The Research Program on Humanitarianism

The Program

The Research Program on Humanitarianism aims to bring the contributions of the humanities—history, art history, literature, and philosophy—as well as the more qualitative social sciences into the mainstream of human rights discourse. Building on the core belief that humanistic approaches are necessary to understand and confront in any ethical and effective manner the major crises facing our current global society, its goal is to create space for interdisciplinary dialogue and innovative scholarship on pressing human rights and humanitarian issues generally dominated by perspectives from law, policy, and political science.

The program was originally founded in 2005 by Dr. Richard Wilson, the director of the University of Connecticut’s Human Rights Institute, and Dr. Richard Brown, then director of the university’s Humanities Institute, under the title Foundations of Humanitarianism Research and Teaching Program. Its first research initiative involved tracing the intellectual, social, and cultural origins of the ethos of humanitarianism—the ideology and sensibility that has generated and sustained assertions of human rights for at least the past two centuries. This research project led to the international conference “Humanitarianism and Narratives of Inflicted Suffering” (Fall 2006) and to the publication of Wilson and Brown’s edited volume Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Since then, under the direction of Dr. Alexis Dudden (History), Dr. Kerry Bystrom (English), and now Dr. Eleni Coundouriotis (English) the program has broadened its early emphasis on the historical construction of humanitarianism to explore issues in contemporary human rights, humanitarian law, and humanitarian intervention. It further works to assess the future of humanitarianism in relation to rival paradigms that articulate the connections and responsibilities that individuals, states, and transnational groups have to other human beings and the shared world in which they live. Specific threads of research include: the shifting meanings of humanitarianism and responsibility in the era of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine; the history of human right campaigns; gender in humanitarian and human rights reportage;  the role of mass media and alternative forms of new media in shaping human rights and humanitarian advocacy work; and the politics of refugee crises and refugee camps.

The program fosters interdisciplinary dialogue and research innovation in two core ways. First, it sponsors broadly-themed conferences, lectures, and other events that draw together and create lively intellectual exchanges between members of the University of Connecticut community as well as scholars and citizens beyond our campus. Second, it supports a number of small and intensive faculty reading groups and workshops. These reading groups pursue changing themes of specific interest to group members, often bringing in outside magnet scholars or artists of high stature to engage with research in development here at the Storrs campus.


The Program is currently under the direction of Dr. Eleni Coundouriotis, Associate Professor of English faculty website.

Upcoming Events

Lecture by Ilana Feldman (George Washington University). February 7, 2012 at 4 pm. (more details to follow)

Past Events

Panel Discussion: Teaching Human Rights in Literary and Cultural Studies. 
Tuesday, October 02, 2012, 4pm - 6pm, CLAS, 217, Storrs Campus.

Discussion with Co-Directors of Breaking the Silence 
Thursday, October 04, 2012, 4pm - 5:30pm, Laurel 206, Storrs Campus.

Workshop on "Post-Humanitarian Communication" with Prof. Lilie Chouliaraki, director of the PhD Programme in Media and Communications, London School of Economics. Sunday March 25, 2012 2:30 - 5:30 PM in Art Building 222

Lecture “World Citizenship and Complicitous Consumption” by Prof. Jennifer Wenzel, University of Michigan. Wednesday March 28, 2012 at 3:30 PM in CLAS 217

Public Roundtable Discussion "Humanitarianism and its Ghosts: Responding to Famine in Somalia." For more information, click here. Wednesday April 11, 2012 at 2 PM in Humanities Institute Library (3rd Floor of CLAS).

Reading Groups

The Research Program on Humanitarianism at the University of Connecticut is sponsoring 3 faculty study groups for AY 2011-12. See below for descriptions and contact information.

Human Rights, Humanitarianism and the Media Study Group, 2011-2012
Conveners: Kerry Bystrom (English), Kathy Libal (Social Work), and Michael Orwicz (Art History)

Beginning in 2009, this group has met regularly to study the intersection of human rights, humanitarianism, and the media. Since the rise of mass media in the early Twentieth century, intellectuals have shown discomfort with the visual register of modernity. Susan Sontag’s famous thesis in On Photography (1973) that photographs inhibit rather than assist people in their efforts to understand tragic events like war is a case in point. However, and as many commentators have pointed out, human rights activism and campaigns for humanitarian causes now take place largely on the visual plane.  The aim of this group is work through recent scholarship charting the complex relationship that has developed between visual and print media, public culture, and individual action. Along with theoretical texts on this topic by scholars such as Ariella Azoulay, Luc Boltanski, Allen Feldman, Lilie Chouliaraki and Thomas Keenan, we have examined the reportage of cases of specific interest to members of the group. In May 2009, the group hosted a Human Rights Institute Faculty Workshop on the topic “Beyond Suffering: Human Rights, Humanitarianism and the Media.”

