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Eric Stover and Camille Crittenden Eric Stover, the Human Rights Center's faculty director, and Camille Crittenden, its executive director. Established in 1994 as a Townsend Center project, the center has documented war crimes and human-rights abuses in countries around the world, and trained more than 150 graduate students. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

The Human Rights Center at 15

For 15 years, HRC staff have probed the heart of darkness, applying academic rigor in the service of justice and compassion

| 10 September 2009

As war raged in the Balkans during the 1990s, Eric Stover was leading teams of forensic scientists into Bosnia and Croatia, exhuming bodies from mass graves and working to identify them and return them to their families. Once, he recalls, the grisly task was interrupted by a rain of rocket shells. "That," he notes wryly, "focuses your attention."

For Stover, faculty director of the campus Human Rights Center, such extraordinary occupational hazards — among other misfortunes, he's been stricken with hepatitis in Bosnia and arrested by both the Argentine and Serbian militaries, the latter hauling him off to jail as UN peacekeepers watched — come with the territory. And the territory is, by definition, unremittingly grim.

Under the auspices of the HRC, which turns 15 this year, he and his colleagues journey regularly to the heart of darkness — countries reeling under the horrors of war, repression, and genocide — to quietly, methodically, and scientifically document their effects on local populations and, perhaps, help attain some measure of justice.

Drama notwithstanding, visitors to the center's Stephens Hall headquarters are unlikely to be regaled with tales of adventure and derring-do. The stories that matter, HRC staffers insist, are not their own, but those of human-rights victims in Latin America, Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, even the U.S. military prison in Guantαnamo. Ask what draws them from the refuge of academia to sites of horrific suffering — at great personal peril, both physical and psychological — and you are apt to get a Willy Sutton-like answer: That's where the victims are.

Phuong Pham, a soft-spoken epidemiologist who serves as the center's research director, was in Baghdad in mid-2003, just as insurgents were beginning to launch attacks on British and Italian troops in southern Iraq. Despite the dangers, she and her team decided that the integrity of their work required that they survey people in that Shia-dominated region.

"If you want to represent the population," she explains, "you really have to go everywhere." They headed south by car, trailing a convoy.

"The convoy was attacked," she relates matter-of-factly, "but we missed it by a matter of 10 minutes."

Pham was living and working in Rwanda in 2001, "trying to measure the impact of the genocide on the population" for Tulane University's school of public health, when she was recruited by the HRC's now-retired associate director, Harvey Weinstein. That's where she connected with Patrick Vinck, a Belgium-born agricultural engineer sent there by his country's redevelopment agency to help farmers get back on their feet.

Pham and Vinck, who now directs the center's Initiative on Vulnerable Populations, exemplify the multidisciplinary approach Stover brought with him from Physicians for Human Rights, where he'd been executive director. An English-lit major who "went out for a Ph.D. in misspent youth," Stover's introduction to human-rights work came in the form of a job with Amnesty International in London, where he'd bounced after stops in Latin America and Paris.

Back in Washington, D.C., in 1983, Stover — by then head of the human-rights program for the American Association for the Advancement of Science — received a visit from the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that wanted to reunite children abducted by the Argentine dictatorship with their biological families. At the same time, he recalls, a "truth commission" was established under the country's new civilian leadership, which asked him to assemble a team of forensic scientists to locate unmarked graves, identify the bodies, and assist with RNA tracing.

"I knew nothing about forensics," admits Stover, now an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health and at Berkeley Law. "There was no CSI, so I wasn't even that educated." Having worked as a freelance writer and journalist, however, he knew how to go about getting answers. "I called the National Academy of Forensic Scientists," he recalls, "and I said, 'What do I do?' "

He fielded a team that included forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow and then-Berkeley geneticist Mary Claire King, renowned today as a pioneer in forensic DNA testing. The experience, he says, "impressed upon me the importance of being actively involved on the ground, applying science-slash-technology in the service of human rights."

That's been the center's guiding principle since the Sandler Family Foundation — the chief backer of what was then a tiny, year-old project of the Townsend Center for the Humanities — recruited him to head the HRC in 1995.

