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Lab Projects

How the Lab works

Over the course of the initial two years, the Human Rights Lab will workshop and support 12 projects, selected for their potential contributions to the four Lab objectives. Each project will have a lead faculty member, a graduate student, and an identified partner organization or entity currently working to address a human rights challenge.

Together, the faculty-student team will lead a 3-hour interdisciplinary Lab session with diverse experts to workshop the human rights problem in question, the research methodology, and the practical application. Following the Lab session, the project will receive funding for the student to spend a full summer doing supervised field research on-site with the partner organization. For each project, the Lab will also fund one additional travel component (for either faculty or partners) to increase the knowledge-transfer across settings.

Lab Projects 2019-2021

Project details are forthcoming

About the project…

Project details are forthcoming

About the project…


Lab Projects 2016–2018

Observatory on Disappearance and Impunity in Mexico

Lead: Barbara Frey, Global Studies, Director of Human Rights Program
Student: Paula Cuellar, History, Ph.D. Candidate

The Observatory is a collaborative research project designed to construct databases of information about the phenomenon of enforced disappearances, which number more than 32,000 in Mexico in the past decade. The Observatory, led by Professors Barbara Frey, Leigh Payne, and Karina Ansolabehere, involves teams of student researchers in Mexico and Minnesota who are coding available sources of information to help explain this pattern of disappearances. The project aims to decrease impunity by increasing knowledge and public visibility. The Observatory’s research findings reveal patterns of perpetration on a state-by- state basis, and provide information for families of victims and human rights organizations who are working for accountability in Mexico.

The Observatory is systematizing large amounts of information to show, specifically: who are the disappeared, where the crimes occur, who carries out these crimes, what efforts are made by families and by public officials, and what are the outcomes of judicial and non-judicial actions (i.e., justice and location of missing persons). Students in Minnesota are coding news reports on disappearance from the Mexican press and graduate student, Paula Cuellar, spent summer 2017 interviewing journalists, family members of disappeared persons and human rights advocates to understand the media’s narrative about these systemic violations.

PDF iconRead the report: The Observatory on Disappearances and Impunity in Mexico.

Reparations as a Means to Enable Transformation in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings

Lead: Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Law, Director of Human Rights Center
Student: Anne Dutton, Law & Social Work

This project aims to identify transformative reparations parameters for the International Criminal Court (ICC) with a focus on the case of the northern Uganda. Reparations are increasingly part of the package of measures that accompany post-conflict and post- atrocity legal remedy and reform. They are also organically linked with truth processes, and other mechanisms that identify ‘victims’ offering financial and other types of supports to those most affected by violent conflict. Reparations have been one of the most under-enforced aspects of post-conflict and post-atrocity justice. There are few, if any, comprehensive examples of grand-scale administrative reparations programs that have been fully implemented in post-conflict or post-atrocity settings.

Based on extensive prior work with the Trust Fund for Victims, the OHCHR and UN Women, the goal of this project is to assess and review the work of the ICC and the Trust Fund for Victims in respect of Reparations. The project sought to address and evaluate the most successful likely interventions for collective reparations in fragile states using the northern Uganda as a case study, and to provide both conceptual analysis of the value of reparations in fragile and post-conflict states as well as to provide concrete policy assessment of what works and what does not.

From the Holocaust to Apartheid: Corporate Complicity in Human Rights Violations

Lead: Leigh Payne, Senior Research Fellow, Human Rights Program
Student: Ami Hutchinson, Law

This project seeks to track innovative transitional justice efforts from Nuremberg to the present, establish accountability patterns, generate models for overcoming barriers to justice for corporate complicity in human rights violations, work with practitioners on the ground to adapt these models to local contexts, and contribute to growing theoretical developments in the area of “justice from below.”

The project will consider the notion of Archimedes’ Lever, or how with the right tools, practitioners might begin to lift international human rights law to provide justice for victims of corporate abuses during dictatorships and armed conflict. This project will develop effective models of strategic litigation from the global database and the specific country studies on Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and South Africa, developing a set of possible cases for strategic litigation in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Peru, and developing a proposal for a truth commission/section of a truth commission to be used in Colombia. The project will also launch a new study on “blood banking” with the South African partners taking the lead.

Expanding Local Support and Funding for Human Rights Organizations

Lead: James Ron, Political Science and Humphrey
Student: Andrea Martinez, Humphrey-CLA, Master of Human Rights

This project supports local human rights organizations in Mexico by building their capacity to garner increase moral and financial support among local stakeholders. Government crackdowns on civil society resulting in tighter restrictions on foreign funding are leaving local human rights organizations in an uncertain position. However, local funding from the general public is an untapped resource that could possibly create a sustainable future for these organizations—this is what we are trying to understand better.

