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Speaker addresses human rights

Nicole Zook | Tuesday, October 25, 2005

If it takes a truly global citizen to understand the needs of people around the world, then Hannah Wu was the perfect citizen to discuss “A Journey to Human Rights” Monday afternoon.

Wu, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award-winner, grew up in northern China, studied in the United States, worked in Cambodia and currently resides in Switzerland.

A human rights specialist who has worked for 11 years doing technical and field operations for the United Nations, Wu has served in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva since 1994. She discussed her work with the U.N. with approximately 20 students and faculty members in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies.

“I really started with amazing tasks right away,” she said. “Throughout these diverse assignments through the office, it’s been important to me to ask, ‘Did I make a difference?'”

Some of the “humbling” challenges Wu has faced include helping and educating countries to invest resources through the U.N. Human Rights Program and developing training at the National Police Academy in Cambodia, where she served as the District Electoral Supervisor for the U.N.

Wu’s work has taken her to a wide range of countries across the globe, including Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, South Africa, Tajikistan and the Philippines.

Wu called human rights a “misunderstood” and “charged” subject and said she believes education about human rights and the foreign environments is key to understanding and advancing human rights.

“The distance in making [human rights] a part of ordinary people’s lives is still far,” she said. “For me, it’s important to remember that most people don’t live in a postcard kind of environment.”

Wu said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, was a big step in furthering human rights and ensuring rights like privacy, ability to leave one’s country, ownership of property and freedom.

“It’s about the government actually taking measures to translate [human rights] into reality for people,” she said.

Wu said the document raises the “question fundamental to human rights work – who are the people needing the most protection?” She stressed the need to look at each individual country and assess the people’s needs, including the marginalized, prisoners and indigenous peoples.

Wu said the topic of human rights is relevant to all countries and that all countries have violations. For example, she said while Switzerland is known for its wealth, 10 percent of its residents live under the poverty line. In France, Parliament is composed of only 12 percent women. Sweden “prides itself on its human rights record” but is in breach of treaties for mistreatment of terrorists.

“Each country has its own baggage and unique set of challenges,” she said.

Wu said she believes the U.N. has made great strides towards bettering human rights globally.

“I think human rights is so complex a subject,” she said. “It has to be looked at with a scope. I’m quite proud of the achievements of the U.N. over the last 60 years.”

The organization recently made an “unprecedented” commitment to double the human rights budget during the next five years. Wu said the “assistance and supervision” of the United Nations will advance human rights greatly in that time.

However, Wu also said human rights starts on a small scale, dealing with others tolerantly on a regular basis – a concept she said she learned in her days at Notre Dame.

“I didn’t realize what [the Peace Institute] meant when I was in it – tolerance, dealing with each other,” she said. “It’s much more than just a diploma.”