“When you are working with people, you make relationships; when they are on TV they are faceless,” says Oxford humanitarian ethics scholar Hugo Slim. When he was working with Save the Children doing relief work during the famine in the Horn of Africa in the 1980s, he says he never broke down while surrounded by thin and dying people. But when he returned to England and watched the famous Band Aid music video with a slow motion image of a skinny child from a refugee camp in Korem, Ethiopia where he had once worked, “Then I cried, watching it.”
Slim will be giving a Nov. 20 talk at the UO called “The State of Human Rights: The Challenge of Humanitarian Action.”
Slim is coming to Eugene as the 2013-14 Savage Professor of International Relations and Peace, and his visit is part of a new collaboration between the UO and Oxford, focusing on issues of global human rights and peace.
Professor David Frank of the UO Honors College says the collaboration, which not only brings Oxford scholars to the UO but also sends Oregon students to Oxford, comes out of 25 years of peace activities on campus. He attributes the vision for the program to Cheyney Ryan, who is a professor for half the year at the UO and half at Merton College at Oxford. Frank says the fact the UO has a relationship with Oxford — the oldest English-speaking university on the planet — tells people the Oregon is a place to send their sons and daughters for school.
Slim, whose background is in theology, has not only worked doing humanitarian aid, he has also written, researched and consulted on humanitarian ethics and on political mediation in armed conflicts. He is currently senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. He says in his youth when he began doing aid work, he went out to a refugee camp in Sudan “with a degree in theology and part-time work with a fashion shop.” He later developed a master’s degree program for humanitarian workers at Oxford Brookes University and designed “the education that I never had, but should have had.”
He says his talk will address what wars and big disasters mean for global governance. In the last 60 years a nascent global welfare system that responds to disasters anywhere in the world has developed. Slim says this aid work has been criticized as “Western liberal hegemonic power trying to impose a victim identity” and called “predation of compassion,” and others would say the issue is that it’s a complicated mess with too many inefficient agencies.
With the recent typhoon that struck the Philippines in mind, Slim points out that when a natural hazard strikes a society, the political situation can determine how vulnerable that society is or is not. “One-hundred-mile-an-hour winds hit England last week,” he says, and four people died. “But if a similar wind hits a poor community living in huts or slums, fisherman and coastal villages, it will be devastating.” He says it’s about how the society that’s hit is constructed.
Hugo Slim’s “The State of Human Rights” will take place 7 pm Wednesday, Nov. 20, in the Knight Law Center Campbell Auditorium. Admission is free.