Training Human Rights Specialists Around the World

Feb. 2, 2021
people holding up arms


Concern for human rights is central to many of the world’s most important challenges, from gender-based and race-based violence to the welfare of migrants to the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations.

To respond to the increased demand for training and specializations in human rights practice, the University of Arizona Human Rights Practice Program, housed in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, is now offering a new online bachelor’s degree in Human Rights Practice and three online graduate certificates in Human Rights and Technology, Human Rights and Documentary Media, and Gender-Based Violence. The programs began January 2021.

The Human Rights Practice Program already offers a master’s degree and graduate certificate in Human Rights Practice. The master’s – launched in 2018 – has more than 80 students from all over the world.

William Simmons, professor and director of the Human Rights Practice Program, said that the new online programs are the first of their kind, adding that there is an untapped demand for human rights education programs that are cost-effective, action-oriented and provide students with a formal degree on completion.

“With the enormous recent growth of human rights as a professional field, there is a huge need for human rights practitioners with expertise and hands-on experience,” Simmons said.

The programs harness the expertise in human rights that exists across the University of Arizona campus. The curriculum is interdisciplinary, bringing together 56 faculty from 10 colleges. The new certificate programs are offered in collaboration with other units on campus.

Because the programs are offered online, they are available to students in other countries who might be prevented by time, financial and visa constraints from traveling to the U.S. for in-person classes. 

A distinguishing feature of the programs is the extensive interaction between students and leading practitioners through video conferences. Previous classes have featured 250 virtual guest lectures from 40 different countries. Simmons added that they have signed MOUs, or memorandums of understanding, for joint programming and curriculum with five universities in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Bangladesh, Ghana and Austria.

The new bachelor’s degree in Human Rights Practice will train students in the theory and applied practice of human rights, including how to analyze issues, advocate, write grants, and gather testimonies. Students will complete real-world projects through independent studies, internships and the Capstone course. 

Graduates of the program will be prepared for careers working on human rights and social justice issues, as well as for a variety of graduate programs, including law school.

“A B.A. in Human Rights Practice will appeal to students motivated to make a positive change in their communities and more broadly,” Simmons said.  “Students will learn to critically analyze the social, political and cultural contexts for human rights abuses and how to take action to prevent and address such abuses.”

The three new certificates were developed to respond to pressing global needs.

The certificate in Human Rights and Documentary Media, which is offered in collaboration with the College of Fine Arts, provides training in documentary media to advance human rights. Simmons says that many human rights practitioners want to obtain training on how to use the powerful medium of film to tell stories and get their messages out, from full-length documentaries to short videos created on smartphones.

Beverly Seckinger, professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television, has been teaching the course Human Rights and Documentary Media for the last three years.

“It’s my favorite class,” Seckinger said. “One thing I love about teaching in the Human Rights Practice Program is the incredible range of students that it attracts. The common thread is a passion for changing the world, which sounds really idealistic, but I share that passion.”

Simmons and Seckinger said that before creating the certificate, they discussed the idea with renowned documentary filmmakers and human rights activists around the globe.

“They have been unanimously excited and expressed a strong desire to be involved in the program by serving as guest lecturers, working with our students on internships, and building formal collaborations,” Simmons said.

The certificate in Gender-Based Violence, offered in partnership with the Consortium on Gender-Based Violence, provides students with an advanced framework for understanding the root causes of gender-based violence, as well as training in applying this knowledge to advance the human rights of those most impacted. Students will learn about legal policies concerning the rights of survivors and how to analyze prevention and response efforts.

Gender-Based Violence is a national and international pandemic that has received increasing public media attention and condemnation since the #metoo movement, Simmons said.

“You have to look at patriarchy and misogyny and at structural violence like poverty and lack of education,” Simmons said. “All of those need to be taken into account whenever we address the issue of gender-based violence. Providing a human rights lens will allow us to critically analyze those issues from a deeper perspective.”

“When you understand the root causes of gender-based violence, including how current constructions of ideal masculinity formed, then you realize that it was made up, and anything made up can be unmade,” said Amalia C. Mora, manager for the Consortium on Gender-Based Violence and faculty in the Human Rights Practice Program. “Human rights work is all about creating a more compassionate, sensitive world.”

This certificate will benefit those working in a variety of fields, including social work, law enforcement, and healthcare. Students will be encouraged to collaborate with one of the many organizations responding to gender-based violence in their home communities. In Southern Arizona that would include Emerge! Center Against Domestic Abuse and the Southern Arizona Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The certificate in Human Rights and Technology, offered in partnership with the School of Information, will teach students to critically analyze the intersections between communication technologies and human rights and to be aware of the power and pitfalls of various types of technology.

Technology has the potential to significantly advance human rights, but technology is also being used to surveil and suppress individuals and groups seeking to advance human rights.  

“With all the protests and Black Lives Matter movement, I believe that the Human Rights Practice Program is relevant right now, especially when it has to do with technology,” said Richard Langford, a master’s student in the program. “We now see people taking it in their own hands to record. Without those recordings, many wouldn’t believe the level of racism in America is as high as it is.”

In the program, students will explore such critical issues as data rights, privacy, misinformation, artificial intelligence, surveillance, cyberactivism, encryption, e-learning and data literacy. 

Students will work with scholars who study the ethical and political dimensions of technology and human rights, and the implications of new challenges like fake news, false video, data collection and improper use. 

 “There are many students who would like to have added certification and tools to go out in the world and fight inequality and threats to social justice,” said Catherine Brooks, director of the School of Information.