Genocide, the risks to civilians in war zones and the unforeseen effects of the security state were among the issues addressed by leading figures in human rights law and policy at a UCLA School of Law symposium on April 17.

The Contemporary Challenges in Human Rights conference, presented by the law school’s International and Comparative Law Program, drew more than 220 attendees.

“Armed conflict, civil rights abuses, environmental challenges and genocide have prompted millions to have to migrate from their homelands, with great risk to their lives and health,” said Jennifer Mnookin, dean of UCLA Law. “Millions of others are dealing with the aftermath of atrocities and seeking redress and recognition in international tribunals. Today’s conference … aims to shed light on these phenomena and to identify paths toward progress, daunting as that task may be.”

Keynote speaker Geoffrey Robertson, a leading British human rights barrister and author, addressed the history and aftereffects of the Armenian genocide. Robertson represented Armenia before the European Court of Human Rights as part of that nation’s effort to get formal recognition for the mass killings of the 1910s, in which more than half of the Armenians living in what is now Turkey died. Robertson said two chief concerns that remain today are deciding who should be held accountable for the atrocity and understanding how to avoid repeating such horrific events.

“It wasn’t just a tragedy; it was a crime, the worst of all crimes,” Robertson said. Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day is now observed on April 24 of each year.

Another session examined the topic of accountability for genocide and other mass atrocities. UCLA Law professor Richard Steinberg presented research he and UCLA students had conducted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which revealed how the arrest of militia leaders who perpetrate mass violence speeds the demobilization of their foot soldiers. And Adama Dieng, the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, spoke about the value of accountability and reparations for mass violence.

“Justice is not just law,” Dieng said. “It goes beyond.”                                         

Jennifer Robinson, an attorney whose clients have included Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, spoke about national security and civil liberties. She warned that efforts to limit Assange’s activities, including his releasing of large quantities of documents that shed light on U.S. government spy programs, could be a great threat to national security reporting.

But John Villasenor, a UCLA professor of electrical engineering and of public policy, said that the efforts to block such leaks can have merit, particularly when disclosure puts lives in jeopardy. “Governments, including our government, do have a legitimate purpose in keeping some information classified,” he said, adding that this safeguard can live in harmony with First Amendment principles.

Dr. Jody Heymann, dean of UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, was among the panelists for a conversation about health and human rights in conflict and humanitarian settings. She pointed out that the world’s 150 million migrants are not guaranteed the right to education, work or health care under most national constitutions.

Fellow panelist Dr. Paul Wise of Stanford University School of Medicine focused on the child victims of conflict zones. “The death of any child is always a tragedy,” he said. “But the death of any child from preventable causes [like war] is always unjust.”

The one-day conference event, supported by the Ann C. Rosenfield Fund, coincided with the announcement of a $20 million gift to found the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law. The effort to create the institute was spearheaded by Dr. Eric Esrailian, a faculty member at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and the lead producer of the feature film “The Promise,” which is set during the Armenian genocide and opens in theaters on April 21.

Mnookin announced the Promise Institute’s inaugural faculty director will be Asli Bâli, UCLA professor of law, director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies and a leading expert on issues of constitution writing and religion in the Middle East.