New UNSW institute takes shape as world marks Human Rights Day

UNSW's new centre of innovation on human rights is taking shape as the world marks Human Rights Day on December 10.


Former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As Human Rights Day provides a moment for every person to consider how they can act to defend rights close to home, momentum is building behind a UNSW Sydney initiative to advance collaborative research in this area.

Announced by UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs earlier this year, the Australian Human Rights Institute will further the interdisciplinary aims of the University's 2025 Strategy by bringing together researchers with STEM and non-STEM expertise.

UNSW’s investment in the institute of $13 million to 2025 will allow research to be applied to real-world human rights violations, making an impact on communities in Australia and around the world when they are most in need of innovative responses.

Research will be focused on three areas: human rights and business, human rights and health, and gender justice.

Australian Human Rights Institute Director Professor Louise Chappell says the new work will build on the strong foundations of the Australian Human Rights Centre, established in the Faculty of Law in 1986 and led for the past 13 years by Professor Andrea Durbach.

Professor Chappell says there has been an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response to the institute in discussions within the University and in the broader community.

“People identify a real need for greater focus on human rights issues and they are genuinely excited about the investment that UNSW has made in this area,” Professor Chappell says.


Human Rights Day is an opportunity to bring our attention to justice and opportunity in our home and work environments. Photo: Shutterstock

A cross-cutting theme emerging for the institute is the rapid advancement in technology, which has some negative human rights implications but also offers interesting new solutions.

“It’s really clear that AI could create further frightening aspects of violence such as remotely controlling what’s happening in someone’s house,” Professor Chappell says.

“But that same technology could also be turned around by victims of domestic violence, in this case, so that they’re able to protect themselves and link to support networks faster than ever before.”

Renewable energy breakthroughs may also be applied to human rights challenges – for example in gender justice, they could be harnessed to protect women against sexual violence in refugee camps or conflict zones.

“These advancements haven’t always been thought about through a human rights lens, and it’s our task to bring these together,” Professor Chappell says.

Another aim of the Institute is to mentor the next cohort of rights defenders, linking emerging scholars with senior experts and UNSW's deep networks in the human rights field.

The institute will also work with the community of alumni from the Diplomacy Training Program and others on the frontlines of human rights as it establishes itself as a leading body on rights research in the Asia-Pacific region.

Professor Chappell believes World Human Rights Day is an opportunity to bring our attention to justice and opportunity in our home and work environments, reflecting on the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world … Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

The Institute will launch in early 2018 and is planning a program of lectures and other events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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