Climate change, artificial intelligence and criminal justice: the transatlantic partnership deepens human rights

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Connecticut-Baden-Württemberg partnership pays off in scholarship and commitment

What kind of rights do robots have when crossing the street to deliver groceries?

What are the human rights responsibilities of business in our global society?

Can predictive algorithms really predict what a person is going to do, and is it fair to use them when sentencing people convicted of crimes?

How should we think about human rights at a time when we realize that climate change poses enormous challenges to us as humanity?

These topics – and many more – are at the forefront of a thriving network of scholarship and collaboration across the Connecticut/Baden-Württemberg Human Rights Research Consortium, or HRRC – an international, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional partnership that promotes and supports academic collaboration between researchers and research groups from universities and other research institutes in Connecticut and the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

“It’s really unique – I don’t know of any other binational network with the same specific human rights research focus anywhere in the world,” says Sebastian Wogenstein, associate professor of German and comparative literature at the College. of liberal arts and sciences and founding director of the HRCC. “And we rely on the Connecticut School of Human Rights Research.”

Fruits of a long-standing partnership

Established just two and a half years ago, the HRRC grew out of the more than 30-year relationship between the sister states of Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg. Established in 1989, the Baden-Württemberg – Connecticut partnership was created to facilitate the mobility of German and American students attending higher education institutions in both states.

The partnership was administered by the Connecticut Office of Higher Education until July 2015, when it was transferred to UConn. Participating colleges and universities Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg invite their students and faculty to participate in exchange and mobility programs aimed at sharing knowledge and providing educational opportunities for students from both states.

In the years since its inception, however, the partnership has become much more than just a student exchange. It has also cultivated new programs for faculty as well as collaborative research in a variety of fields – affirming a commitment to intellectual freedom, educational excellence and international cooperation – with one of its components, the HRRC, putting a particular focus on human rights research as well as research-based teaching and outreach.

“For both of us, the Institute for Human Rights has been an intellectual home at UConn – a forum where people from different disciplines work together,” says Wogenstein of himself and his founding co-director, Katharina von Hammerstein, a board of directors. Distinguished Professor Emeritus of German Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “That was the model for this consortium. We thought we could build something like the Human Rights Institute; not in terms of institutional structure, but as a network that would include colleagues from various institutions in Baden-Württemberg and Connecticut, a network that promotes collaboration on different human rights issues. And it went really well. »

Such partnerships between two states that don’t share English as a primary language are unusual, says Kathryn Libal, associate professor of social work and human rights at the UConn School of Social Work and director of the Institute of nationally and internationally recognized UConn Human Rights Rights Program. , and was made possible by the long-standing Baden-Württemberg–Connecticut partnership.

“The Human Rights Research Consortium expands the network of interdisciplinary human rights research in a novel way,” says Libal. “The Consortium not only builds bridges of inquiry and research between our diverse institutions, but is also poised to engage audiences in Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg in some of the most critical issues of our time.”

“The HRRC provides what hardly any consortium can do: genuine interdisciplinary and transatlantic work,” says Silja Voeneky, professor of public international law, comparative law and legal ethics at the University of Friborg and one co-directors of the HRRC. “These foundations are decisive for something special to emerge – a research community active in the field of human rights research, with its diverse transnational and international credentials, which can respond to pressing issues.”

Expansion in the United States and around the world

The HRRC was launched in March 2020, just at the start of the global coronavirus pandemic – their first conference quickly turned into a virtual affair in May of the same year. But while the early days of the pandemic made travel between Connecticut and Germany impossible, they did not hamper the interest or collaboration that quickly began to be felt across the network.

“Despite the fact that we are only two and a half years old and the pandemic has really been a challenge, through hard work we have created a name for the HRRC,” says von Hammerstein. “We have built a reputation that people beyond Connecticut and beyond Baden-Württemberg want to join us, and we now have associate members from various universities in Germany, South Korea and other universities in the United States.

The HRRC now has nearly 100 members from various parts of the world. At the heart of the consortium are its working groups, each focused on a different area of ​​collaboration: human rights, science and technology; the philosophical foundations of human rights; human rights and international relations; and human rights education and solidarity. A fifth working group is dedicated to graduate students working in the field.

The HRRC also works on awareness-raising events in local communities and in schools, organizes monthly virtual “fairs” – lectures and expert discussions across disciplinary, institutional and national borders – which are open to members. of the consortium and to the public, and offers an annual conference. . This year’s conference, held in May at the UConn Storrs and Hartford campuses, marked the first time since the group’s inception that members and other interested parties were able to meet in person.

“It was the very first in-person meeting for a member of this consortium, and that in itself sparked so many conversations, so many results, over a cup of coffee,” von Hammerstein says. “You don’t have that on Zoom. The sparks, in a positive sense, were flying and the working groups were developing even more collaborative projects.

Start a new phase

While focusing in particular on environmental and sustainability issues, the conference also addressed issues regarding criminal justice reform, responsible artificial intelligence, biotechnology, insurance, business ethics, support for scholars in need of personal and academic refuge; and the war in Ukraine.

“In my opinion, the conference was a special demonstration of how interdisciplinary our consortium works and how well it is also promoting the connection of established academics and early-career scientists,” says Voeneky. “The conference also demonstrated what has been at the heart of the HRRC from the start: networking within Baden-Württemberg and across the Atlantic in the field of human rights research and education , interdisciplinary collaborative work and discussion of pressing human rights issues.”

It also marked the start of a second phase for the consortium, von Hammerstein says, where ongoing and new collaborations in three priority areas – research, education and outreach – took shape in concrete projects. Individual partners and working groups have planned to organize joint sessions of transatlantic university courses on human rights starting this fall; virtual lecture series; collaborations with high schools to teach anti-racism and anti-Semitism; an ongoing criminal justice project focused on prison reform and incarceration reduction; and a series of summer workshops on topics such as sustainability, democracy and autocracy, and the human right to health care.

And this is in addition to the more traditional academic partnerships around research and faculty publications that continue to grow from the consortium.

“If we’re all sitting in our silos, in our own discipline, we’re not as inspired as when we get input — especially on a theoretical level and on a practical level — from a different discipline,” says von Hammerstein. “It inspires our research, and this research has a huge impact on teaching and raising awareness about human rights topics. This conference allowed us to concretize these collaborations.

These collaborations between researchers in Connecticut and Germany are only expected to grow in the coming years, especially in the face of global political, societal and environmental challenges that continue to involve human rights issues both at home and abroad. worldwide.

“With all the challenges we face, nationally and internationally,” says Voeneky, “such a cross-border research community is an invaluable asset.”

Open to the public and offered online, the Human Rights Research Consortium’s next monthly fair will be held June 2 on the theme of the Sustainable Development Goals and will feature Stephen Sonnenberg

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