Alina Utrata '17, one of the first Stanford students to graduate with a minor in Human Rights (HR), spoke to an audience of undergraduates about opportunities available through the Handa Center, as well as life after graduation. The Stanford Daily's Regina Kong covered the talk in an article.
“The Handa Center was one of the most important – if not the most important – parts of my undergraduate experience,” Utrata said.
She detailed her summer fellowships in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cambodia. In Bosnia, she expanded her understanding of transitional justice processes at the Balkan Institute for Conflict Resolution, Responsibility and Reconciliation in Sarajevo, studying the impacts of the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia. “What does it look like the day after you sign a peace agreement?” Utrata recalled asking herself. “How do you piece communities back together that have experienced these horrible, horrible periods of violence? Can you ever really do that? What does that look like? How does it start?” The following summer, she observed and documented the war crimes tribunal Case 002 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
She recently completed her MA in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice through Queen's University Belfast as a 2017 Marshall Scholar. Her Master's dissertation focused on the perceptions of the Royal Ulster Constabulary about their role policing Northern Ireland before, during and after the conflict.
Alina discussed some of the challenges of human rights work generally, such as how practitioners can cope with weighty issues. She also detailed potentially negative consequences to HR work, including seemingly minor considerations such as how to develop appropriate interview questions. “We’ve underestimated, in terms of research, the impact that interviewing people has,” Utrata said. “But actually, interviewing people can be re-traumatizing.” “I started my fellowship with the goal of not doing any harm,” she added.
Human rights workers and academics don’t often see immediate results, she said. Especially early in their careers, they need to understand that they may end up not making a major impact, she said, but rather simply learning about the people, context and the work itself. “For me the postgraduate journey has been letting go of ‘Okay, I’m not going to be able to solve everything,’” she said. “The older I get, the more I feel that each of those individual, tiny acts of kindness – that I felt were really insignificant at the time – were actually the building blocks of all the kindness in the world,” Utrata said.