Climate change, AI and criminal justice: Transatlantic partnership delves deep into human rights

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What rights do robots have when crossing the street to deliver groceries?

What human rights responsibility do companies have in our global society?

Can prediction algorithms really predict what a person will do and are they only for use in sentencing people convicted of crimes?

How are we supposed to think about human rights today when we realize that climate change poses enormous challenges for us as humanity?

These issues—and many, many more—are at the heart of a thriving network of scholarship and collaboration through the Connecticut/Baden-Württemberg Human Rights Research Consortium, HRRC for short – an international, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional partnership that promotes and supports academic collaboration between researchers and research groups at universities and other research institutions in Connecticut and the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

“This is really unique – I don’t know of any other binational network in the world with the same specific human rights research focus,” says Sebastian Wogenstein, Associate Professor of German and Comparative Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a founding director of the HRRC. “And we’re building on the Connecticut School of Human Rights Research.”

Fruits of a long-term partnership

Founded just two and a half years ago, the HRRC grew out of the more than 30-year relationship between the sister states of Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg. founded in 1989, the Baden-Württemberg – Connecticut partnership was created to facilitate the mobility of both German and American students at universities in both countries.

The partnership was administered by the Connecticut Office of Higher Education until July 2015 when it was transferred to UConn. Participating colleges and universities in Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg invite their students and faculty to participate in exchange and mobility programs aimed at sharing knowledge and offering educational opportunities to students in both states.

In the years since its inception, however, the partnership has grown into much more than just a student exchange. It has also developed new faculty programs as well as collaborative research in a variety of fields – a commitment to intellectual freedom, education excellence and international collaboration – with one of its components, the HRRC, placing a particular emphasis on human rights research and research-based teaching and outreach .

“For both of us, the Human Rights Institute was an intellectual home at UConn—a forum where people from different disciplines work together,” Wogenstein says of himself and his founding co-director Katharina von Hammerstein, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emerita German Studies at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “That was the model for this consortium. We thought we could build something like the Human Rights Institute; not in terms of its institutional structure, but as a network that would include colleagues from various institutions in Baden-Württemberg and in Connecticut, a network that promotes collaboration on various human rights issues. And it worked really well.”

Such partnerships between two states that do not share English as their primary language are unusual, says Kathryn Libal, associate professor of social work and human rights at the UConn School of Social Work and director of UConn’s nationally and internationally recognized human rights institute, and was supported by the longstanding Baden -Württemberg – Connecticut partnership made possible.

“The Human Rights Research Consortium expands the network of interdisciplinary human rights research in a novel way,” says Libal. “The consortium not only bridges research and research between our various institutions, but also stands ready to engage the public in both Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg in some of the most critical issues of our time.”

“The HRRC does what hardly any consortium can do: real interdisciplinary, transatlantic work,” says Silja Voeneky, Professor of International Law, Comparative Law and Legal Ethics at the University of Freiburg and one of the co-directors of the HRRC. “These foundations are crucial for something special to emerge – an active research community in the field of human rights research with its diverse transnational and international connections, which can react to pressing problems.”

Expansion in the US and around the globe

The HRRC launched in March 2020, just as the global coronavirus pandemic was beginning – its first conference quickly became a virtual affair in May this year. But while the early days of the pandemic made travel between Connecticut and Germany impossible, they didn’t hamper the interest or collaboration that quickly took place across the network.

“Despite the fact that we’re only two and a half years old and the pandemic has been really challenging, we’ve made a name for the HRRC through hard work,” says von Hammerstein. “We’ve made a name for ourselves in that people beyond Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg want to join, and we now have associate members from various universities in Germany, in South Korea and other universities in the United States.”

The HRRC now has almost 100 members from different parts of the world. At the core of the consortium are its working groups, each focusing on a different area of ​​collaboration: human rights, science and technology; the philosophical foundations of human rights; human rights and international relations; and human rights education and solidarity. A fifth working group is dedicated to doctoral students working in this field.

The HRRC also works on outreach events in local communities and in schools, hosts monthly virtual “salons”—expert talks and discussions across disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries—open to both consortium members and the public, and offers a annual conference at . This year’s conference, held in May at the UConn Storrs and Hartford campuses, marked the first time since the group’s inception that members and other interested parties were able to meet in person.

“It was the very first face-to-face meeting that anyone from this consortium had, and that alone sparked so many conversations and so many results over a cup of coffee,” says von Hammerstein. “You don’t have that on Zoom. The sparks jumped in a positive way and the working groups developed even more joint projects.”

Beginning of a new phase

While the conference focused specifically on issues related to the environment and sustainability, it also touched on issues such as criminal justice reform, responsible artificial intelligence, biotechnology, insurance, business ethics, supporting scientists in need of personal and academic sanctuary, and war in Ukraine.

“From my point of view, the conference showed in a special way how interdisciplinary our consortium works and how well it succeeds in promoting the connection between established scientists and young scientists,” says Voeneky. “The conference also showed what has been the core of the HRRC since the beginning: networking within Baden-Württemberg and across the Atlantic in the field of human rights research and education, interdisciplinary cooperation and the discussion of urgent human rights issues.”

It also marked the beginning of a second phase for the consortium, says von Hammerstein, in which ongoing and new collaborations in three priority areas – research, education and outreach – have taken shape into concrete projects. Individual partners and working groups are already planning joint transatlantic graduate courses on human rights this fall; virtual lecture series; Cooperation with high schools to teach anti-racism and anti-Semitism; an ongoing criminal justice project focused on prison reform and sentence reduction; and a summer workshop series on topics such as sustainability, democracy and autocracy, and the human right to health care.

This is in addition to the more traditional academic partnerships centered around research and faculty publications that continue to grow out of the consortium.

“When we’re all sitting in our silos, in our own discipline, we don’t get as inspired as when we get input – especially on a theoretical and practical level – from another discipline,” says von Hammerstein. “It inspires our research, and that research has had a tremendous impact on teaching and advocacy on human rights issues. This conference helped us to flesh out this collaboration.”

These collaborations between researchers in Connecticut and in Germany are expected to continue to grow in the coming years, especially in light of global political, societal, and environmental challenges that continue to affect human rights issues domestically and around the world.

“With all the challenges we face nationally and internationally,” says Voeneky, “such a cross-border research community is invaluable.”


Open to the public and hosted online, the Human Rights Research Consortium’s next Monthly Salon will be held on June 2 on the theme of the Sustainable Development Goals
Stephen Sonnenberg from the Seoul National University School of Law in South Korea. For more information visit hrrc.bwgermany.uconn.edu/events.

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