Winners of the Essay Contest, along with other selected participants, are invited to present their papers during the Human Rights Essay Colloquium. The colloquium, which takes place each spring semester, is an opportunity for students to present human rights papers and engage in open and lively discussion with other students and faculty members.
View all past Essay Contest winners below. Click on the winner to see their paper abstract.
Barnard College, Undergraduate
International and Local Peacebuilding: Understanding Successes and Failures in Liberia and Somalia
Civil wars are costly, complex political phenomena that evade quick fixes. Rebuilding societies in the wake of such devestation Why do peacebuilding missions succeed or fail after civil wars in low capacity states? Using a case study approach, this paper seeks to answer this question. The conflicts in Liberia and Somalia began similarly enough to allow a comparison of peacebuilding attempts to resolve both conflicts. Examining peace processes and treaty provisions in both conflicts along with the situational factors — the presence of civil society, previous experience with democratic institutions, the survival of political, economic, or cultural institutions, and the relationships with neighboring states — can help us to understand why peace was achievable in Liberia but still eludes Somalia.
Columbia Law School, Graduate
The Loliondo Massai Understood as "Conservation Refugees"
In July of 2009, riot police burned eight Maasai villages in the Loliondo region of Tanzania to make a game reserve—part of a long chain of brutal acts perpetrated against this tribe. It is not hard to see that the Maasai in Tanzania have been victimized, but this paper argues that appealing to the international human rights regime in this type of situation should not be so automatic. It examines the human rights treaties that both sides might invoke, the Massai for the right to life and property, the government for the greater population’s right to conserve the land. The paper finds that the international human rights regime is actually part of the larger context in which the Maasai became vulnerable—compelling both their initial and their continued repression. It elucidates three problems with the current human rights movement: human rights tend to be structured in such absolute terms that they become limiting; individuals are too particularized; and activists rarely tailor their approach to local conditions. Without addressing these problems, appealing to international human rights will only further alienate the Maasai—reifying their “otherness,” and trapping them in a perpetual standoff with the government in which both sides can claim absolute rights.
Columbia College, Undergraduate
LGBT Rights in Uganda and in International Law
The Rights of Migrant Labor: Farmworkers in Florida
Migrant agricultural workers in the United States face conditions ranging from sub-poverty wages and exclusion from social safety nets to circumstances that meet the legal standards of slavery. Almost half of these workers are undocumented and the political debate surrounding their situation is intertwined with a growing national concern about illegal immigration. Meanwhile, various human rights organizations have picked up on these workers’ plight; as evidenced by a recent increase in fair food campaigns across the US. This paper uses secondary sources and interviews with legal advocates to examine the mechanisms for the delivery (and denial) of rights of migrant farmworkers in Florida. It explores the challenges of organizing workers to collectively claim these rights, the loopholes in domestic law and the limitations to using an international legal framework for access to justice. An analysis of the sources reveals that much of the progress in Florida has been achieved through legal advocacy rather than collective organization; this speaks to an interesting general tension between human rights and labor rights movements and what happens when the twain meet. Another topic of interest is the ambiguous role of international law in this issue and the possibility for transnational arrangements.
“An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom”: Historic Institutional Abuse and Transitional Justice in New Zealand
Historic abuse claims against government agencies and psychiatric institutions have become an increasingly prominent feature of the civil litigation landscape in New Zealand over the past decade. International law requires that individuals whose human rights have been violated while detained by or under the care of the state must have access to an effective remedy. The argument advanced is that the New Zealand civil litigation system is not a propitious vehicle for effective relief in relation to historic abuse claims. Factors that preclude effective redress include evidential difficulties, public policy concerns in relation to the tort of negligence, operation of statutory limitation and immunity provisions, and legal aid restrictions. However, a critical examination of the New Zealand experience through a transitional justice lens enlarges the repertoire of viable remedial responses. The deployment of transitional justice mechanisms – an official apology followed by reparations, an increasing emphasis on truth-seeking and a heightened role for civil society – would enhance the remedial process in New Zealand. Such mechanisms would not replace the civil litigation system but would correct for its deficiencies in the historic abuse arena.