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On July 1, Dr. Kathleen Cavanaugh will join the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights as its new Executive Director. A socio-legal scholar with a background in human rights law, international law, and politics, Kathleen comes to the Pozen Center after 20 years of teaching and administration at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, one of the preeminent human rights centers in Europe. Faculty Director Mark Bradley notes that Kathleen brings to the Center “a remarkable record in human rights scholarship and practice.” 

In addition to publishing extensively, Kathleen has held the position of Chair of the Executive Committee of Amnesty International Ireland, been a member of the International Policy Committee of Amnesty International, and served as a board member of Amnesty International USA. As a consultant, she has undertaken numerous missions on behalf of Amnesty International including to Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq, where she focused on the conduct of the occupying powers with relation to detention and security. She has conducted trainings for governmental and non-governmental organizations throughout the Middle East, India, and the Republic of Ireland.

College and Masters-level students may be interested in the two Autumn Quarter courses Kathleen will be teaching, both of which resonate with our unprecedented political moment. Many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic dovetail with Kathleen’s expertise in securitization, militant democracy, preventative states, and states of emergency; her Autumn courses offer an ideal place for students to explore how these concepts are playing out in the current global landscape. 

“Whilst a number of jurisdictions have taken executive orders or states of exception ostensibly to deal with COVID-19, what has actually happened in many jurisdictions is that sweeping powers have been seized by the executive,” Kathleen says. “Once COVID-19 is behind us, these powers will remain. The ramifications for civil liberties are quite worrying.” 

Her first Autumn course, Militant Democracy and the Preventative State, examines whether or not states of exception are still, in fact, exceptional. “The answer to that,” Kathleen asserts, “is no.” 

States of exception are often lawful and constitutionally allowed but are meant to be temporary and constrained by law. Yet once a state of exception is enacted, the ability to control the state becomes circuitous: “The executive becomes the legal authority, and the legal authority becomes the executive.” Given this, the course argues that the line between states of normalcy and states of exception “have almost become inextricably fused.”

The key text in Militant Democracy and the Preventative State is a work of fiction: J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The willingness to build a human rights course around a novel is characteristic of Kathleen’s pedagogy. 

“Students want to understand these issues through a holistic lens,” she says. “How do you use different disciplines, languages, different parts of the academic toolkit to ignite a student’s interest in what’s going on around them?” 

Kathleen’s second Autumn course is The Politics of Law, which examines narratives that frame the ways we think about law—particularly human rights law—as pre-political. In contrast, Kathleen argues that international law is best understood not as a stable set of normative demands opposed to international politics but “as an aspect of hegemonic contestation, in which states articulate political claims in terms of legal rights and duties.” 

She asserts that constructive ambiguity “has led to contestations over what is actually meant by some of the language within international law. What do we mean by ‘an occupying power,’ or ‘the prohibition on torture,’ or ‘freedom of religion’? You are told you have a right to something, and yet there are all of these contexts in which the state can take away that right in a perfectly lawful way.”

Kathleen describes her teaching style as “very Socratic”; she enjoys giving her students a piece of writing and then facilitating as they “talk around that writing.” Her Autumn courses draw on seminal yet often overlooked writers in the field, including those from the Global South, as she seeks “to bring in voices that may not be the voices students have typically been exposed to when looking at rights-based discourse.” 

“I hope both of these courses will ignite an imagination of what it is to do work in human rights,” Kathleen says. “It’s not just about the law or what human rights are, but about the entire context in which we’re living right now.”

That context is never far from Kathleen’s mind. She has conducted extensive fieldwork all over the world, including throughout the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. She traveled to Iraq as part of an Amnesty mission in 2003, at the beginning of the occupation by US and coalition forces. There was, she adds, a window of hope in those early days—a type of exhale as civil society awakened to a post-Saddam Hussein world. 

She recalls one moment that left a particular impression. While Kathleen was in Basra, some local Iraqi artists came to her hotel to promote an upcoming art exhibit. They slid notes under guests’ doors, declaring their intention to set up shop nearby. “They were going to do something they hadn’t been able to do before,” Kathleen remembers. “They were going to display their art.”

The exhibition was held in the hollow, bombed-out shell of what was once a government building. “It was poetry, paintings—it was artists who for the first time felt freedom,” Kathleen says. “They brought some of their older work that they had been doing covertly and could now finally display, this act of resistance. It was a really brilliant moment.”  

The show wasn’t intended to have a theme, but Kathleen noticed that the work had a deep resonance with human rights issues. “That had happened organically. Most of the work was about a right denied,” she says. “A right denied expressed in canvas, or in poetry, or in clothing.”

For Kathleen, the enduring legacy of that art show in Iraq and can be summed up rather simply: “the things we talk about and teach about in human rights can be expressed in so many ways.”

Kathleen bought two paintings from an Iraqi political artist. She hopes to hang one of them in her new office at the Pozen Center.