Magazine Feature / People

Scholar award winner sets sights on human rights

Micheline Ishay gets thank you notes from people living in war zones.

“They write me for having inspired them. There is nothing more rewarding than that,” says Ishay, a professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

She’s also the winner of the 2007–08 Distinguished Scholar Award, given annually by the University of Denver for significant achievement in scholarship through publications and classroom teaching.

One reason for the award is her book, The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Era of Globalization (University of California Press, 2004), which is used widely in universities around the globe.

“It’s exciting to see the book translated into languages I will never be able to read,” she says. “Yet the most heartwarming feeling is when the people living in war zones or under repressive regimes write to thank me,” she says.

She says her interest in human rights can be traced to her upbringing. She grew up in Israel and says the “relentless conflicting national aspirations of two peoples” strengthened her human rights worldview.

Later, she studied at the European School in Germany and Belgium where she says she learned of a “new Europe,” one of integration “that would transcend the rival nationalisms” that had culminated in two world wars. “That experience further deepened my understanding of universal values,” she says.

Korbel School Dean Tom Farer says Ishay helps make the Josef Korbel School “arguably the leader in human rights studies among all of the country’s professional schools of international affairs.”

How hopeful is she that nations can improve human rights?

“It would be foolish not to feel some trepidation born of past tragedy. At the same time, we need to be guided by optimism based on the reality of enormous progress in the effort to advance universal human rights. On balance, I am an optimist.”

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