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Clay Collins

2004 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship Site: Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), Accra, Ghana

By Pat McGroarty
August 16, 2004

See more of Clay's fellowship photos


1. What drove you to leave a Ph.D. program in Child Psychology at the University of Minnesota to pursue studies as a law student?

For clarification, I am not enrolled as a law student. Last year I was enrolled in the Child Psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Minnesota, but I have since left that program and will be applying to law schools this fall. My decision to leave the field of child psychology in order to pursue human rights law was driven by a number of factors. I had entered graduate school in child psychology in the hopes of using psychological research as a tool to help people and to engender positive social change. As I assisted with various research projects in graduate school, however, I realized that if I were to become a psychology researcher and academic I would be several steps removed from the impact that my work would have on the lives of people; I was dissatisfied with this. I realized that even though I do not necessarily have to interact directly with the people and communities for whom I am working, I do desire a career in which I am working to help improve the everyday lives of specific persons in practical ways.

When I took David Weissbrodt’s International Human Rights Law course last fall, I was exposed to a number of tools and methods that would allow me to pursue the career that I desired. I also had the opportunity to hear from a number of guest speakers who were doing the type of work that I wanted to do. The people and ideas that I came in contact with through Professor Weissbrodt’s class were a major catalyst for my decision to shift from child psychology to human rights law.

2. How did you learn about the Human Rights Center, the Fellowship program, and your placement at COHRE?

I learned about the Human Rights Center and the Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship through the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library’s website, which I use all the time, by the way. I learned about COHRE through a talk on economic, social, and cultural rights given at the 2003 Amnesty International Midwestern conference in Minneapolis; the talk was given by Bret Thiele and Mayra Gómez -- two members of the COHRE team. After Bret and Mayra’s excellent talk, I spoke with them about their organization and exchanged contact information. A few months later, I applied for an internship with COHRE and was fortunately granted one.

3. What has been your role at the COHRE? How has it met or differed from your expectations?

I did not know what to expect from my internship with COHRE. I had never worked on housing rights issues and I had never been to Africa. I did know how being on this new continent would affect my work. Fortunately, the internship has exceeded my expectations. Not only am I learning a lot about housing rights issues in West Africa, I am working on a project that I feel passionate about. Specifically, I am working on a draft copy of a petition to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The petition is being written on behalf of over 3 million Nigerians who have been forcefully evicted from their homes since 1990. For example, on 21 January 2000 in Rainbow Town in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, approximately 1.2 million persons were, in a manner which can only be described as criminal, forcibly evicted from their homes. The evictees were given no official notice of eviction. During the demolitions of the evictee’s homes, security agents beat and flogged Rainbow Town residents indiscriminately. One woman who was cooking food on a campfire left her frying items to flee and avoid being assaulted. An unidentified demolition officer shot tear gas into the campfire and the subsequent flares burned down several neighboring homes. Two families, comprised of eighteen people, were killed when a truck they had hired to take them to Akwa-Ibom State, was involved in an accident – an accident that would not have occurred but for the unlawful forced eviction.

4. Has your fellowship changed or reinforced your desire to work in the field of human rights law?

Prior to the fellowship, I had decided that I would apply to law school in the hopes of becoming a human rights lawyer. My fellowship experience has only reinforced this decision. Indeed, the work that I am doing this summer is the kind of work that I would like to do for the rest of my life.

5. What human rights issues are you interested in focusing on in the future? Has your time at COHRE had an effect on your understanding of those issues?

I plan on focusing on housing rights issues in the near future. Housing rights issues are a nice fusion of my interests in economic and social rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights. By introducing me to some of the mechanisms of housing rights litigation, my time at COHRE has only served to ossify my interest in housing rights and to give me hope in the justiciability of economic, social, and cultural rights.

6. What does the term “human rights” mean to you?

In my opinion, human rights are the rights that humans are afforded by virtue of being human; there is no other criterion that must be met. Although the implementation of human rights may change in different cultures and contexts, I believe that the core human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have a universal appeal and are universally applicable. Thus, there are few persons or governments that are unable to recognize gross human rights violations: torture, arbitrary executions, slavery, genocide, the deprivation of food, shelter, and healthcare from the hungry, homeless, and sick.

To me, however, human rights are first and foremost a tool for empowerment and a framework for change. When victims of human rights violations first read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and hear about the human rights movement, these human rights ideas often move the complacent to action, and give activists a renewed sense of the justice of their cause. Likewise, international and domestic human rights standards, instruments, and declarations have given people the structures to address the most egregious crimes, and have created forums for airing the grievances of otherwise unaccountable sovereign states.

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