In Memory of Wiktor Osiatynski

In Memory of Wiktor Osiatynski
Richard A. Wilson
Euro Pride Warsaw 2010 – Ewa Woydyłło + Wiktor Osiatyński

Wiktor Osiatynski made an enormous contribution to the human rights program at the University of Connecticut, serving as the first Visiting Gladstein Professor in 2000, and remaining vitally engaged until his death in April 2017. He returned each year to the University for over a decade, co-teaching human rights courses with junior and senior faculty, participating in Human Rights Institute conferences and workshops, advising the Director and Gladstein Committee and serving on the Board of Overseers of the Institute. Early on, Wiktor encouraged the University of Connecticut to concentrate on social and economic rights so as to complement the work already going on at other university programs.

Each Fall for about a decade, Wiktor and I co-taught a graduate course, “Contemporary Debates in Human Rights.” The format consisted of Wiktor and I taking half of the students and arguing opposing sides of a question, such as “Is security the most basic human right?”  Wiktor was an impossible opponent because he made unassailable arguments and possessed powerful rhetorical skills, whilst always remaining respectful and humorous.  This was a devastating combination and I found myself losing arguments more often than not, with the sting of defeat compounded by a row of students who were smiling at the result.  Wiktor connected with students through his humility, intellect and sense of fun.  They cherished him, and to this day I still read doctoral dissertations that draw inspiration from his writings and teaching.

During one of his visits in October 2006, I called Wiktor Osiatynski to see how he was getting on, as I hadn’t seen him in about a week. He was staying in a lonely cabin on a lake in a rural eastern Connecticut setting surrounded by 50 acres of woods. Was he alright?  “Yes! Yes!  I am in love!” he replied.  This confused me a little and I replied, “But Ewa is not coming to visit for another week, so how are you in love?”  He answered, “I am in love with this nature, with the color of the trees.  I am so happy that I am writing my human rights book every day.”  That year, Wiktor completed his magnum opus on human rights, Human Rights and Their Limits (Cambridge University Press, 2009), which is still the best textbook available on the subject for advanced university students. The book is accurately characterized by Andrzej Rapaczynski as exhibiting a “passionate moderation,” as it defines both what human rights can and cannot achieve.

What started as a professional relationship developed into a friendship where I came to admire Wiktor’s many qualities.  He possessed a remarkable generosity of spirit based in his experience as an alcoholic and after many decades setting up dozens of Alcoholics Anonymous chapters in Poland and Russia with his wife Ewa.  Apart from his family, this is what Wiktor cared most about; helping others who were struggling with their addiction. And the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, live performances of which seemed to coincide curiously often with his plans to travel to different countries.

Wiktor accepted the flaws and weaknesses in himself and others in a balanced, wise way. His equanimity permeated his writing also. He was a constitutional scholar who prioritized civil and political rights, but he allowed a prominent role for socio-economic rights and recognized that without housing, education, health care and social security, civil-political rights will ultimately be in jeopardy. His perspective on society was fundamentally historical and shaped by the experience of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century and he used to joke that societies that almost had revolutions were the best off. He had a tragic sense of Polish history. He once told me how he loved to hike in the mountains and when I asked him if there were any near to Warsaw he quipped, “No. Warsaw is on a flat plain, to make it easier for German tanks to roll across from the West and then Russian tanks from the East.”

Wiktor remained curious about the world and flexible in his thinking throughout his life. He was one of the very few scholars I have known who is willing to openly admit “I was wrong, and you changed my mind.”  This, I realized, was why Wiktor’s scholarship on human rights was so impressive and durable. Not because Wiktor was so smart and well-read, although that helped.  Not even because he had so much political and historical experience as a dissident imprisoned during Jaruzelski’s martial law and as one of the authors of the post-Communist Polish Constitution. But because he accepted the crooked timber of humanity and still held on to a realistic hope of things getting better, and he never lost sight of the fact that love and solidarity are always preferable to the claiming of rights.