Peter James Spielmann founded a seminar at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism focusing on the challenges of reporting human rights abuses, at home and overseas, and taught it from 2001-2006.

Elements of the seminar were adapted and taught in 2008 at American University of Kuwait as "International Reporting: Special Topics," on a Fulbright Senior Specialist grant.

The atrocities that took place in the 20th century, particularly during World War II, provoked the international community to endorse the concept of universal human rights. More recent genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda and the Balkans escalated pressure on governments to begin instituting international courts and legal regimes to apprehend and try violators. But the outbreak of ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan shows that deterrence has not curbed massive human rights abuses.

In the seminar, we explore the history of the concept of human rights, and recent innovations in the enforcement of human rights law. Particular stress is placed on the practical and ethical challenges facing reporters and investigators who cover human rights, in the United States and overseas.

Students examine and report on international rights violations in the New York City region. These may include subjects such as immigrants seeking refugee status, migrants held indefinitely without trial on "secret evidence," police tactics, racial profiling, prison overcrowding, the death penalty, sweatshop labor, and the moral responsibility of multinational business for human rights.

The course is designed for students who will work as reporters and editors, and those who may join advocacy organizations or international institutions.

At all times, we focus on how rights are observed in our own back yard:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt --

For a copy of the syllabus, e-mail:

Peter James Spielmann is an editor and supervisor at the North America Desk of The Associated Press. He has also been a United Nations and foreign correspondent for the AP.

He previously taught the "U.N. and Diplomatic Reporting" course for Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and was an adjunct for "International Reporting."

Click here for a brief biography

Click here to link to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism

Columbia University has an extensive variety of undergraduate and graduate-level human rights courses in many academic disciplines:


A roundup of human rights stories related to business, economics, and social conditions:

Texts for the fundamental human rights treaties and U.N. documents:

Human Rights Watch home page:

Amnesty International's home page:

Physicians for Human Rights home page:

Crimes of War page, discussing human rights and war crime concepts:

Human Rights First home page:

International Center for Transitional Justice:

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights home page:

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees home page:

The U.S. State Department's human rights page, including reports on problems in other countries:

The International Criminal Court's home page:

The official site of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia:

The Committee to Protect Journalists, defending oppressed reporters and editors:

Invaluable assistance in developing this seminar has been provided by:

International Reporting Project

Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma