Engaging human rights at Lawrence

Marie Jeruc

photo courtesy of WOLA

Excessive gun violence and high amounts of smuggled weaponry in Mexico may seem far removed from the realities of life in Appleton. It may also seem nearly impossible for members of this relatively small community located in Midwest America to do anything about it.

However, for this reason, the months of October and November are dedicated to the lecture series Engaging Human Rights at Lawrence, which aims to expose the community to the problems and conflicts of which it may not be aware, and also provide opportunities for social change.

Specifically, the human rights of many Mexican citizens have been infringed upon when their personal safety is threatened daily by violent drug cartels. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, more than 40,000 people have been killed as victims of the ongoing drug war in the past five years.

However, this problematic situation is not only isolated to drug traffickers and innocent civilian lives: it necessarily includes American involvement. WOLA’s website also states that 70 percent of weapons seized in Mexico between 2009 and 2010 were traced back to American sources.

WOLA is a major advocate for and is highly involved in this particular issue of gun smuggling and violence. Essentially, WOLA promotes human rights, democracy and social justice by working with partners in Latin America and the Caribbean to shape policies in the United States and abroad.

Additionally, WOLA provides the opportunity for American citizens to speak out against weapon smuggling in Mexico. Those interested may sign the petition asking that President Obama help stop gun smugglers to Mexico. For more information and to access the petition itself, you can visit the link provided at the end of the article.

Stephen Edward Scarff Memorial Distinguished Visiting Professor Alexander Wilde, previously director of WOLA, explained the process of human rights awareness. It begins with “agenda setting, or identifying an issue.”

Then he stated that you try to broaden the awareness so there’s genuine debate about it. There’s a problem that exists, so we need to address this as an issue politically or as public policy.

Some Lawrence students and faculty experienced firsthand human rights agenda setting. They worked directly with two members from WOLA at Björklunden last weekend.

According to Assistant Professor of Government and Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs Jason Brozek, the major agenda of this seminar was to address how organizations, specifically non-government organizations, engage in human rights.

Since arms trafficking and its subsequent infringement upon Mexican citizens’ human rights is currently a major project for WOLA, the representatives appealed to the Lawrence community “to help develop a campus outreach program or a Lawrence focus group for this issue,” said Brozek.

Ideally, WOLA hopes to collect a total of 100,000 signatures for its petition to help stop weapons smuggling. To add to this total, Brozek notes that students who attended the Björklunden seminar will relay this petition and its cause and aim to collect 1,000 signatures from the Lawrence community.

Brozek stated that this petition and advocacy for this human rights issue will not only spread awareness of the issue to the student body but also will also actively engage students in a strategy effective for students in a college campus.

Said Brozek, “We have the ability as humans to feel empathy and sympathy for others, but we need to go beyond that and engage. It’s not just enough to understand, we have to find a way to become involved.”

Ultimately, the importance of human rights awareness and engagement relates to our obligation as people to understand the world around us.

Brozek asserted, “We need to strip politics away from human rights. If we can address them as universal human issues, we can go a long way to engaging a wider range of people.”

So what more can LU students do to engage themselves in human rights and do something about complex and pervasive human rights problems? Aside from directly engaging in an action that aims to protect human rights, members of the Lawrence community can also continue to educate themselves about other human rights issues through future presentations.

By attending the events provided during the Engaging Human Rights series, students can take advantage of the many opportunities to learn about human rights and ways they may be violated in many other places and situations. Even though Lawrence may seem geographically isolated from such problems, education and awareness help relate the situations to life here.

According to student Will Meadows, Lawrence provides the opportunities for students to go in depth into human rights issues. With all of the opportunities on campus, it is easy for students to find resources to get projects launched.

Meadows said, “We want to make this an engaged experience. We want students to participate in an informed and educated way.”

Some of these engaging experiences will be presented during the upcoming week. Three documentaries addressing various human rights topics will be shown in the Warch Campus Center Cinema: “State of Fear: The Truth about Terrorism,” “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” and “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court.”

“State of Fear” will be screened Oct. 23 at noon. “Granito,” which Wilde helped advise, will be screened Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. Following this screening, the documentary’s director and producer will hold a discussion session in the cinema the following day, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m.

In addition to these two films, “The Reckoning,” directed by Pamela Yates and produced by Paco de Onis, who also directed and produced “Granito,” will be screened Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. Another discussion session with Yates and de Onis will follow this screening.

Recently added to this series’ presentations is a short play. Professor of Theatre Arts Tim Troy is directing a semi-staged reading of Harold Pinter’s play “One For the Road.”

This 30-minute performance will take place in the Cloak Theatre Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. This play details an interrogation in a dictatorship and according to Professor Wilde, “it’s a very nice short piece; it’s very powerful.”

To access more information about weapons trafficking and to sign the petition online, please visit this website: http://www.change.org/petitions/pres-obama-stop-illegal-gun-smuggling-that-fuels-violence-in-mexico.