Law students explore human rights at Oxford University

By Alice (Cate) Vaden

Although human rights norms are the recognized lingua franca of human well-being and the standard yardstick of international relations, the imperative of assessing the viability of human rights in today’s turbulent world has grown more urgent than ever. With this in mind, I felt honored to be selected to participate in the week-long workshop of the 2019 Oxford Human Rights Consortium in March at Oxford University.

I was one of three S.J. Quinney College of Law students selected to participate in this year’s workshop on the theme of Human Rights in Conflict and Peace Building. The others were 3L Dallas West and 1L Skylar Walker. We were among a select group of 14 University of Utah students who joined students from other participating U.S. universities committed to dialogue with Oxford and U.S. faculty about human rights in all their complexities.

We stayed at Hertford College and the workshop took place at Magdalen College, which is one of the oldest of 37 Oxford colleges. The week-long workshop began with a formal reception and concluded with a regal banquet where each participant was recognized and received a certificate of completion with the Oxford logo.

The Oxford Consortium is a partnership between Oxford University and several U.S. universities, including the University of Utah. Deen Chatterjee, a senior fellow at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, who is a faculty director at the Oxford Consortium, convened several study sessions in the weeks leading up to the workshop and joined us at Oxford as a member of the Consortium teaching team.

Participating in the Oxford Human Rights Consortium opened my eyes to the wide variety of opportunities to work in pursuit of strengthening human rights both globally and locally, as it did for the rest of us. “The week-long experience I shared with my peers at Oxford University’s historic campus opened my eyes to the complexities of human rights, especially in times of conflict,” said Dallas West of his experience.

Likewise, for Skylar Walker, “The Oxford Consortium was a life-changing experience. Not only did it reinvigorate my commitment to human rights in an otherwise highly pragmatic law school environment, but it broadened the scope of my thinking exponentially.”

The diversity of Consortium speakers actively displayed the diversity, depth, controversy, and complexity that exist within the core of human rights theory and practice. We appreciated that the Consortium transcended the often dominating focus on Western spaces of interests and committed itself to more cross-cultural and cross-civilizational dialogues contrary to the historically (and still ongoing) epistemological monologue of the empire.

The Oxford experience taught us the complex modalities of human rights, making vivid the idea that human rights considerations are integral to the questions of justice and equity where economic, environmental, legal, political, and security concerns play a crucial role in determining the metrics of human well-being locally and globally. The discussions hovered around the various challenges of human rights and the prospects of value-based dialogue in a divided world where norms clash.

On the last day of the workshop, each student group was asked to consider how the ideas discussed during the week can help inform local contexts. The three of us from the law college joined together with our Utah cohorts to give a group presentation on the theme of Bringing Human Rights Home. Dallas, Skylar, and I have been active in the local applications of broader human rights mandates, so we enthusiastically took up the challenge.

Dallas, Skylar, and I took the lead in presenting the pro bono initiatives at the Quinney College and got the entire Utah group involved in the presentation. Each of us, in a group of 3 or 4, talked about our involvement in one of these four pro bono clinics–Family Law Clinic, Rainbow Law Clinic, Health Law Clinic, and Community Legal Clinic (immigration). Together, our Utah team did extremely well in addressing this broad challenge of human rights and human wrongs in its global narratives and local encounters.

We had as much fun in presenting as in listening to and learning from our distinguished peer groups, along with getting feedback from our world-class faculty. Skylar agreed: “”The faculty was truly elite, of course, but I often found it was my fellow students who had the most unique and insightful input.”

In addition to the intellectually stimulating workshops and conversations that took place during the consortium, the setting at Oxford was unlike any educational experience I have ever had.  It was incredible to study in one of the oldest educational institutions in the world where countless influential scholars have previously studied.

Skylar spoke for us all when he commented: “Aside from the amazing scholarship and experiential education we received, simply being at Oxford—surrounded by so much history and beautiful architecture—was a spiritual experience.”

The Oxford Human Rights Consortium has been the highlight of my college life and I am now looking at how to take the lessons from the consortium and apply them to my studies and career path and also looking at more opportunities to engage globally. The Consortium not only educated and informed us on the transnational issues of human rights in peace and conflict, it also offered space for us to engage with local problems and local solutions in a manner which offers potential answers to shared global challenges.

In sum, the workshop far surpassed our expectations by providing us a truly novel platform for multilateral knowledge exchange between leading scholars/practitioners in the field of human rights. Particularly so, it provided each student with a platform for both professional and personal quest for global justice.

In conclusion, we felt incredibly honored to have been part of the Oxford Consortium.


About the author: Alice (Cate) Vaden is a first-year law student at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. Cate worked for three years as the logistics coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City.