Spring 2012 Event Schedule:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 : Kelly Matheson: WITNESS & Video Advocacy  (article will be distributed; browse WITNESS website in advance)
5:30 PM - 7:00 PM Dodd Conference Room 162

Tuesday, March 06, 2012 : Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, 2009
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM Dodd Conference Room 162

Sunday, March 25, 2012 : Lilie Chouliaraki visit (readings provided in advance)
2:30 -  5:30 Art Building 222

Thursday, April 12, 2012 : Sharon Sliwinski, Human Rights in Camera, Chicago, 2011
5:00 PM - 6:30 PM Dodd Conference Room 162

For more information or to join the group, please email Kerry Bystrom ( or Kathy Libal (

Origins and Evolution of Humanitarian Thought Study Group, 2011-2012
Conveners: Emma Gilligan (History/HRI) and Glenn Mitoma (HRI)

Over the course of the academic year 2010-2011, the Humanitarianism History reading group met regularly to discuss articles and books on the topic of the origins and evolution of humanitarian thought. Among the books covered were Mark Mazower's No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Samuel Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, and Eyes off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955 by Carol Anderson. The group read and discussed a range of articles by Clodagh Tait, David Edwards, Pádraig Lenihan, Micheál Ó Siochrύ and selections from Richard Wilson's recent book, Writing History in International Criminal Trials.

Spring 2012 Event Schedule

Wednesday, March 7th 2-3:30pm where we will discuss Reza Afshari, "On Historiography of Human Rights Reflections on Paul Gordon Lauren's The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen" and the Introduction to Paul Gordon Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen.

Wednesday, April 18th 2-3:30 pm where we will discuss Johannes Morsink, Inherent Human Rights: Philosophical Roots of the Universal Declaration.

Both meeting will be held in the Humanities Institute.

We welcome graduate students and participants from outside institutions. For all of those interested in participating, please contact Emma Gilligan at (

Narrative and Human Rights Study Group, 2011-2012
Convener: Sarah Winter (English)

In previous years, the goal of this group has been to investigate how narrative representations function to convey understanding and urgency in the field of human rights. We began studying the uses of narrative broadly defined across genres and disciplines, including, history, philosophy, literature, literary theory, law, journalism, rhetoric, and psychology. Working across historical periods and instances when human rights have come into question since the eighteenth century, we have been particularly interested in investigating the locations and opportune moments of human rights narratives: where and on what kinds of formal and informal occasions such stories are elicited and told, not only in texts but also in legal testimony, private letters, photographs, or archival documents. One of our goals has been to develop historically-based methods of analysis to determine how narratives about human rights, whether violated or upheld, can emerge into larger public awareness, and how the effects of such accounts on political or humanitarian response and action can be demonstrated.

Spring 2012 Event Schedule

Tuesday, February 28 5:30 PM - 7:00 PM in Dodd Conference Room 162.
Special Multi-Reading Group Meeting and Dinner with Kelly Matheson, attorney, filmmaker and Program Manager at WITNESS, on the topic of video advocacy for women in the Democratic Republic of Congo <>

Thursday March 8 4:00 - 5:30 PM in the small conference room at HRI
Readings: from the UNHCR report  "DRC: Mapping Human Rights Violations 1993-2003"

TBA: Further meetings to discuss Didier Fassin's Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present and to meet with Garth Myers, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies at Trinity College  <>

For all of those interested, please contact Sarah Winter (

Past Events


Fall 2008: In the Balance: Humanitarianism and Responsibility (
**Papers from this conference and more recent responses to the question of humanitarianism and responsibility are currently being collated for a special edition of the Journal of Human Rights, co-edited by Kerry Bystrom and Glenn Mitoma, scheduled for publication in December 2012

Fall 2006: Humanitarianism and Narratives of Inflicted Suffering (
**A collection of papers from this conference was published as an edited volume by Richard A. Wilson and Richard D. Brown, Humanitarianism and Suffering: The Mobilization of Empathy (Cambridge UP 2009)


“Afghanistan in the Vortex: Humanitarianism in Question,” roundtable discussion with policy analysts, reporters, and practitioners (April 2011)

“The Arts and Human Rights in Latin America: Perspectives from Marcelo Brodsky and Alfredo Jaar,” a public presentation by two of the foremost Latin American artists (March 2010)

Lectures by prominent scholars including Dr. Keith Watenpaugh (Religious Studies and Human Rights, UC Davis) and Dr. Eduardo Cadava (English and Comparative Literature, Princeton)

Co-sponsorship of Connecticut Repertory Theatre productions including David Edgar’s compelling play on refugee crises, Pentecost, directed by Gary English (December 2007)