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Why speak of human rights?

August 6, 2012


Geoff Dancy.

Photo by David Mendolia.

'Rights are at the center of the way we understand the world,' says U student

By Bill Magdalene

International law is often framed in terms of human rights. Yet if one follows global news, with endless stories of mass abuse and violence and death, one might ask: Does the project of human rights law actually make things worse?

Geoff Dancy answers emphatically: "No, it does not."

For the last two years Dancy, a U of M graduate student in political science, has conducted research on human rights. He's collected information on treaties various countries have ratified. He's noted regime characteristics and repressive practices. He's traveled to Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Israel to study human rights politics, seeking to illustrate positive impacts of human rights law.

And he's struggled to rigorously quantify the information. "This is something I have had to experiment with," he says. "To show that law has causal impacts, you have to examine systematically all of this data, which can be done with sophisticated statistics. Because these statistics cover state practices from around the world, I call this type of work globalistics."

The positive effect of human rights law
Dancy says international human rights treaties in states increase the information that we have on abusive practices. And that actually makes it seem as if things are getting worse. In fact, he says, such treaties destabilize repressive autocratic regimes and strengthen new democracies. And human rights law helps temper the extremity of violence in civil wars.

"The 2000s have been hard on human rights discourse," Dancy says. "Academics from many fields have converged on various criticisms of human rights approaches to politics. … I feel that the question 'Are human rights claims worth making?' is one of the more important questions we have to face today because rights are at the center of the way we understand the world."

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Q&A with Geoff Dancy

How did you come to research human rights law?
I took a sophomore-level class the University of North Texas in fall 2001. It was called "Intro to Peace Studies." The first thing we read was Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It was this first moment I confronted head-on the depths of the human potential for evil. I wanted to know more about how human society attempts to prevent cruelty.

I got interested in international human rights law because I feel like it is at the center of an interesting moment in history. We are at a point where the international order, built conceptually on a global rule of law, could spin apart—or it could be further strengthened. What ultimately happens will depend on our ability to engage in principled action.

What's the big challenge in doing this research?
Presenting evidence in a format that people will find convincing. I have enough problems convincing myself of the right answers. Academics tend to present themselves as authorities, but the truth of the matter is that we are always making difficult judgments. Our job then is to convince others that our judgments are both legitimate and worthwhile, and to be ready to take responsibility for these judgments. These are big challenges.

What do you love most about it?
This is embarrassing to say, but I love collecting and analyzing data. For me, it is a form of creation, and it is very fulfilling. Almost like assembling a 5,000-piece puzzle. I tend to agree with Barbara Tuchman, the author of Guns of August, who wrote something like, "Research is seductive, but writing is just good hard work." Exactly!

Where do you hope to make a difference?
I just want to make the argument better. These days, people either debate badly or not at all. Good debates make the world better (as do human rights).

What's your career goal?
I vacillate between wanting to be a professional researcher at a place like International Crisis Group and wanting to be a full-fledged professor.

What inspires you in a teacher or fellow student?
The most inspirational feature in anyone is curiosity, and the most disheartening is its opposite, apathy.

What do you do outside of class?
I love seeing rock shows, traveling, and playing basketball. And I'm starting to like woodwork on the weekends.

Why the University of Minnesota?
I came here to study with Kathryn Sikkink, which I've had the good fortune of getting to do. What I realized after I got here is that the U of M is intellectually quite plural. There are many different types of thinkers here, which to me is very appealing.

What's been the key to your U of M student experience?
My peer group in political science is superb. If you wake up one day and you want to talk to someone about Turkish politics, there are students in our department who would be glad to engage. If you want to discuss Agamben's States of Exception, or how to implement a Cox proportional hazards model, then there are students walking around who can take you to school. That is immensely satisfying.

Any tips for researchers?
You can't know everything, so just try to know enough to be able to live with yourself.

Tags: College of Liberal Arts

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