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Human-rights course offers a close at worldwide violations

A few minutes after 3 o’clock on a rainy afternoon—the first Thursday in May—the two teachers of Human Rights III, Contemporary Issues in Human Rights, enter a biosciences classroom. About two dozen students—from the College, the divisions, the Law School, and the Pritzker School of Medicine—have already gathered, a fair number in jeans, many munching on between-classes snacks of Snapple or soda and chips.

The varied provenance of the waiting students is unsurprising, given that the yearlong sequence on human rights, inaugurated in fall 1997, has four listings in the University’s course catalog: Pathology 465, Law 579, History 295/395, and the Committee on International Relations 579. The first third of the sequence discussed the philosophical foundations of human rights, and the second gave an historical overview. This section addresses current legal, medical, and ethical issues.

Jacqueline Bhabha, director of the U of C’s Human Rights Program and associate director of the University’s Center for International Studies, plumps a stack of photocopied papers on the table at the front of the room. In dark pantsuit, bright sweater, and pearls, she looks like a slender Hillary Clinton. Beside her, Robert H. Kirschner, a clinical associate in pathology and pediatrics, who’s also deputy chief medical examiner for Cook County, erases the board. The scribbled references to “conditioned avoidance” disappear, replaced by a scrawled Web address: “”

The significance of the URL—leading to a national-security archives maintained at George Washington University—becomes apparent when Bhabha announces that, before the class tackles the day’s assigned topic—issues of human rights and citizenship—they’ll hear an unscheduled presentation by Kirschner.

Shirtsleeves rolled up and a beeper at his waist, Kirschner has a Lincolnesque beard and sharp, hooded eyes. “Last week I couldn’t be in class,” he begins, “because I was down in Guatemala.”

It wasn’t a pleasure trip. On April 26, Juan Gerardi Conedera, Auxiliary Bishop of Guatemala, had been found dead in his garage, his head bludgeoned with a concrete block. The timing gave rise to suspicions that the death might be a legacy of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, which had ended in 1996 with a peace agreement: Two days before the 75-year-old Roman Catholic bishop’s murder, the Office of Human Rights of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, which Gerardi headed, had released the first two volumes of a four-volume report on human-rights violations during the civil war. Commissioned as part of the peace agreement, the report, called Nunca Más (“Never Again”), blamed the Guatemalan army and paramilitary groups for the abuses, many of which occurred in the heavily Indian province of Quiché, where Gerardi had been bishop during the 1980s. According to the report—based on 6,000 interviews with survivors—about 80 percent of the 150,000 deaths and 50,000 disappearances it counted could be charged to the army and the civil patrols. Bishop Gerardi was killed on Sunday night. By Monday morning, Kirschner—who heads the International Forensics Program of Physicians for Human Rights—had “received several calls from the Archbishop’s office. At that point, they hoped I’d be present for the autopsy, but I arrived too late.”

Kirschner, who has worked in Guatemala for “close to ten years,” training the forensic anthropology team that investigates the mass graves of the disappeared, has a slide show. It begins innocuously enough, with a map of Guatemala; the lines of the map vein his hands as he points out boundaries and regions. The map gets replaced by a crowded street scene from Guatemala City. Walking down the capital street are Mayan-Quiché in bright, woven clothes: “Every village has its own particular pattern of cloth it weaves, and you can identify where they’re from,” a fact that had become such a liability by the 1980s that “many indigenous people stopped wearing traditional dress.”

Another slide details a dilapidated room in a hospital where the practice is “to wash and reuse surgical gloves, hanging them on a wooden drying rack.” It underscores his statement that Guatemala is “a country of extreme poverty—where about 2 percent of the population own 80 percent of the land.”

Another slide, showing the exhumation of a mass grave, is greeted with muffled gasps. A close-up of a skull, split by a machete blow to the back of the head, brings more gasps and some quickly turned heads. Other “not very pleasant” pictures follow, depicting the 1990 murder of anthropologist Myrna Mack, who’d been studying the war’s effects on the displacement of Guatemala’s rural populations.

Kirschner, who helped investigate Mack’s killing, now returns to the present inquiry. Is Gerardi’s death, coming on the heels of the church report’s release, “the beginning of a new reign of terror, or the last gasp of a dying dinosaur? We don’t know.”

As a color photograph of the bishop’s body, still in the garage, is gingerly handed from student to student, Kirschner notes that within days of the murder, an arrest was made. But, he says, “They arrested someone too short, a chronic alcoholic, from a completely different zone of the city, who can’t use his right arm—how could he lift an 8-pound concrete block?” After a press conference announcing the arrest, Kirschner’s group held its own press conference, to argue that the suspect was the wrong person.

“So,” he concludes, “that’s the latest.”

After a short break, the class reconvenes. At a brisk, British clip, Jacqueline Bhabha runs through some course housekeeping. Midterms will be returned tomorrow. “I’ve got a whole bunch of handouts,” she says, including a paper titled “International Human Rights Law and the United States Double Standard,” to be presented at the next day’s workshop.

“Let’s look at today’s question from the inside out,” Bhabha begins. “What is citizenship? What is nationality? What is the difference between the two?”

“Nationality,” someone offers, “is more of a social construct—more ethnic, while citizenship is more of a legal construct.”

“When you’re a citizen,” a guy at the back adds, “you have a right to vote, to participate in government.”

“I want to use myself as an example,” a pony-tailed woman says. “Being a Korean-American, I have voting rights, travel privileges as a U.S. citizen, and I have cultural ties to both. Nationality is cultural.”

Cultural identity versus political participation, Bhabha agrees, is one way to distinguish nationality from citizenship. “There’s another important distinction. Nationality has attributes that relate to inter-state relations, while citizenship is more intra-state—it’s seen as a package that assumes a set of rights and duties defining the relationship between individuals and the state.”

In Roman and medieval times, she says, “nationality was used as a way of identifying origins, where people came from.” Such a definition “immediately raised issues of foreignness—or to put it another way, belonging.” As nations moved from feudalism to a more participatory system, “a second ingredient was added,” creating a nationality that “defines itself from a concept of inclusion.”

Such “civic citizenship” provides a way to include people in a system of rights and privileges. But which of those privileges—individual freedoms; participation in the exercise of political power; and the range of social privileges, from minimal economic well-being to education and social services—apply to people who aren’t citizens of a particular nation? Or, put another way, what key attributes are only for citizens?

The question elicits a barrage of answers. Voting. Military service. “That’s not true in the U.S.,” Kirschner interjects. “When we had compulsory service, foreign residents weren’t excepted.” Holding public office. Some forms of public assistance. Government protection while abroad. Protection from deportation. “That’s one of the most important,” Bhabha agrees. “If aliens commit certain offenses, they are always deportable—no matter if they’ve been long-term residents.”

How does one become a citizen? By birth. By naturalization. Through relatives.

With a quick glance at the clock, Bhabha hurries on. “Increasingly, the scholarship on nationality and citizenship is dealing with issues of multiple citizenship, because people move more—and because states are more open to the idea.” Multiple nationality is not just cultural, “not simply hyphenated Americans—but people who have all the citizenship rights” of both nations, an issue that, she says, “is particularly hot in relation to Mexico.” It’s a new way of looking at nationality and citizenship, calling into question the traditional position that a citizen’s loyalty cannot be shared.—M.R.Y.

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