Work in human rights is intense, multidisciplinary, collaborative and can be relatively competitive to enter. However, if this area of social justice calls to you, there are numerous ways to break into the field. This guide provides information about the broad field of human rights and opportunities for those exploring it as an area of interest or as a potential life's work.
Human rights are those we consider universal and irrevocable because we are human.
The modern human rights movement holds that governments everywhere, regardless of ideology, adhere to certain basic principles of human rights in the treatment of their citizens. Recognizing the inherent dignity of all people, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 without a dissenting vote.
It was the first multinational declaration mentioning human rights by name. Written in the aftermath of massive human rights abuses inflicted during World War II, representatives from most governments in the world unanimously adopted this document to protect basic human rights.
The United Nations Declaration pertains to the full spectrum of human rights --- civil, political, economic, social and cultural. In general, human rights organizations address one or more of these issue areas in their work. These issues may be addressed at a local, national or international level.
Historically, human rights abuses were framed in terms of political and civil rights violations. A growing trend in this movement, however, has been the expansion of the interpretation of a human rights abuse. The emerging social justice influence around the world has enabled advocates to include cultural, social and economic rights as categories worthy of protection. Brief definitions of these rights are:
Civil Rights - Civil rights are those rights belonging to an individual by virtue of their citizenship in a country. Examples include the right to vote, freedom from discrimination, equal protection of the country's laws, etc.
Political Rights - Political rights allow for full participation in political life. This can be anything from the right to hold office, to equality in political representation and other forms of participation in the political process. Political rights seek to increase the power of a population as participants at all levels in governments, institutions and forums to achieve economic and social justice.
Cultural Rights - Cultural rights are those which allow us to identify ourselves as members of a distinct group within a larger society. Such cultural groups may be defined by ethnicity, religion, behavior or point of view.
Social Rights - Social rights are those rights which allow each individual in society to participate to the fullest extent of her or his choosing. Such rights include the right to an education and the right to freedom of association.
Economic Rights - Economic rights ensure for each individual the opportunity to obtain by labor or by commerce the means of supporting him or herself. These rights can include the right to a livelihood, fair wages for labor, housing and food. There are growing demands to include clean air, water and soil and access to health care in these rights as well.
The early human rights movement consisted primarily of lawyers, often at international forums, proposing language for treaties. Today, the field is diverse; recent graduates can look to organizations addressing abuses using a variety of approaches. More strategies to fight for human rights emerge as abuses are uncovered and publicized --- and more people, outraged by this inhumanity, respond.
How human rights abuses are addressed varies from organization to organization. Some examples of organizations and the methods they use to direct their efforts include:
Direct service - Direct service often involves the delivery of medical, social, educational or legal aid to individuals or communities in need. Doctors Without Borders, International Rescue Committee
Advocacy - Advocacy work seeks to plead the case for or intervene on behalf of individuals, communities or causes. This work can be performed in a multitude of forums from the legal system to the media to international agencies to local communities. Amnesty International, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
Policy development - Through the development of policy, human rights organizations work with institutions that shape the policy, laws and treaties that govern how we respond to a situation or population in crisis. Policy development can overlap with advocacy work. Human Rights Watch
Scholarship - An expanding area of human rights work is appearing at universities across the globe. Often housed in centers promoting research, education and training, this human rights scholarship provides an arena for reflection and collaboration between scholars, activists, policy makers and other practitioners. Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute, University of Minnesota's Human Rights Resources Center.
The range of career choices has increased dramatically in this field over the past twenty years. Of course, doctors, lawyers, judges and forensic specialists are still central to much of the human rights monitoring and advocacy that takes place throughout the world. However, the field now also includes people from many disciplines and backgrounds and human rights organizations hire staff to work on all facets of their missions.
The following is a small sample of human rights positions:
Entry-level positions abound in many human rights organizations. Assistant project coordinators, researchers, communications assistants, development associates and community organizers are postings for jobseekers with little experience.
These positions often require an undergraduate degree, but exceptions are found, especially in organizations advertising for community organizers and those using the arts and media in their work. Starting salaries for these jobs generally range from the high teens to high twenties. Candidates with relevant graduate degrees can expect to start in a higher pay range.
