Reflections on the Human Rights Seminar

Reflections on the Human Rights Seminar

Naomi Madaras
September 2017

I looked forward all year to facilitating the DC Human Rights seminar with the University of Washington Bothell. I remembered meeting the students from last year’s seminar and was impressed by their engagement with speakers and their insightful questions. This year the students continued to impress: twenty students from six countries, two pursuing master’s degrees, and the rest undergraduate in their final year of school. All the students had minors in human rights, mostly majoring in history, political science, or law.

Over the week students wrestled with academic and philosophical dilemmas in international policy. What is a just response to a refugee crisis in an economically turbulent country? Are America’s calls to human rights in other countries a hypocritical stance, given our country’s history of genocide and slavery? What constitutes a “war crime,” and who gets to define it? Can war ever usher in positive change?

I too, as the program coordinator, spent my evenings before the program sitting with questions. What would it mean for me, a Quaker, and someone who strives to live a life of anti-racism and feminism, to take a group of young people to meet activists from an extremely conservative institution like the Heritage Foundation, which often stands against the values I hold dear? Is evil on a spectrum, with the KKK and white supremacists on one end and the US State Department (complicit in US imperialism, to be sure) somewhere in the middle? Why was I more comfortable with bringing this group to the greatest monument to militarism in the world—the Pentagon—than to one of the most conservative think tanks in the country? I struggled with questions of accountability and identity. Having protested outside the very same doors where I entered wearing business formal attire, I wondered if I was cheating on my activist life. I thought about reformist versus revolutionary approaches to social change. I wondered if entering these offices signified my implicit affirmation of their stance, or if the carefully-worded and confrontational questions posed by the students were a form of insider-revolution. Could it be both? I don’t have an answer to these questions.

On the last day of the week, a colonel and instructor at the Army War College presented to the group. He spoke about the immorality of war and reminded the students, “There’s right, there’s wrong, and then there’s what is. We can only work with what is.” The colonel shared that over the course of his career he had advised senior officers whether to bomb enemy cities and armies, and many times he had given the green light for “the greater good.” Afterwards I walked him to his car. He turned to me and apologized: “I’m sorry I spent a whole hour talking about war in your Quaker house.” I thought to myself, “That’s not the most concerning part of the presentation…”

What I’m left with after this week-long seminar is grief and hope. Growing up Quaker in a peace activist family, I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders at a national protest in 2002 when president Bush was planning to invade Afghanistan. At that age, I believed America could turn around and stop engaging in brutal wars. I grieve because our nation has only continued. I grieve because for more than half my life, America has been bombing multiple countries, the atrocities of which I knew astonishingly little until hearing from speakers during the seminar.

And I am filled with hope. The students left this week with a renewed dedication to justice and a deeper understanding of the terrorism of US militarism. Witnessing their hunger for knowledge and their dedication to strengthening human rights and dignity universally, I hope they can take the inspiring and disturbing aspects of their seminar in DC and apply it to their paths forward.