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University Receives the Country's First UNESCO Human Rights Chair (Released: 10/04/01)

By Allison Thompson, Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- The University of Connecticut has received the first and only UNESCO chair in human rights in the United States. Amii Omara-Otunnu, an associate professor of history, executive director of the Institute of Comparative Human Rights and executive director of the UConn-ANC Partnership, has been named as the first holder of the chair.

The chair is particularly significant in light of the fact that the United States is not a member of UNESCO, having withdrawn from the organization during the 1980s.

The chair, awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is intended to promote an integrated system of research, education, information and documentation in the field of human rights. It will serve as a means of facilitating collaboration between high-level, internationally recognized researchers and teaching staff at UConn and other institutions in the United States and other countries, particularly South Africa.

As the UNESCO chair in human rights, Omara-Otunnu will disseminate human rights information to the university, as well as across the state, nation and globe. He will also develop models and strategies for cross-national and cross-cultural dialogue on issues of race relations, democratic pluralism and peace.

"That UNESCO has selected the University of Connecticut to receive this chair, from among hundreds of prominent research universities, is a mark of distinction for the institution as a whole and particularly for the many members of our community whose work is focused heavily in the area of human rights. Notable among them, of course, is Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu himself, who spearheaded our partnership with South Africa's African National Congress and is a recognized leader in this area," said President Philip E. Austin.

Omara-Otunnu will also head an Institute of Comparative Human Rights, which will be associated with the chair. In the past, approaches to human rights have generally been developed from the standpoint of a particular nation or culture. Comparative human rights is based on the notion of a common humanity, the idea that what the various peoples of the world have in common is more significant than the differences.

"We consider that Professor Omara-Otunnu's great experience in the field of human rights as well as in other fields, in particular in peaceful conflict management and conflict prevention will permit him to successfully guide the activities of the chair," said Rudolf Joó, director of UNESCO's division of human rights, democracy, peace and tolerance.

Omara-Otunnu has led UConn's growing relationship with South Africa, a country that has rebuilt itself on the principles of social justice since the end of apartheid and that is widely considered a leader in the field of human rights. He was instrumental in establishing and is the executive director of the University of Connecticut-African National Congress Partnership, a collaborative initiative with South Africa's former leading anti-apartheid organization and current ruling political party.

Omara-Otunnu also founded and directed UConn's Center for Contemporary African Studies and established the university's linkage with the University of Fort Hare, South Africa's oldest and most illustrious historically black institution of higher learning.

Omara-Otunnu's longstanding involvement in and commitment to international human rights began during his days as a student leader at Uganda's Makerere University, where he spoke out against human rights abuses committed by dictator Idi Amin. Because of his stand, Omara-Otunnu was twice forced into exile from Uganda.

Omara-Otunnu has a bachelor's degree in social studies from Harvard University, a master's degree in political science from the London School of Economics, and a bachelor's degree in law and a doctorate in history from the University of Oxford in England.

Headquartered in Paris, UNESCO is one of several subsidiary specialized agencies that operate under the auspices of the United Nations. UNESCO was established in 1946 with the purpose of contributing to international peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture.

Launched in 1991, the UNESCO chairs program is intended to strengthen international cooperation between higher education institutions and programs and to foster academic solidarity in favor of developing countries. There are about 30 chairs in human rights in more than two dozen countries.

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