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 2021 Bernstein Symposium was held virtually on April 9. You can find a description of the event below.


Bernstein International Human Rights Symposium

April 9, 2021
Yale Law School

12:15-1:45 PM
Panel Featuring Bernstein and Robina Fellows of 2020-21

Join the Schell Center for a panel discussing the work of our current Bernstein and Robina Fellows. The panel will be moderated by Jim Silk. This event is limited to the Yale Law School community.

2:00-4:00 PM
End Times for the Age of Human Rights? Confronting the Consequences of Global Crises

The world is struggling simultaneously with three crises, each of a magnitude not seen since the end of World War II: pandemic, recession and climate change. These intertwined crises appear to be beyond the remedial capacities of our domestic and international institutions and particularly resistant to human-rights based solutions. Do these crises spell a turning point for human rights?

Human rights advocacy developed at a time when the proper measure of politics was located in the relationship of government to citizen. Power was to be constrained by rights. Today’s crises do not arise primarily out of failures in that relationship. Rights-respecting regimes are just as vulnerable to the crises as rights-violating regimes. Protection of the rights-bearing individual can no longer be the sole measure of governance, even for human rights advocates. We must look, as well, at states’ responsiveness to systemic threats. China’s draconian, but largely successful, response to the coronavirus made the tension between these two perspectives impossible to ignore.

Solutions to these intertwined crises have been complicated even further by the recent rise of nationalism. No nation can deal, on its own, with any of these crises. Solutions will require transnational mobilization around new forms of knowledge, production and exchange. Renewed U.S. leadership will have to include innovations in these areas, and that will require rethinking traditional forms of institutional commitment internally and externally. Concerns for justice and liberty will remain, but the meaning of these abstractions will change as the demands we make on our institutions, both national and transnational, shift. Right now, for example, debates are raging, at home, over the meaning of liberty and, globally, over the content of the just demands that poorer nations can make on the wealthy.

This year’s Bernstein Symposium will address the question of whether we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift. Is the age of human rights going to give way to new norms and institutions? What is the place of individual rights claims in the face of global, systemic crises? What norms will guide international institutions, if not human rights? Are our existing obligations, institutions and forms of advocacy now obstacles to the sorts of responses we need? If a new order is emerging, what role can or should the United States play? 

Alex de Waal, Research Professor, The Fletcher School, Tufts University and Executive Director, World Peace Foundation

Aziz Rana, Richard and Lois Cole Professor of Law, Cornell Law School