In 2017, we organized a workshop in Mexico City – in cooperation with two Mexican academic institutions, CIDE and FLACSO – to present the findings of a comprehensive research about the potential for local funding of Mexican Local Human Rights Organizations. This project helped us understand how willing members of the public in the global south are to donate to local human rights organizations, and under what conditions they are most willing to do so.

After the workshop, we strengthened our relationships with the human rights organizations that participated in the research process and worked with them during the summer to improve their fundraising strategies based on the results of our research.

Ex-combatant and Victim Groups, Memories, and Transitions to Peace: the Case of Northern Ireland

Lead: Joachim Savelsberg, Sociology and Ohanessian Chair
Student: Michael Soto, Sociology, Ph.D. student

This project explores the role of ex-combatant and victim groups in the aftermath of violence and massive human rights violations, specifically for Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The project will be expanded to Colombia, a case with interesting parallels to that of Northern Ireland. It addresses the following questions: What role do ex-combatant and victim groups play in the transition from civil war to peace, specifically after negotiated peace agreements? How do these groups reshape memories, identities and balance their own role with that of state law? Do ways in which they adjust to changing conditions ease or hamper the solidification of peace and reintegration? Do they thus contribute to ending cycles of violence?

By examining the role of local, community-based institutions, this project adds to dominant scholarship that examines how nation- and global-level formal transitional justice institutions contribute to peace building. After a productive summer of research in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2017, sociology doctoral student Michael Soto will begin field research in Colombia in the summer of 2018. Joint preparation between Savelsberg, as faculty advisor, and Soto and weeks of collaborative work in Belfast, provided a unique advising and learning opportunity.

PDF iconRead the report: Associational Groups, Memories and Transitions to Peace: The Case of Northern Ireland.

Using International Human Rights Law to Protect Refugees

Lead: Stephen Meili, Law
Student: Mary Georgevich, Law

This projects focuses on the use of international human rights law in domestic courts in Mexico to protect Central America refugees. The number of refugees from Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) has increased exponentially in recent years, fomented by a marked rise in gang and drug-related violence that has caused tens of thousands of adults and children to leave their homes. While their ultimate destination is frequently the United States, many of these refugees are apprehended by Mexican law enforcement (which has received funding from the United States for this purpose) and sent back home without being advised of or accorded their rights as refugees. Worse still, thousands have been disappeared while in Mexico. Although Mexico has laws on its books, including its Constitution, protecting the rights of non-citizens, until recently those laws have been ineffective.

Through an analysis of the relative effectiveness of the various strategies through which Mexican and transnational NGOs have attempted to utilize domestic and international human rights law to protect the rights of refugees, this project aims to produce a series of recommendations for lawyers and other human rights activists regarding the most effective use of human rights law in protecting refugees.

Transitional (In)Justice and Collective Memory in Minnesota (1862-2015)

Lead: Alejandro Baer, Sociology, Director of Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Student: Brieanna Waters, Sociology, Ph.D. student

This project addresses unequal access to the shaping of public narratives on Indigenous peoples, and more specifically White-Dakota relations, in Minnesota. The project focuses on representations the US-Dakota war in newspapers from the Twin Cities and Southern Minnesota and in history/social studies textbooks. These sources shed light on how the state remembers, or chose to not remember, this important chapter of its history. We will work with K-12 educators, Dakota community representatives and education specialists at the Minnesota Historical Society and local Historical Societies to explore how practitioners accept, interrogate, or question available representations of the conflict and the Dakota people.

The US-Dakota War of 1862 represents a watershed moment in Twin Cities, Minnesota, and United States history. The six-week conflict shifted populations for decades, forcing the Dakota out of Minnesota. In the metro area, 1600 Dakota women, children, and elderly were interned in the Fort Snelling compounds after the conflict and before their forced removal from the state. The Fort historical site, operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, epitomizes the state’s approach to remembrance and redress –or lack thereof– as it continues to grapple with its role in the Dakota conflict and subsequent genocidal acts more than a century and a half later.

From “Sioux Massacres” to the “Dakota Genocide” – Transitional (In)Justice and Collective Memory in Minnesota (1862-2015).

Understanding Citizen Perceptions of and Engagement with the Judicial System in Chile

Lead: Lisa Hilbink, Political Science
Student: Valentina Salas, Political Science, Ph.D. Candidate

This project, which builds on a series of focus groups we conducted in Chile and Colombia last year, seeks to explore how, why, and with what consequences citizens perceive the legal remedies available to them when they experience rights violations. Even judiciaries with high institutional capacity cannot contribute to a rights-based rule of law unless citizens are willing and able to turn to them to resolve disputes, to respond to victimization, and to provide recourse if and when their rights are violated.