Advanced positions in the field often carry the title of executive director, project administrator, senior program director and legal counsel. Depending on the size and type of organization, salaries for senior and executive staff can start in the low-thirties and go over one hundred thousand dollars.
The most prized skills vary based on the organization you choose to work for. This variety is a good thing; it gives you the opportunity to research organizations and apply to those that value your talents. Job descriptions for human rights advocates generally advertise for the following skills: research, writing, analytical thinking, public speaking and/or grassroots organizing.
Organizations or government agencies that work on policy development, legal cases or complex international treaties want employees with advanced degrees in law, medicine, journalism, anthropology, etc. Recently new organizations have emerged that focus on alerting the media and general public to human rights abuses. The ability to communicate through writing or public speaking is highly valued by these groups.
Similarly, there are many grassroots groups working on a local issue or mobilizing communities around a prevalent abuse. These groups want people with community organizing skills who can inform and lead communities to confront and publicize whatever form of injustice they are addressing.
Though human rights groups need different skills and talents based on their individual mission, some specific pieces of knowledge are helpful, if not critical. Exposure to or familiarity with primary human rights documents is highly recommended. These are the:
United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
Convention to Eliminate all Forms of Racial Discrimination
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
These documents provide critical history on the human rights movement as well as definitions of what human rights are and why they are important.
If you choose to work in a human rights organization that focuses on international issues — the ability to speak one or more languages other than English may be a requirement. These organizations need to work collaboratively with communities and agencies in other countries and cross-cultural skills, including languages and knowledge of other cultures, may be crucial. There are, however, dozens of US-based human rights groups that work on local and national issues. If you don't possess a foreign language skill or if your skills are not proficient — don't despair. You can find work in this field to match your skills and interests.
Other knowledge to consider acquiring during your undergraduate education is a background in human rights issues. Today, on almost any college campus, classes are taught on human rights abuses, causes and ramifications. Students can find these classes in Political Science, History, Sociology, Psychology and Anthropology as well as other departments.
Undergraduates are creating their own fields of study in human rights issues through independent projects and self-designed majors. For someone wanting to learn more about this field or seeking ways to enter it as an advocate or young professional — taking classes may offer opportunities for both.
Human rights groups — especially those working internationally, also value living abroad or having a cross-cultural experience. Consider participating in study-abroad programs, international community service projects, internships or just international travel. As you explore these options, consider those that will give you direct human rights experience. These opportunities are numerous and will give you the exposure human rights groups may desire.
Just as skills, knowledge and experience can help you break into this competitive field, so can your attitude or value system. Human rights groups look for a shared sense of purpose. Human rights work can be challenging, intense and can involve everything from risking your life to extended traveling overseas. Employers want to know that you have the commitment to do this work and that you view it as significant as they do. Wanting to change the world and a dedication to social justice is a requirement!
The ability to work collaboratively with others is universally acknowledged as important in this profession. So much human rights work, whether local or international, touches on other issues and organizations. Also, many human rights campaigns are addressed through multiple groups or coalitions. The capacity to work well in a team setting with individuals from different backgrounds and perspectives is necessary.
The ability to reflect and gather self-knowledge is useful no matter where we are in our life-long learning or search for meaningful work. Some helpful questions to ask yourself as you explore this field are:
As we've seen, the world of human rights work is vast and varied. There are thousands of organizations working on countless issues in multiple ways and settings. It can be a little overwhelming! You need to determine which one/s are the most compelling to you and offer the best (or better) fit given your skills and experience.
If you are without a related graduate degree and are attempting to break into this field using your volunteer time, you may need to stick with it for an extended time. Not being paid for 6-12 months can be challenging, especially if you need to make ends meet working other jobs. The answer to these questions will be different for each individual. Knowing how long you can devote to this search before you enter the field can help you decide in advance what options you are willing to pursue.
Though the field is diverse, many advocates do get some form of graduate degree after they have been in it for a while. Lack of a specialty degree in this field can affect your expertise, pay and position. Gaining experience in the field can help you determine which degree program makes sense for you. If you are not inclined to go to graduate school, search out those organizations or approaches that do not emphasize advanced study. As more creative and grassroots responses to human rights abuses form, reliance on advanced degrees is receding.
