Campus News

Counterterrorism, electoral politics focus of Des Forges symposium

Photo illustration of a militant.

Presenters at the  “International Symposium on Counterterrorism, Electoral Politics and Human Rights” will range from Julia Hall, expert on counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International, to Eric Topfer, senior researcher and policy adviser for the German Institute for Human Rights.


Published April 19, 2017

Counterterrorism measures that result in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and elections providing opportunities for racist demagoguery and nativist discrimination have been recent topics of discussion.

To enhance our understanding of the complex and sometimes counter-intuitive relationships among these concepts, experts from leading human rights organizations and universities in New York State will gather at UB on April 27 for a daylong “International Symposium on Counterterrorism, Electoral Politics and Human Rights.”

Presenters will range from Julia Hall, expert on counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International, to Eric Topfer, senior researcher and policy adviser for the German Institute for Human Rights.

The free, public event will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in 107 Capen Hall, North Campus.

It will be followed by a scholarship fund dinner in Buffalo that benefits students interested in human rights.

Both the symposium and dinner honor the memory of Alison L. Des Forges, a member of the UB community who fought to call the world’s attention to another great humanitarian crisis: the genocide in Rwanda.

Des Forges, an internationally known historian and Buffalo native, was an adjunct member of the UB history faculty during the 1990s and received an honorary doctorate from SUNY during UB’s 155th general commencement ceremony in 2001.

She was one of the world’s leading authorities on Rwanda, serving as an expert witness in 11 trials at the United Nations International Criminal Court for Rwanda. Her award-winning book, “Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda,” was a landmark account of the 1994 genocide, and her tireless efforts to awaken the international community to the horrors that occurred earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999.

The symposium will open with registration and welcoming remarks at 9 a.m., followed by panels focusing on Africa, Europe and the U.S.

The Africa panel, which runs from 9:30-11 a.m., includes the following presentations:

  • “Human Rights in the Context of Elections in Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda”
    Sarah Jackson, deputy regional director, Amnesty International (via Skype)
    This presentation will discuss elections and human rights abuses in Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda.

  • “International Responses to Human Rights Crises in Sudan and Southern Sudan”
    Jehanne Henry, senior researcher, Africa Division, Human Rights Watch
    Henry first will discuss Sudan and how international responses to crises there have been fueled by competing priorities. She then will talk about how the referendum that led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011 failed to address the long legacy of conflict, deep deprivation or the absence of democratic institutions, resulting in a newly independent country soon becoming mired in a new civil war.

  • “Political Process, Inclusion and Citizen Satisfaction with Governance in West Africa”
    Ryan Dalton, program officer, Central and West Africa, National Democratic Institute
    While conflict is a ubiquitous and healthy part of a democracy, the risk of violence and terrorism mounts when a political system is characterized by weak, unaccountable institutions, exclusive policies that favor some groups at the expense of others, and marginalized groups’ lack of access to political power.  Dalton will discuss activists in West Africa who are working to make the political process more inclusive and to hold elected officials to account.

The Europe panel, which runs from noon to 1:30 p.m., includes the following presentations:

  • “Recasting Refugees as Terrorists: Populist Exploitation of the National Security Narrative in European Electoral Politics”
    Julia Hall, expert on counterterrorism and human rights, Amnesty International

A number of European politicians have deliberately conflated the refugee crisis with terrorism, raising fear and distrust among their populations of refugees and migrants seeking safe haven in Europe. With elections in Germany, Netherlands, France and Turkey in 2017, Hall will discuss the ways that political leaders have exploited the refugee crisis for electoral gain, and the necessity of confronting the notion that refugees bring terrorism to Europe and pose a threat to national security.

  • “European Complicity in U.S. Drone Attacks and Mass Surveillance”
    Eric Topfer, senior researcher and policy adviser, German Institute for Human Rights
    The prosecution of European complicity in more recent human rights violations in the “global war on terror” is still at an early stage. Topfer will outline how revelations about the role of Ramstein Air Base in the U.S. drone war and the contribution of German intelligence to “targeted killings” have been explored   through the parliamentary investigation of global mass surveillance and counterterrorism cooperation.

  • Turkey’s AKP after the July 15 Coup Attempt: Moving toward End Game”
    Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of history, St. Lawrence University
    An attempted military coup this past July has shaken Turkey in fundamental ways.  Taking to social media, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called his supporters to the streets, where they faced down tanks. By daylight, the attempted coup was broken. However, Erdoğan used this victory to accelerate his crackdown on potential opposition, detaining more than 100,000 and sacking more than 125,000 civil servants. Turkey’s once vibrant and diverse civil society has been gutted and its democracy is in tatters. It now faces an uncertain future of authoritarianism and instability.

The United States panel, which runs from 2-3:30 p.m., includes the following presentations:

  • “National Security and Human Rights in the U.S.”
    Naureen Shah, director, Security with Human Rights, Amnesty International
    Shah will discuss ways in which the Trump administration has threatened human rights in the name of national security, the effectiveness of public resistance and  barriers created by the normalization of a global war paradigm that has existed since the 9/11 attacks.

  • “U.S. Counterterrorism and Human Rights Post Presidential Election”
    Laura Pitter, senior U.S. national security counsel, Human Rights Watch
    U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump made counterterrorism the cornerstone of his campaign. But there is a problem: The policies he espoused during the campaign are not only contrary to U.S. values, but pursuing them threatens U.S. national security. Pitter will discuss the dangers these campaign proposals pose, and the damage many of them have already done to U.S. national security, human rights, the rule of law and the ability of the U.S. to promote these values globally.

  • “National Security and Recent Changes in U.S. Immigration Policy”
    Nicole Hallett, assistant clinical professor of law and director, Community Justice Clinic, UB School of Law
    Hallett will discuss the securitization of U.S. immigration policy, including the “Muslim Ban,” and reframing of the U.S. refugee resettlement program; the Central American refugee crisis; and illegal immigration as national security threats. However, lesser-known policy changes have the potential to affect the human rights of an even greater number of immigrants within the U.S. Hallett will discuss these policy changes and explore avenues for protecting the human rights of immigrants affected by them.

Sponsors include the Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Committee; Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy; Community for Global Health Equity; Department of Comparative Literature; the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; Department of History; Humanities Institute; James Agee Chair in American Culture; Samuel P. Capen Chair, Department of Philosophy; Department of Political Science; and the Office of the Vice Provost for International Education.

Scholarship dinner

A scholarship dinner and discussion after the symposium will support an endowment that funds Alison L. Des Forges Memorial Scholarships for Buffalo Public Schools graduates demonstrating a strong interest in pursuing studies at UB related to human rights and social justice.

The dinner, which costs $100 per seat, takes place from 6:30-9:30 p.m. on April 27 at the Jacobs Executive Development Center, 672 Delaware Ave., Buffalo.

Reservations are required, and guests may RSVP by contacting Kathleen Curtis at 716-645-2077 or