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Norway trip advances human rights in China, Mexico

March 01, 2011

It would be difficult to think of three more diverse countries than Norway, China and Mexico. But all three were tied together in a single trip to the Norwegian cities of Oslo and Bergen by William Simmons, an associate professor in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

The theme connecting the three countries during Simmons’ trip was the issue of human rights, one that he is passionate about and has published extensively on. Because of his growing recognition as an expert in the field, Simmons was invited to Norway to participate in two prestigious gatherings.

In Oslo he was one of three international scholars who met with 15 Chinese activists, scholars and attorneys to help them hone their skills in research methodologies. Then in Bergen, Simmons was one of a handful of scholars from around the world invited by the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights to give remarks during ceremonies honoring Bishop Jose Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, Mexico, who received the Rafto Human Rights Prize to honor his work with migrants in Mexico.

“It was a rewarding experience to meet people from all over the world who bring myriad perspectives to social justice and human rights issues,” Simmons said. “It was also amazing to realize I was meeting with some extremely well-connected individuals at the Rafto event, including a member of the committee that chooses the Nobel Peace Prize recipient.”

The meeting in Oslo with the Chinese human rights researchers represented the culmination of a process that had begun with two meetings in China, in Shanghai and Shantou, during 2009. While the 15 researchers are relatively early in their careers, they already have an impressive background working on such critical issues as workers’ rights, environmental movements, women’s rights and children’s rights, according to Simmons.

“Our objective was to teach them multidisciplinary research methods – that is, to help them consider human rights from a variety of perspectives and methodologies. Some of them have strengths in theory and others in practice. They are educated in many fields, including law, anthropology, sociology and economics. We mentored them as they developed their own research projects focusing on topics ranging from workers’ rights in Shanghai to the challenges facing migrant youth to the right to education, among others.”

Joining Simmons in the mentorship role were Todd Landman from the University of Essex and Rhona Smith from Northumbria University, both in the United Kingdom. Simmons said the effort produced not only richer, more focused projects from the Chinese researchers but also a book describing the process and resulting projects. The book was published in China last fall, and an English version was published by the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre in Sweden.

Simmons said that while China’s human rights record still needs improvement, there has been progress in recent years. “China actually has made many steps in the direction of human rights, including passing a national human rights act a few years ago. There are formal human rights training programs in a number of law schools, and it is an increasingly accepted field of study.

“Our purpose was not to involve ourselves with internal politics in China,” Simmons explained. “We were able to provide tools in research methodology that will empower the 15 scholars to effectively conduct their own research as they see fit and are able to do so.”

Anne Kari B. Johansen, senior program officer for the China Programme at the University of Oslo’s Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, said she found it extremely rewarding to sit in on one-on-one sessions between Simmons and some of the Chinese researchers. “I was impressed by the knowledge, engagement and involvement displayed by both Professor Simmons and the researchers, and how he managed through dialogue and asking the right questions to make the researchers look at their work from a new perspective and realize their own potential,” she said.

At the Rafto Symposium in Bergen, Simmons joined six other invited speakers as part of the program honoring Bishop Vera. Simmons’ presentation examined “Structural violence, states of exception, and the cauterization of migrants’ suffering.” Attendees also heard a keynote address from the Bishop, who is described by the Rafto Foundation as “an uncompromising critic of power abuse and a fearless defender of migrants, indigenous peoples, and other groups at risk in Mexican society.”

Simmons’ presentation in Bergen, to an audience of some 300 faculty, students, activists, and representatives of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, was described as “stunning” by Iver Ørstavik, senior consultant for the Rafto Foundation.

“The presentation combined a very clear and instructive analysis of the prevailing situation for illegal migrants on both sides of the border, an evaluation of current U.S. policies, and the prospects for a constructive change in these policies in the next few years,” Ørstavik said. “In addition, Professor Simmons gave an impassioned account of his own personal experiences as a citizen, an academic and a father following the terrible development in recent years of the circumstances that migrants have to endure. His presentation of photographic material indicating the almost unimaginable cruelty of the abuses that migrants suffer along their route to the U.S. made a very strong impression on the audience.”

The event also included formal talks, in which Simmons participated, focusing on how best to improve the treatment of Central American migrants as they make the trek through Mexico toward the United States. Simmons said these talks most likely will lead to a symposium in Mexico this summer and a push for immigrant protection legislation in the Mexican Congress.

The status of human rights in both Mexico and the United States, and along the border between the two, is of keen interest to Simmons. He played a leading role in establishing the annual Border Justice event held annually since 2003 on ASU’s West campus. Each year’s event features a specific theme; the 2011 event in late March will examine “Networks, Justice and the Border.”

Simmons also serves as director of the Master of Arts in Social Justice and Human Rights (MASJHR) degree offered through New College. This innovative degree offers social justice and human rights approaches to such issues as health, education, labor, international development, migration, child and family issues, and the environment. Students choose either a research track or an NGO (non-governmental organization) management track.

Simmons’ second book, “A Philosophy of Human Rights and the Marginalized Other,” is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. In addition to the volume just published in China, he is also co-editing a volume entitled “Localizing Human Rights across Borders: The U.S.-Mexico Experience” with Carol Mueller, director of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences in New College.