The Bernstein Symposium began in 1997 in honor of Robert Bernstein, the founding chair of Human Rights Watch, for his extraordinary contributions to the international human rights movement. The symposium is an integral part of the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights, which was established the same year. Each year, current and past fellows are invited back to Yale Law School to engage in human rights discussions and to connect with each other and with symposium participants. 

The 2018 Bernstein Symposium, entitled, Solidarity: Sustaining the Struggle for Human Rights in a Fractured World, will be held on April 12-13. This year is the twentieth anniversary of the Bernstein International Human Rights Fellowship and the tenth anniversary of the Robina Foundation International Human Rights Fellowship. To mark these anniversaries, the 2018 Symposium will feature panels made up entirely of some of the 83 Yale Law School graduates who have worked in 27 countries as Bernstein or Robina Fellows. The Symposium was made possible by the generous support of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School.

At the 20th Anniversary Bernstein International Human Rights Symposium, 63 of the 85 former Bernstein and Robina Human Rights Fellows came together to reflect on the personal and professional challenges involved in human rights work. Alumni were able to attend the symposium thanks to the generous support of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School.

One recurring question of the conference was how to bridge the gaps between communities and the law. In the keynote address, Vivek Maru ’01 told the story of his organization, Namati, which trains and deploys paralegals to work in remote communities. “We need to turn law from abstraction into something everyone can understand, use, and shape,” he urged. Allana Kembabazi ’15 stressed the need to implement Namati’s vision in more places, such as Uganda, where she is a programs manager at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights. Kembabazi said she sees an increasing number of people viewing not just law, but also human rights as increasingly inaccessible and irrelevant.

A nagging doubt among speakers was the efficacy of traditional human rights tools such as fact-finding, which may lose their power if governments and other actors cannot be shamed into doing the right thing. In the words of Maria Burnett, Human Rights Watch’s Director of East Africa and the Horn: “Shame is dead.” Still, Burnett and others maintained that human rights language and institutions can provide critical support for change, provided that international advocates stay humble and alert foremost to the needs of domestic advocates.

Sari Bashi, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Israel-Palestine office, had a suggestion for how to maintain hope and motivation in the face of these daunting questions, as well as the refugee crisis, environmental destruction, or the dozens of other human rights issues that current and former Bernstein and Robina fellows are addressing. Bashi compared human rights work to marathons and advised the audience to “find beauty in the struggle.” She added, “With the right amount of awareness and humility, we can achieve more than we think.”