Human Rights Scholars on the Pandemic’s Global Impact and the Critical Role of the Humanities

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In a global crisis, the humanities are more necessary than ever. As Keith David Watenpaugh, Founding Director of the UC Davis Human Rights Studies Program, put it during a recent virtual UC Davis Humanities Institute event, human rights studies and the humanities more broadly are crucial for “reminding us all of our shared humanity and our shared responsibilities to one another as we work to uphold the rights and dignity of all.”

Watenpaugh joined Karima Bennoune (Professor of Law and UN Special Rapporteur, Cultural Rights) and Joanna Regulska (Vice Provost and Associate Chancellor of Global Affairs and Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies) for COVID-19 & the Disappearing International: Challenges and Opportunities for Global Human Rights. The event was co-sponsored by the UC Davis Human Rights Studies Program, UC Davis Global Affairs, International House Davis, the UC Davis Office of Public Scholarship and Engagement, and UC Davis School of Law.

“We were delighted to offer this as our second program on the DHI's new YouTube channel,” said DHI Director Jaimey Fisher. “Professor Watenpaugh helped organize and moderated a fascinating panel that brought Professor Bennoune and Professor Regulska together to discuss the international fallout from the COVID crisis. The three participants, with very different regional expertises, highlighted how we have to maintain a more expansive perspective on the world even as we all face day-to-day challenges.”

screenshot of youtube live feed of joanna regulska, karima bennoune, keith david watenpaugh
Joanna Regulska (left), Karima Bennoune (center), and Keith David Watenpaugh (right) gathered virtually for a conversation via Youtube live.

All three scholars expressed deep concern about the global human rights impacts of the pandemic and detrimental responses to it. “What really worries me is the totality of the threat to all or most human rights, all around the world, of everyone all at the same time,” Bennoune remarked. She argued that because of the scale of the disaster, the COVID-19 pandemic is “nothing less than a cataclysm for human rights.”

Bennoune emphasized the need to protect cultural rights in this moment and to “envision a renaissance of public cultural life” after the crisis has passed. She clarified that in the meantime, the right to culture must not be used as an excuse to violate public health guidelines: “Culture should be about enhancing and promoting human survival, not about spreading disease.”

Regulska added that political interests have often been central to government responses to the pandemic, a fact that has threatened to weaken democracy and suppress dissent. “Many governments, on every continent, have used the pandemic to engage in authoritarian, discriminatory, oppressive, violent behaviors, impacting a whole range of civic, political, social, economic, and cultural rights,” she said. Because local, regional, national, and supranational institutions are interconnected, Regulska explained, rights and freedoms restricted on one scale will impact the others as well.

While the problem is immense, Watenpaugh pointed out that universities are uniquely capable of addressing it. “The pandemic demands of a modern leading public research institution like UC Davis nothing less than an unqualified and absolute commitment to using our immense capacity for scholarship, research, ingenuity, teaching, and the creation of beauty for the common good,” he urged.

In her capacity as Vice Provost and Associate Chancellor of Global Affairs, Regulska laid out a number of specific paths for this work, emphasizing that existing programs like Global Education for All show that “we are already doing a lot, which means that we are prepared to move to the next level.” She stressed that it is critical to recognize changing student demographics and to focus on making programs inclusive, equitable, and accessible so all students can gain the skills to translate knowledge into action.

Bennoune ended her remarks by urging a sense of optimism. “Optimism is not false hope. Optimism is about looking reality square in the face and building a new determination to work with that reality,” she said. “If we use human rights as a tool to empower us, if we draw on our cultural resources, if we look reality squarely in the face but we also look at a better tomorrow, we can say that together we will prevail.”

The event was the latest in a decade-long partnership between the DHI and Human Rights Studies. Through seminars, a lecture series, and the annual Human Rights Film Festival, the collaboration has offered ways to explore the essential role of the humanities in preserving human rights. Future areas of collaboration include bringing “cutting-edge human rights and genocide studies research to California’s high school teachers, and by way of them, our state’s next generation,” Watenpaugh said.