We are partnering with the Research Department of the Supreme Court (RDSC) of Chile to assist them in planning and conducting focus groups with populations that face unequal access to justice such as rural dwellers, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT, and people with disabilities. Together, we will then plan a survey informed by the focus group results. The objective of the partnership is to obtain a better sense of the reasons behind and the consequences of the extremely low levels of confidence in the judicial system in Chile, as well as what policies the RDSC might recommend such that, in their words, the public will view the Chilean judiciary “as trustworthy, accessible, and transparent, and the right to an effective judicial remedy be realized in practice.”

Forced Disappearances and Mass Violence in El Salvador, 2010-2016

Lead: Patrick McNamara, History
Student: Maria Mendez Gutierrez, Political Science, Ph.D Student

While El Salvador’s current status as one of the most dangerous places in the world based on per-capita intentional homicide rates is well-known, the situation regarding forced disappearances has received very little attention. Currently, no government agency or NGO in El Salvador or in the world has fully examined this issue. As official data released by the government indicate, however, forced disappearances over the past seven years have become a crisis connected to the larger issue of mass violence in El Salvador. Newspapers have called for an impartial group to organize the different data sets, to develop standards and rubrics for further research, and to reach out to family members of disappeared persons to help with the search for information about their loved ones

We intend to add crucial new information about the crisis of disappeared persons since 2010. We will create a more complete profile of disappeared people that will include municipality, family information and contacts, and known or suspected perpetrators. In addition, aggregate data are less useful than data normalized by per capita populations, so we will recalculate information based on population sizes in departments and municipalities. Finally, we will interview employees at the national morgue to learn more about the work they do in matching reports of disappeared persons to unidentified bodies.

Documenting Truth, Trials, and Memory in El Salvador & Guatemala

Lead: Ana Forcinito, Spanish & Portuguese Studies
Student: Carolina Anon Suarez, Spanish and Portuguese Studies, Ph.D. student

This project will preserve and disseminate information from the series of presentations, lectures, and discussions that took place at a unique conference on the University of Minnesota campus. In early November 2017, an international gathering of scholars, activists, human rights experts, jurists, United Nations officials, and filmmakers met to contemplate issues of transitional justice in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Peace Commission Report for El Salvador, and the 20th anniversary of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Guatemala. 

“Truth, Trials, and Memory: An Accounting of Transitional Justice in El Salvador and Guatemala,” fostered an unprecedented exchange of ideas among people connected to these two countries and working on similar issues within different paradigms. A team of faculty and graduate students from the University of Minnesota will work with human rights museums in El Salvador and Guatemala to curate these materials for use by scholars, human rights defenders and the general public.

From Dissemination to Implementation: Responding to Compliance Crises with the Laws of Armed Conflict

Lead: Cosette Creamer, Political Science
Student: Tracey Blasenheim, Political Science, Ph.D. student

This project explores the origins of a shift towards ‘compliance innovation’ at the Institute for International Humanitarian Law (IIHL) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This has spurred new research programs that aim to promote ‘best practices’ for integrating international law into military organizations. While not a new phenomenon, the ICRC identifies flagrant noncompliance as the most serious challenge to international law’s relevance in 21st century combat operations. Over the last fifteen years, the ICRC and affiliated NGOs have devoted significant attention to developing innovative approaches and tactics for generating robust compliance habits.

This project will undertake research with IIHL and ICRC to: identify the factors leading to this shift in advocacy strategy; assess the impact of this shift on research, policy development, and outreach at the ICRC; and collaboratively develop a report on the progress and effects of these programs, specifically those initiatives aimed at integrating international law into the organization, daily practices, and institutional culture of militaries. This research will both enhance our understanding of cutting edge developments in humanitarian advocacy and contribute to the programmatic efforts of human rights NGOs by providing a collaborative analysis and assessment of this 21st century trajectory.

A Human Rights Framework to Monitor Special Zones for Industrial Agriculture in Colombia

Lead: Amanda Lyons, Human Rights Center, Law
Student: Georgette Marling, Law

This project monitors the evolving legal framework for large-scale agriculture and rural development in Colombia. The aim is to increase the capacity of civil society to intervene in decision-making spaces.

In 2016, Colombia passed a controversial law creating the framework for ZIDRES - “Zones of Interest for Rural, Economic, and Social Development.” Use and control of the land is at the heart of Colombia’s conflict and central to the new peace accord with the FARC. There are multiple and competing interests in the available land from ongoing transitional justice measures, communities affected by mega-projects, and from agrarian movements. Civil society is denouncing the intensifying situation of deadly violence against human rights defenders working in the territories to demand environmental, land, and community rights.

This project will establish criteria to evaluate the initiative on the basis of positive and negative impacts on the enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil, political, and environmental rights. In doing so, it will provide a useful framework to document and monitor the individual and collective human-rights impacts related to the ZIDRES model and increase the ability of Colombian civil society to engage in related decision-making spaces.

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