A U.N. helicopter brings relief [© iStockphoto.com/William Walsh].

Diplomacy program examines human-rights issues

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When human-rights violations involve numerous cultures, nations and interests, determining who is in charge and who is to blame are far from black-and-white matters.

When an oppressive government causes thousands of citizens to flee to neighboring countries, for example, there is no clear answer as to what governing body or nation should respond.

Human Rights and Conflict in the International System, a new Norwich University graduate-level seminar, gives students the tools to resolve this type of conflict. Students gain a better understanding of the role of governing bodies, nongovernmental organizations, and how cultural practices, expectations and punitive methods play into complex conflicts.

Offered for the first time in the fall of 2008, the seminar is available to all students taking the International Conflict Management concentration in the Master of Arts in Diplomacy program in Norwich's College of Graduate and Continuing Studies.

Norwich history professor Rowly Brucken developed the seminar, and taught its debut. He said the seminar breaks down into four parts: an overview of the categories of human rights (civil and political, economic, social and cultural, and right to self-determination); international enforcement institutions, such as the United Nations; critical human-rights issues (the laws of war, for instance); and ways of holding offenders accountable.

"It can be very difficult to understand what...the right thing is, when there are two or three or four different things that you can do," Brucken said. "My role was not to necessarily teach facts, but teach a way of thinking about how to apply human-rights laws to the real world."

Brucken set up a simulation for his students. He presented students with a complex scenario involving multiple nations and cultures dealing with detention camps, poverty, mass rape, murder and government spin. Each student represented a different interest and, each morning for a week, had to meet online and present a response.

Patrick Hall, a student from Sioux Falls, S.D., said the simulation was an effective way to learn.

In it, he represented a minority people group who were oppressed by the government and were fleeing to a neighboring country. Two other classmates represented the oppressive government and the neighboring country. Every day, Brucken would add a new twist to the scenario (a new U.N. decision on the situation, for example), and Hall and his classmates would have to respond to the latest information.

"Though it was a hypothetical conflict, it allowed you to think on your feet and utilize the information, rather than just typing a paper about it. There was a lot more back and forth," Hall said.

"The simulation was useful because it allowed you to apply everything that you learned over the course of the week," he added.

Thanks to the seminar, Hall said he has a "better definition as to the different international documents that define human rights — more clarification on those, as well as the arguments that arise when trying to implement the laws, and problems that may occur."

That knowledge may go far in his future, as he hopes to join the Foreign Service after graduation.

Professor John Becker is teaching the course on its second run. A retired Army officer with a doctorate and two law degrees, Becker was especially interested in teaching the course because of ongoing and potential future conflicts our world is facing, such as the emerging power of China.

"I think that one thing that we can say is, when you look at the world, the possibility of conflict never stopping...is very low," Becker said. That, he said, combined with the "flattening of the world" via globalization means diplomacy students need to be better equipped to deal with such challenges.

"What I think is important for the diplomacy students to understand is — they're going to have to deal with this situation, and how they deal with it is going to require new and unique ways. Not every problem can be solved with the use of force."

Becker said he will judge the success of students based on classroom performance, but another measure of success will come after graduation.

"To me," he said, "a real successful result will be to have students solving problems in the real world based on the experience they've had at Norwich."