Lessons from Prague: Human rights are universal, but how we see them depends on where we live

Prague: A window on a different world

 I personally believe that every trip officially begins once you reach the destination, you step outside and take that very first breath of air in a different environment. After months spent inhaling freezing Vermont air, and a dozen of hours breathing recycled airplane oxygen, stepping in the open-air of Prague was almost cathartic. I stood firmly outside just the time to fill my lungs with as much fresh air as possible, and for a second my mind brought me back to my home-country, Italy.

 A long frosty semester spent in Vermont buried by snow can play some tricks on your mind: Even if Italy and the Czech Republic have little in common, at first impression it felt familiar. At the end of the day, there are only a few European countries in between them, instead of an entire ocean.

  On the bus ride to the Anglo-American University, where the conference is hosted, by looking outside the window my mind kept comparing and flashing to my beloved Italy. I noticed people wearing stylish modish clothes and walking around the city smoking cigarettes and sipping espresso instead of diluted Dunkin’ coffee. I admired the combination of very modern and innovative building like the “Dancing House” designed by Vlado Milunić, standing next to ancient monuments dating back to war times. Tiny city cars were zigzagging between old bridges and narrow streets in order to pass slow trams and public buses.

  Finally, I saw green grass growing around wide parks, where people were enjoying the bright sun and the warm weather above 50 F, which will not occur regularly in Vermont for the next couple of months. From the nostalgic point of view of an Italian, Prague is a momentary cure for a homesick girl who has spent too much time in the light-deprived winter of Norwich University, yet an undiscovered city preserving an incredible turbulent history while following the European trend towards modernity and globalization.

Universal human rights, seen through different lenses

  The Interdisciplinary Conference on Human Rights officially kicked on on March 7. As I was sitting there listening for hours to special guests, professors, philosophers, explaining different aspects of human rights I realized how little I knew about this topic. (Since I traveled overseas to provide coverage of the event, I thought to myself, I might as well learn something while I am here!)

  A singular aspect that struck me the most during the opening ceremony was observing the different perspectives on the theme of human rights.

  On one side is the European perspective, embodied for the most part by Czech representatives and students from the Anglo-American University. The Czech Republic is still recovering from a past filled with human rights violations, led by the dictatorship of the communist regime and the violence of the secret police. The period during and following the second world conflict that ended in 1945 is remembered as a dark era by the Czech population, who keeps honoring and referring to the victims of its atrocities as a way to teach new generations about the importance of human rights.

  On the opposite side stands the United States, a country that has been light-years ahead compared to the rest of the world in the matter of human rights, to the point that their intervention was required multiple times in the past in order to restore and protect such rights during international conflicts. Yet, despite the progress that set an example for other nations, even the U.S. is currently going through a period of crisis. Rowland Brucken, history professor at Norwich University, pointed out in his opening talk how President Donald Trump’s government is shifting towards a decreasing commitment to human rights. He criticized how the American president’s foreign approach and concerns about white fragility are enhancing a climate of discrimination, weakening the human rights commitments that were a staple of American policy for decades.

  Despite the juxtaposition between an historical approach from the Czech perspective and a more contemporary one from the American point of view, both sides reconnected when exploring the universality of the goals of human rights. Human rights violations generate from radical ignorance, lack of legal protection, restrictive and dangerous environments and a fear to act, but particularly from silence. Silence to speak up during a wrongful or disrespectful situation, but also silence to speak up for ourselves, held back by the fear of consequences influenced by the surrounding environment.

  The conference saw hundreds of young students coming from different backgrounds, but it is just a tiny step towards the education of future generations regarding the protection of human rights. The best way to teach and increase awareness on the topic starts with individuals. Each one of us, by engaging in one-on-one conversation, can contribute in the shaping of future societies, free from violations that haunted the past generations.

 Listening to historical reviews and perspectives on human rights highlighted the importance that everyone’s role plays, the sense that even I, as a Norwich student, can have an impact in the bigger picture. Professor Brucken opened my eyes after simply thanking me for being here and writing about what goes on at the conference. Brucken, who contributed in the organization of the event and in my participation to the conference, remarked on the importance of media in reporting human rights in the past, as a way to preserve testimonies and teach from real life examples.

  What he said brought home to me that my role in covering this event is part of a much larger picture in the crucial campaign for human rights, since I am not just contributing stories on a brief three days conference, but creating an ever-lasting memory that will hopefully make an impact in the future generations.

A Personal Note

  Being an international and ESL student, I was not sure working for the Norwich Guidon as a copy and web editor would be a good fit for me, even if by now I can say I have mastered the English language. It still takes me longer than a native student to read, think, and type in English. But I guess I am an overachiever, and I needed a job, so I signed up for it, joined the Guidon crew, and with time, learned to do and love this job. Who knew that what began as a part-time job to raise some money (as any broke college student has to do) would one day take me oversea to the Czech Republic.

One of the most important lessons Norwich has taught me is that hard work always pays off. Here I am, someone who used to be a foreign freshman student barely able to put together a sentence in English, four years later attending the Interdisciplinary Human Rights Conference in Prague as a reporter and social media advisor – and all I ever did to so far was simply following the Norwich motto “I will try.”

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