The international course on "Human Rights and Asia" aimed to help think over the universality of human rights in particular contexts of Asia and gain a comprehensive understanding about human rights issues in this region. Thirty-nine participants from twenty-two countries including eleven Koreans have gathered at Seoul National University for two weeks and attended intensive seminars and lectures led by human rights experts with extensive professional experience.
The course had 16 lectures in total with reading assignments. Type of lectures varied: seminars where people had three hours of free discussion on given subjects, ones focused on lecturers’ presentations based on their studies and field experiences, those in which participants were divided in small groups and each group gave a presentation on primary human rights issues emerging in Asia, lectures using visual aid including documentary film to help understand dynamics surrounding human rights issues of concern, and so forth. We were even joined through Skype by a Cambodian activist from the Documentation Center of Cambodia working on legal processes at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Participants of this course actively joined discussions in every lecture and cultivated comparative political insights as exchanging what they had observed and experienced in diverse countries with one another. Academic and career background of participants showed a great level of diversity. There were journalist, lawyers working for governments or universities, and activists of human rights/development organizations, and students/researchers majoring in various fields of study such as law, international relations, anthropology, history, sociology, and public health studies. Their questions reflecting these diverse backgrounds enabled classes to be even more amusing and intriguing.This also resonates with the original aim of this course to cultivate interdisciplinary approach to human rights in Asia.
Regular discussions during lectures were not the only interaction in the course. Group activities helped participants imagine possible strategies to understand and deal with human rights situation in Asia. Each group consists of 6-8 members and was asked to pick one specific human rights issue in this region and scrutinize how to use international human rights mechanism to solve it. After ten days of discussions and scrutiny, each had a chance to present what they’ve studied and examined before other groups near the end of the course, and they shared feedbacks one another. With this activity they could practice how to practically deal with human rights issues that are hard to solve with only domestic-level remedies.
At the very ending of the course were each participant’s individual presentations on their research or advocacy plan regarding human rights in Asian region and they were more than welcome to talk to the course coordinator Dr. Joo-Young Lee in preparing their research/advocacy plans. In this process, they were allowed to learn and be inspired from their fellow participants as well as lecturers.
Subjects covered by the course
Among sixteen lectures provided during the two weeks are general ones on the international human rights norms and human rights protection mechanism and thematic sessions on specific contemporary issues and case studies in Asia. Firstly, lectures offering summary of roles that UN human rights bodies play and the ways in which they work helped the participants understand how ‘human rights’ are handled on institutional level in global politics. So did the lectures which introduced human rights mechanisms recently developed in Asia(e.g., ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights).
One of the most critical and strongest features this course had is that it intended to examine the ways in which ‘human rights’ are understood in specific regional contexts of Asia and political/historical contexts present in many Asian countries conditioned the human rights situations of this region, through practical case studies on solving particular human rights problems as well as scrutiny on general discussions. .For example, very important inspirations for thinking over human rights in Asia were offered by some lectures including: the one focused on gender and human rights that emphasized the importance of considering cultural-historical layers such as militarism, globalization, and fundamentalism in understanding gender dynamics in many Asian societies and the other focused on how to deal with human rights in societies under authoritarian regime. “Providing chances to think practically of human rights”, the main principle pursued throughout this course went down to two layers: how to understand particular human rights issues such as North Korean defectors’ human rights, developments in Asia, and poverty; and how to deal with and solve problems related to these issues. .Indeed, many lectures and presentations, including the one about activities of Korean “Committee for the Truth and Reconciliation”, about case study on dynamics surrounding Cambodian human rights trial, and an inclusive lecture on roles of civil society to protect and promote human rights in this region, promoted us to move this theme “human rights and Asia” forward beyond the level of armchair theories. We could also gain a very basic yet the most effective answer that we need to start from looking at people actually living and moving around if we encounter problematic situations when multiple layers or kinds of human rights seem contradicting one another in terms of “tension between universality of human rights and cultural relativism.”
Makeup of the participants
The course had thirty-nine wonderful participants from 22 countries, including 11 Koreans. People with diverse cultural backgrounds and nationalities gathered here. We had not only those from Asian countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, China, Japan, South Korea, Turkey, and Iran but also those from other continents. We had African participants from Ethiopia and Tanzania, European counterparts from Germany, France, and Italy, and American participants. The diversity among participants evidently had a positive influence in this course’s aim, “practicing thinking of human rights in terms of specific regional contexts.”
[Written by Yookyeong Im, Human Rights Research Team]
Words from the participants
Eunsun Park(South Korea)
Ryan Villaruel(the Philippines)
Klarise Estorninos (the Philippines)