Many international groups require living or traveling abroad. Yes, it sounds exciting, but can be a challenging life for several years. Folks who have done it talk about being disconnected from any one community. Just when they get settled back into their US home — they have to go overseas again. Fatigue is another common complaint.
Advocates who travel for their jobs often lose sleep as they travel, are subject to jet-lag and use a great deal of energy switching between cultures and languages. Positions that require heavy travel can make it hard to incorporate personal activities that lend balance to one's life such as exercising, taking a course, playing a musical instrument or being in a relationship.
One of the richest sources for information on human rights issues is the web. Hundreds of organizations provide information about their mission, the human rights situation internationally, regionally and locally and ways in which you can become involved. Check out:
Also consider becoming a member of a human rights organization. Many groups fundraise and educate by promoting fee-based memberships. For a nominal amount of money you receive newsletters and alerts informing you about a recent abuse or atrocity and what you can do to respond. Becoming active in this way provides you with information and allows you to be part of the human rights movement.
A number of magazines and journals provide a more in-depth look at everything from geo-political analysis to special topics such as child soldiers and refugees. Some of these periodicals include: The Human Rights Quarterly, The Harvard Human Rights Journal, The Human Rights Monitor, The United Nations Chronicle and The Human Rights Internet.
The University of Minnesota's Human Rights Library publicizes links to electronic journals as well as reviews of recently published books in the human rights field. Look for the soon-to-be released Careers in Politics, Government, and Activism, by Joan Axelrod-Contrada published by Facts on File, Inc. which gives specific information on human rights activism for those students and graduates beginning their career exploration.
Several human rights resource centers also provide both on-line educational materials and listings of publications. The following centers are respected for their breath and depth of information:
There are dozens of other human rights centers in the US and around the world. Many are located in academic institutions and have a research or teaching emphasis. Some are independently established and focus on specific issue areas. For a comprehensive listing of such centers visit the University of Minnesota's Human Rights Library.
As the area of human rights has expanded and diversified so has the corresponding number of graduate schools individuals can choose as a foundation for their human rights education. The study of law is being joined by public policy, medicine, social work, education, political science, anthropology and the arts — as many interests and skills as people possess are being applied to this field. To search for academic programs focusing on human rights and that match your interests, you may want to start with Peterson's and Gradschools.com. Then research educational opportunities listed on resource centers such as The University of Minnesota's Human Rights Resource Center.
Check your student clubs and organizations for possible human rights involvement. Such groups may affiliate with a national or international non-profit or they may focus on issues and populations that exist on campus.
One of the best opportunities for gaining real-world experience and exploring any field or job is internships. In human rights, these internships are offered by individual non-profit organizations and can be paid or unpaid, full or part-time. In addition to researching the organization of your choice for potential internship opportunities, visit:
The Human Rights Internship Book (Career Education Institutes. Winston-Salem, NC.1999) also offers internship listings and other resources for searching in this field.
Fellowships in this field are usually one or two year paid opportunities for individuals in a related graduate program. Some large non-profit organizations as well as educational institutions (Columbia Law School) and philanthropic organizations (Ford Foundation) offer fellowships. Just like internships, you may want to start your research with individual organizations and then check out:
In addition to internships and fellowships there are other programs that exist for exploring your interest in human rights. Some are short-term, academically based and may involve a fee. Others may be structured more like fellowships with a stipend and geared towards either undergraduates or graduate students.
A list of these programs created by the University of Minnesota's Human Rights Library is found here.
Though all of these programs offer exciting and hands-on exposure to human rights issues and/or work, many human rights advocates suggest you start exploring opportunities in your local community. There are human rights issues all around us. Volunteering in a local organization or agency working on housing rights, job-training, poverty or gay rights may be your first step toward educating yourself about far-reaching issues and gaining experience you may need to enter the field later.
If you are at the point where you want to start looking for a job in human rights work, there are some wonderful websites that list positions in this field. In addition to job postings on an individual non-profit organization or agency web page, the following sites list just human rights jobs:
See also the Human Rights Organizations and Periodicals Directory (Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute. Berkeley, CA. 2001).
The following websites are useful for gaining a broader perspective on the multiple issues addressed within human rights advocacy: