Professor recommends focus on optimism, progress in human rights field

Professor James Anaya from the College of Law at the University of Arizona speaks during his lecture “A Human Rights Advocate’s Guide to the United Nations Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs)" in the Dodd Center's Konover Auditorium in Storrs, Connecticut on Friday, April 8, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

A professor of human rights law and policy came to the University of Connecticut Friday afternoon to speak about human rights in the world today.

With a presentation titled, “A Human Rights Advocate’s Guide to the United Nations Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs),” Professor James Anaya, from the College of Law at the University of Arizona, spoke about the significance of the human rights language of the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

The United Nations passed the agenda last September, hoping to create a more inclusive human rights agenda. There were 17 goals to better integrate marginalized groups into human rights language. These groups include women, indigenous peoples, those with disabilities and more.

Some of the sustainable development goals included poverty reduction, climate change and social and economic equality. According to Anaya, the agenda is problematic and is under criticism because of its minimal inclusivity.

Anaya asked the crowd to focus on the progress that has been made. He asked students and faculty to appreciate the potential of the language and to realize the dynamic discourse of human rights. 

Anaya has a history with the United Nations. From 2008 to 2014, he served as the United Nationals Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

He said he found himself in this position in a unique way. Anaya graduated from Harvard Law School in 1983 and worked for a law firm shortly after, but he said he soon decided that was not what he wanted to do with his life.

Anaya returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and practiced law. He represented Native American peoples and other minority groups. For his work during that time, the Barrister magazine, a national publication of the American Bar Association, named him one of “20 young lawyers who make a difference.” 

Anaya has lectured in countries worldwide. However, before he became a big name in human rights, he found himself in a case that would propel indigenous people’s rights in the positive direction: Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua.

In that case, the government sold land occupied by indigenous people to a foreign company without the permission of the Awas Tingni people. Lawyers went back and forth debating property laws and the rights of this group. Anaya ultimately won and paved the way for more inclusive property rights for all peoples.

The UN goals are a step in the right direction of greater equity and inclusivity. The SDGs call for all people to have the right to live freely in their own territory by the fact of their very existence. 

The SDGs call for states to correct historical and ongoing rights violations, Anaya said. 

“There’s an invitation to dialogue,” he said. 

The new agenda may be minimalistic, a frequent criticism of the SDGs. Anaya argued, however, that it will allow for the possibilities of more inclusive rights: rights that include access to education where culture is taken into account, so children can learn and be taught in their own language. 

“Voices can be amplified by the human rights framework of the SDGs,” Professor Anaya said. 

Anaya said he wished to celebrate the intention and inclusion of human rights. 

“It can be better, but the SDGs make for a glass half full,” he said. “Let’s fill it.” 

Sarina Bhargava, a second-semester English major, expressed her interest in the lecture. 

“It was a really interesting lecture that got me thinking of groups of people that I don’t really think about,” she said. “I like the way Professor Anaya took the few references of the indigenous peoples in the SDGs and turned them into a positive: an opener for dialogue.”


Kharl Reynado is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kharl.reynado@uconn.edu.