Climate Change, AI, and Criminal Justice: Transatlantic Partnership Dives Deep on Human Rights

A partnership between Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg bears fruit in scholarship and engagement

Aerial shot of UConn from Rte. 195, looking west.

The 30-year partnership between Connecticut and the German state of Baden-Württemberg has led to the establishment of the Human Rights Research Consortium, which promotes and supports academic collaboration between researchers and research groups at universities and other research institutions (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

What type of rights do robots have when they cross the street to deliver groceries?

What are the human rights responsibilities of corporations in our global society?

Can predictive algorithms really predict what a person will do, and is it just to use them when sentencing people convicted of crimes?

How should we think about human rights at this day and age when we realize that climate change is giving us, as humanity, enormous challenges?

These topics – and many, many more – are at the forefront of a flourishing network of scholarship and collaboration through the Connecticut/Baden-Württemberg Human Rights Research Consortium, or HRRC – an international, interdisciplinary, and inter-institutional partnership that promotes and supports academic collaboration between researchers and research groups at universities and other research institutions in Connecticut and the German state of Baden-Württemberg.

“It’s really unique – I don’t know of any other binational network with the same specific human rights research focus anywhere in the world,” says Sebastian Wogenstein, an associate professor of German and comparative literature in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a founding director of the HRRC. “And we’re building on the Connecticut school of human rights research.”

Fruits of a Longstanding Partnership

Established just two and a half years ago, the HRRC grew from the more than 30-year relationship between the sister states of Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg. Established in 1989, the Baden-Württemberg – Connecticut Partnership was created in order to help facilitate the mobility of both German and American students attending institutions of higher education in both states.

The partnership was administered by the Connecticut Office of Higher Education until July 2015 when it was transferred to UConn. Participating colleges and universities in Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg invite their students and faculty to take part in exchange and mobility programs aimed at sharing knowledge and offering education opportunities to students in both states.

In the years since its inception, however, the partnership has grown into far more than just a student exchange. It’s also cultivated new programs for faculty as well as collaborative research in a variety of fields – affirming a commitment to intellectual freedom, educational excellence, and international cooperation – with one of its components, the HRRC, putting a particular focus on human rights research as well as research-based teaching and outreach.

“For both of us, the Human Rights Institute has been an intellectual home at UConn – a forum where you have people from different disciplines working together,” explains Wogenstein of himself and his founding co-director, Katharina von Hammerstein, a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emerita of German Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “That was the model for this consortium. We thought that we could build something like the Human Rights Institute; not in terms of its institutional structure, but as a network that would include colleagues from various institutions in Baden-Württemberg and in Connecticut, a network that promotes collaboration on different issues relating to human rights. And it’s really worked out well.”

Such partnerships between two states that don’t share English as a primary language are unusual, say Kathryn Libal, an associate professor of social work and human rights in the UConn School of Social Work and the director of UConn’s nationally and internationally recognized Human Rights Institute, and was made possible by the longstanding Baden-Württemberg – Connecticut Partnership.

“The Human Rights Research Consortium expands the network of interdisciplinary research on human rights in a novel way,” says Libal. “The consortium creates not only bridges of inquiry and research between our varied institutions, but also is poised to engage publics in both Connecticut and Baden-Württemberg in some of the most critical questions of our time.”

“HRRC is providing what hardly any consortium can do: genuine interdisciplinary, transatlantic work,” says Silja Voeneky, a professor of public international law, comparative law, and ethics of law at the University of Freiburg and one of the HRRC’s co-directors. “These foundations are decisive that something special can emerge – an active research community in the field of human rights research, with its various transnational and international references, which can respond to pressing problems.”

Expanding in the US, and Around the Globe

The HRRC launched in March 2020, just as the global coronavirus pandemic was beginning – their first conference quickly shifted to a virtual affair in May of that year. But while the early days of the pandemic made travel between Connecticut and Germany impossible, they didn’t hinder interest or collaboration that quickly began to take place through the network.

“Despite the fact that we are only two-and-a-half years old, and the pandemic has really been a challenge, through hard work we have created a name for the HRRC,” says von Hammerstein. “We have gained a reputation to the extent that people beyond Connecticut and beyond Baden-Württemberg want to join, and we now have associate members from various universities in Germany, in South Korea, and other universities in the United States.”

The HRRC now boasts nearly 100 members from various parts of the world. At the consortium’s core are its working groups, each focused on a different area of collaboration: human rights, science, and technology; the philosophical foundations of human rights; human rights and international relations; and human rights education and solidarity. A fifth working group is dedicated to graduate students working in the field.

The HRRC also works on outreach events in local communities and in schools, hosts monthly virtual “salons” – expert talks and discussions across disciplinary, institutional, and national boundaries – that are open to both consortium members and the public, and offers an annual conference. This year’s conference, held in May on campuses at UConn Storrs and Hartford, marked the first time since the group’s creation that members and other interested parties were able to meet in-person.

“It was the very first in-person meeting anyone from this consortium had, and that in itself sparked so much conversation, so many outcomes, over a cup of coffee,” says von Hammerstein. “You don’t have that on Zoom. The sparks, in a positive sense, were flying and the working groups were developing even more collaborative projects.”

Beginning a New Phase

While focused in particular on issues involving the environment and sustainability, the conference also touched on issues involving criminal justice reform, responsible artificial intelligence, biotechnology, insurance, business ethics, supporting scholars in need of personal and academic refuge, and the war in Ukraine.

“In my view the conference showed in a special way how interdisciplinary our consortium works and how much it also succeeds in promoting to connect established scholars and early career scientists,” says Voeneky. “The conference also demonstrated what has been the core of HRRC since the beginning: networking within Baden-Württemberg and across the Atlantic in the field of human rights research and education, interdisciplinary collaborative work, and discussion of pressing human rights issues.”

It also marked the start of a second phase for the consortium, says von Hammerstein, where ongoing and new collaborations at three focus areas – research, education, and outreach – have taken shape into concrete projects. Individual partners and work groups have plans for joint transatlantic graduate course sessions on human rights as early as this fall; virtual lecture series; collaborations with high schools to teach about anti-racism and anti-Semitism; an ongoing criminal justice project focused on prison reform and incarceration reduction; and a summer workshop series on topics including sustainability, democracy and autocracy, and the human right to healthcare.

And that’s in addition to the more traditional academic partnerships around research and faculty publications that continue to grow from the consortium.

“If we all sit in our silos, in our own discipline, we do not get as inspired as we do when we receive input – especially at the theoretical level and the practical level – from a different discipline,” says von Hammerstein. “It inspires our research, and that research has an enormous impact on teaching and outreach on human rights topics. This conference helped us make those collaborations concrete.”

Those collaborations between researchers in Connecticut and in Germany are only expected to grow in the coming years, especially in the face of global political, societal, and environmental challenges that continue to implicate issues of human rights both at home and around the world.

“With all the challenges we face, nationally and internationally,” says Voeneky, “such a research community across borders is an invaluable asset.”


Open to the public and offered online, the Human Rights Research Consortium’s next monthly Salon will be held on June 2 on the topic of Sustainable Development Goals and featuring
Stephen Sonnenberg from the Seoul National University School of Law in South Korea. For more information, visit hrrc.bwgermany.uconn.edu/events.