detachment in fields that require precise data on traumatic human experience. 

Sometimes I have felt like a story-taker, dropping in to refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda, to classrooms in Ethiopia and hospitals in Afghanistan, searching for the ones who can tell me about when they were forced to flee, how they were prevented from going to school, who looted the medical supplies. When I find them, I ask questions that can help me gather information for the report I am preparing. Sometimes, oftentimes, they share other information too, information that is more important to their experience than my research. “Yes the school was closed in March, but in May they burned my village–I don’t know who from my family is still aliveThey turned back the convoys carrying food so we fled, but here they haven’t given us any tents and it rains constantly.” I scribble notes while maintaining eye contact and listening, knowing I will likely not be able to help them find their families or secure a proper shelter. I will tell them I am sorry, that I will share with them the published report. I will report what they have told me to the relevant United Nations (UN) agency or international non-governmental organization (INGO) or NGO, knowing it’s likely no action will be taken, and that I will never know one way or the other. 

 I have also felt, sometimes, that I have pulled stories from students or guest speakers that are important for “educational moments,” but halted too abruptly when the class period ends. “When I was in seventh grade, a boy pulled off my headscarf and the teacher didn’t say anything, a student said in a high school human rights classOn another day in the same class, a student said, “When I was 11, I watched the Revolutionary Guard shoot and kill my father.”  Shortly after, the bell rang and the students carried on to math or social studies or lunch. I went to my office or home, wondering if it was right, appropriate, responsible, or disrespectful to create a classroom environment where students felt comfortable enough to talk openly about “rights violations” they had experienced, but with seldom–if any–time to discuss their experiences at length, let alone discuss if and how these experiences ever were or should be addressed or how they felt recounting them.  

I have been on the one hand relieved and on the other disappointed, bordering on dismayed, at my propensity for detachment. Relieved because early on, when I was first researching and teaching about rights, I was overwhelmed with empathy, haunted by what I had seen and heard, troubled by how little my research or teaching could actually do. And disappointed because I have learned over time to curtail the depth of my emotions, so much so that my human rights work has seemingly required I be less human–that I hold back anger, sadness, frustration, even despair–so I can get the facts about what happened, write about it, or facilitate a lesson about it, and in doing so contribute in the ways that I can to changing the contexts in which it happened in the first place. 

So I tell myself this: Reports I have published are bricks in walls built by numerous UN agencies and civil society organizations that make concrete patterns of rights violations that would otherwise remain fragmentary–mere pebbles. Calls for justice and accountability that can lead to direct action in the form of sanctions or tribunals or diplomatic pressure are amplified as more bricks are laid. And students’ increased knowledge, not only of human rights declarations, conventions, and treaties, but of the scope of rights violations, in their own communities and those far away, can also lead to direct action through, for example, the exercise of their own rights–to vote in upcoming elections, call or write letters to their elected representatives, or participate in protests. So I am reconciled to continue asking empathic questions, eliciting emotional responses, and listening with detachment. Because while I will remain uncertain about the process, I am not uncertain of the outcome, no matter how limited or inadequate it can sometimes seem. 


Dr. Christine Monaghan

Christine Monaghan is a postdoctoral fellow in the International Education program at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the Research Officer at Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. Her teaching and research focuses on three main areas: the impact on children of attacks on schools and hospitals in situations of armed conflict; globalization and refugee education; and the contemporary historical development and implementation of human rights education programming.

Bad Apples: The Peer Effects of Violence

Bad Apples: The Peer Effects of Violence

Vol. 21 - Fall 2017