Campus law school’s Human Rights Center wins $1 million MacArthur Award

Amanda Hart/Staff

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UC Berkeley School of Law’s Human Rights Center was awarded $1 million by the MacArthur Foundation on Thursday for its investigations into and research on human rights abuses.

The center was one of nine nonprofit organizations worldwide that received the 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions, recognized for its work on war crimes and abuses in more than a dozen countries by “applying cutting-edge science and research to protect human rights globally,” the MacArthur Foundation website said.

To receive the award, organizations must have demonstrated “exceptional creativity and effectiveness,” reached a critical stage in their development as an institution, and displayed stable financial management and strong leadership, according to the website.

The winners were selected based on how well the nominated organizations planned on using the money as an investment for their future. Alexa Koenig, the center’s executive director, said $900,000 of the $1 million will become the center’s first-ever endowment.

“We are constantly scrambling, raising almost all funds to pay for everyone’s salaries,” Koenig said. “But (the endowment) will allow us to grow over time and provide a foundation, so we can spend more time and attention on the work.”

The other $100,000 will be parceled out to the center’s Sexual Violence Program, acknowledged specifically by the foundation for its studies of survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in postconflict settings. Program director Kim Thuy Seelinger said the $100,000 will go into the program’s “rainy-day fund.”

“The truth is that $100,000 doesn’t do much — studies cost much more, and we are still actively fundraising our own soft money,” Seelinger said. “But we need a separate pool of funds — no strings attached — that will allow us to go to conferences, hire outside consulting and more graduate student help.”

In 2013, Seelinger and program officer Julie Freccero, with a small team of consultants and researchers, completed five reports studying safe shelters for refugees and internally displaced people who experienced sexual, gender-based violence.

“If you were fleeing from a perpetrator in downtown San Francisco, you would go to some private place where no one knows where you are, where you can be protected,” Seelinger explained. “But a refugee camp is not like a downtown city — there’s no secret hiding place where you can be safe, with very specific security challenges and no data for what is being done for survivors.”

Over the course of 18 months, the program dispatched a small team to Haiti, Kenya, Thailand and Colombia, where Freccero said they developed recommendations with local shelter owners. After presenting five different reports to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the team then returned to the countries and presented its recommendations to the shelter owners.

“That report back is more important than the research progress,” Seelinger said. “Often reports just sit on the shelf that folks on the ground can’t use for their own advocacy and policymaking.”

In the future, the program plans on studying the relationship between armed conflict and human trafficking, as well as researching children born of war rape.

The center also runs a student fellowship for UC graduates, the Atrocity Response Program, which studies postconflict survivors who testify at the International Criminal Court, and the Technology and Human Rights Program, which uses emerging technologies to assist victims testifying in court.

The Forensic Program, which was recently absorbed into the Technology and Human Rights Program, used DNA technologies to locate and reunite families torn apart by war.

Koenig explained the center’s approach as “interdisciplinary,” incorporating research from public health, sociology, biostatistics and demography, among other fields.

“Human rights violations really impact every aspect of a human being’s life, not just legal,” Koenig said. “The more we can think holistically about what they’re going through, the more comprehensive we can be in addressing their needs.”

Bo Kovitz is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.