What survivors want

Rachel Shigekane, who leads the center's Human Rights Fellowship Program, views the HRC as "a bridge between academia and practitioners and activists in the field," and her own program as a chance for graduate students from different disciplines "to see how they can cross-pollinate on all the human-rights issues they're working on."

Aided by stipends, more than 150 grad students — all from Berkeley until 2007, when the program expanded to include other UC campuses — have completed field work with organizations ranging from Human Rights Watch to the United Nations Population Fund. No matter what the students' disciplines, Shigekane says, the center's focus is always "to make sure their work is grounded in the community, and that there's some relevance to the people who are affected" by human-rights abuses.

"We're not turning out little automaton human-rights activists — I don't believe in that at all," declares Stover, who acknowledges that the center's findings have sometimes clashed with movement orthodoxy. Stover's forensic work in the Balkans helped lead to the formation of the Yugoslavia war-crimes tribunal — the first since Nuremberg — and he has been a prosecution witness in the trials of Argentine military rulers. But it wasn't until 1996, in Srebrenica, that he fully realized the devastation felt by people who are unable to identify their lost or "disappeared" family members.

"That was a deep learning moment for me," he recalls. "The court was supposed to be working for these victims. But the thing family members want most is identification of these bodies. More than justice, they want proper burial."

Guatemalan graveRelatives gather at the grave of a man executed by the Guatemalan military in the early 1980s, when the Human Rights Center's Eric Stover - then with the American Association for the Advancement of Science - began assembling teams to identify the bodies of victims of repressive regimes and return them to their families. The HRC's forensic work in the Balkans helped lead to the world's first war-crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. (Eric Stover photo)

That insight was the seed of a book later co-edited by Stover and Weinstein, My Neighbor, My Enemy, which employed surveys and recorded conversations with survivors of war in Rwanda and Yugoslavia to assess the meaning of justice in post-conflict societies. "Received wisdom," he says, suggests that "justice and trials are going to help victims, and witnesses are going to experience catharsis, and so forth. But it's a lot more complicated."

To HRC Executive Director Camille Crittenden, such messy on-the-ground realities go a long way toward explaining the need for "greater rigor" in the application of "evidence-based methodologies" to questions of human rights. Crittenden, a former assistant dean for development in International and Area Studies, joined the center in 2006, when it was housed in IAS. Its first executive director, she has worked to expand the center's funding base — it is, she stresses, heavily dependent on private philanthropy — and helped build it from five staffers to a dozen.

"What we do here at the center, really, is apply science and techniques that exist in other fields, that simply haven't been used in the field of human rights," says Vinck, who, with Pham, is developing an open-source application for data collection in the field. Both say they're constantly surprised by what they learn simply by asking.

"People talk of victims and survivors like they were one group, and they all want the same thing," notes Vinck. "And we see that that's not at all the case. So the work now is trying to understand what those different opinions are, and how you can enter into a dialogue with the people to reach some kind of consensus."

And it's in the intimacy of personal connections, says Stover — asking a grieving mother for a missing child's hairbrush, for example, in order to extract DNA samples — that the rewards of human-rights work are found.

"When I'm asked about 'the grisly work of exhumations' and so on — and I mean this sincerely — it's a privilege," he says. "Because even though in Argentina or Guatemala or Bosnia you enter through a kind of dark portal into those societies and cultures, it is a real need. Families want the remains returned. I always say, look at 9/11, look at any plane crash, how families are always out there, waiting to find out. And what they need is the tool.

"You're bringing them that tool. And you're learning from them. It's like non-biological family in many countries, because I've gotten to know these families so well. So it's a privilege in the sense that you're really engaged with people in a way that most people in their jobs don't get to be. And that's what we try to teach students here, too: Always remember that this work is about people."

Adds Vinck: "I can't tell you how many times I've said, 'Okay, this is it, I'm done.' And you go back. And it's not about courage, or sacrifice. Not at all.

"You just feel," he says, "this is what you have to do."