Elizabeth Bruch: Human Rights from a Cultural Perspective

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Elizabeth Bruch has dedicated a great deal of her career to the scholarship of international human rights and just published a new book, Humanitarian Rights and Humanitarian Intervention.

Imagine a fish sandwich. Most likely you have envisioned a fillet of fish between two slices of bread. However, what we perceive as ubiquitous to our culture is not universal.

Elizabeth Bruch, UW Tacoma professor of politics, philosophy and economics, closes her new book Humanitarian Rights and Humanitarian Intervention, with a story of a rather memorable meal. In a Bosnian government building nearly twenty years ago Bruch was ordering lunch. She asked an office assistant to put in an order for a sandwich version of whatever the meal was that day, which turned out to be fish. She thought nothing of it until her meal arrived: an entire fish between two pieces of bread.

Sitting in her office recalling this memory, she reflected on the deeper significance of it. “We come in and say: here do your elections this way, write your freedom of speech rules this way. People on the other side might be willing to do that, but it’s not the right fit.” This is to say, while one solution to a problem — such as what to have for lunch — may be apparent to one individual, to a person from a different culture this solution may seem humorously bizarre.

Elizabeth BruchBruch has dedicated a great deal of her career to the practice and scholarship of international human rights. This past summer her book, Humanitarian Rights and Humanitarian Intervention was published. The book seeks to answer questions of humanitarian law’s functionality through Bruch’s research and gatherings of different accounts of lived experiences through an institutional lens. The book looks to documentation of field missions in Bosnia, Afghanistan, East Timor and Sierra Leone, as the sites of her research.

Bruch finished her undergraduate degree in journalism and ended up applying for law school on a whim, finding that it was actually a good fit, because she had a desire to serve. Upon earning her Juris Doctorate, Bruch was drawn to humanitarian law because of many (now infamous) human rights violations occurring across the globe in the late 1980s and early 90s such as the Tiananmen Square protests and events leading to the fall of the Berlin wall. When Bruch first began her career as a lawyer, though, the scholarship of human rights law was sparse.

Initially working in Manhattan, she recalls sitting in her office and thinking “Ok, I need to make a move that will put me on the path of doing these things [engaging in human rights work]." She moved from New York to the North Slope of Alaska where she worked servicing low-income residents, also engaging in indigenous law. From there she worked in a number of countries including Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Namibia, Romania, and Tanzania, serving in different roles including as an executive officer of the Human Rights Chamber in post-conflict Bosnia. These experiences in humanitarian intervention have strongly informed her scholarship.

Bruch felt a call to academia and in particular humanitarian law and policy because the field was relatively understudied when she first entered it. Her book explores the role of those who engage in intervention in foreign places where human rights have been violated. Most can agree that human rights are essential, but what are those rights? Food, water, and shelter are usually a given, but who decides what civil liberties entail? While some human rights seem obvious, others may be dependent upon context. Situations become even more complex when human rights violations occur and an external party intervenes. These issues, as Bruch argues, are multidimensional and one solution in one country may not work in another.

Bruch hopes to impart to her students an understanding that human rights must be critically engaged with, that they exist not as a bulleted list but an ever-shifting framework which must change as human need does.

Whether it is the enactment of a new electoral process or ordering lunch, it is important to consider the many different factors that shape a situation. She urges them to think of the effects of laws which may seem neutral but ultimately serve to categorize people. As she often asks her students, “How does the law cut as it categorizes?”

Written by: 
Zak Kaletka / December 21, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, Associate Director for Communications. johnbjr@uw.edu or 253-692-4536.