Magazine Feature / People

Donnelly a pioneer in human rights scholarship

Jack Donnelly didn’t intend to become a pioneer in the study of human rights.

As a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1970s, Donnelly says he stumbled upon the topic while searching for a dissertation subject. He was a political theory and international relations student at the time.

“I thought, ‘Hey, nobody’s doing it. It makes sense, it’s fun, it’s significant. I could make a career out of it and feel good about it … OK, I’ll do it!’” says Donnelly, director of the Graduate School of International Studies PhD program.

Human rights advocacy and research expanded dramatically in the 1980s, and today it is a common topic in academia and the media.

Donnelly is considered an international expert in the academic study of human rights. He says his status is just a result of good timing.

“People who studied human rights 10 years before I did just studied it on the side,” he says. “I came on the scene at the right time.”

Yet Donnelly hasn’t relied on good luck or good timing for his achievements. He writes exhaustively about human rights, including three books—The Concept of Human Rights (Croom Helm, 1985), Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice (Cornell University Press, 2003) and International Human Rights (Westview Press, 1998)—and more than 50 articles and book chapters. His work has been translated into seven languages.

David Forsythe, professor of political science at the University of Nebraska and a fellow human rights pioneer, says Donnelly is “especially good at linking human rights to empirical as well as normative political theory.”

“[Donnelly’s] book Universal Human Rights is a central work in the field, and he is widely respected,” Forsythe says.

Donnelly says he’s most proud of the fact that human rights are now being discussed with an academic rigor that wasn’t possible when he began his work.

“When I started, I was trying to fit all of the pieces together,” he says. “Now, the pieces fit and we can talk about human rights in much more serious ways. And it is a true academic topic now. You can teach it right along with economics. That was unheard of in the 70s.”

He says it’s also heartening to hear human rights discussed in a broader sense.

“It used to be said that human-rights issues only happened in places that you had to fly over a large body of water to reach,” he says. “Today, we’re talking about wiretapping in the United States as a human-rights issue.”

His study of human rights led Donnelly to Iran where he met his wife, Katayoun Azizpour. She is now finishing her law degree at DU.

Donnelly says he enjoys teaching human rights as much as researching it.

“When I first started teaching human rights, I could read and assign practically everything out there,” he remembers. “Today, there’s no way. I find myself wishing I could read this or assign that. I suppose, in a way, I brought it on myself.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, May 2006.

Comments are closed.