UConn UNESCO chair position dismissed

Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu was the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights until the position was terminated on Dec. 20, 2016. Omara-Otunnu has served as the chair since his appointment by the United Nations in 2001. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

The UNESCO Chair position, which was created to “promote international cooperation and networking to enhance institutional capacities through knowledge sharing and collaborative work,” has been terminated as of Dec. 20, 2016, according to the UNESCO/UNITWIN Chair website.

Human Rights activist and University of Connecticut history professor Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu has served as the chair since his appointment by the United Nations (U.N.) in 2001.

“I have never once been briefed,” Omara-Otunnu said. “I have never had the simple decency of being called to inform me of what is going to happen. Not by the President (Susan Herbst), not by the Vice President (for Global Affairs, Daniel Weiner).”

Omara-Otunnu started his career in human rights as a student activist in Uganda, protesting state violence from then-President Idi Amin. From there, Omara-Otunnu received degrees from Harvard, the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford, where he received his JD and Ph.D.  He is world-renowned for his work with the U.N., the African National Conference and academic publications on conflict in Africa.

“This reminds me so much of corruption in the third world,” Omara-Otunnu said.

Omara-Otunnu was notified of the position’s end from a scan of a U.N. letter from the office of the Assistant Director-General for Education.

The letter referred to communications between UConn and the U.N. office that paperwork had not been properly filed for the renewal of the UNESCO Chair position on behalf of Omara-Otunnu.

“It is strange that it is not the U.N. who questions the validity of the UNESCO Chair, but the university,” Omara-Otunnu said. “Once the UNESCO Chair is awarded, there is no need for renewal. The South African Chair has not been renewed since it was instated in 1995.”

The office of the Assistant Director-General for Education sent a letter to President Susan Herbst to notify her that paperwork had not been properly filed for the renewal of the UNESCO Chair position on behalf of Omara-Otunnu. 

The office of the Assistant Director-General for Education sent a letter to President Susan Herbst to notify her that paperwork had not been properly filed for the renewal of the UNESCO Chair position on behalf of Omara-Otunnu. 

UConn asserts that UNESCO made the decision.

“We are in the process of seeking more information to understand the factors behind UNESCO’s decision, but are proud of the work that UConn has done over the years in partnership with the organization in the important field of promoting human rights,” UConn Spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said.

In promoting human rights as UNESCO Chair, Omara-Otunnu has brought on two world leaders, the Presidents of Ghana and Rwanda, and has trained thousands of students worldwide in human rights. One such program to train students is the Student Ambassador program, which will remain at UConn even in the absence of the UNESCO Chair.

“The student ambassador program that has operated at UConn in affiliation with UNESCO has been a point of pride for our university, and the Office of Global Affairs is committed to continuing and supporting a robust ambassadors program at UConn,” Reitz said. “Our student ambassadors are working to quite literally change the world, and it is UConn’s honor to be able to help them do that by offering an ambassadors program that inspires, educates and serves our community and our world.”

Yousouf Bellamy, a graduate student in Political Science, has been facilitating these meetings since last year. He continues to serve as the facilitator, amidst the change in leadership. He could not be reached for comment at the time of this publication.

The Office of Global Affairs will also continue UConn’s partnership with the African National Congress in the absence of the UNESCO Chair. Omara-Otunnu will therefore not be the direct connection between UConn and above initiatives.

“This is far worse than facing Idi Amin and his thugs,” Omara-Otunnu said. “The work I have done for the past 20 years at the University is to thank the United States. This is how I am contributing to the country that gave me refuge in my hour of need.”


Elizabeth Charash is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at elizabeth.charash@uconn.edu.