CFP: PhD Symposium “Human Rights and the Mobilization of Testimony” (Deadline: April 24, 2015)

CFP: PhD Symposium “Human Rights and the Mobilization of Testimony”
Deadline: April 24, 2015

Call for Applications

The scholarly response to the rise of human rights has been markedly interdisciplinary. Scholars with backgrounds as diverse as literary studies, social sciences, history, law, and philosophy have all refocused their research through the lens of human rights. Emerging fields such as literature and human rights (Slaughter, Human Rights Inc.), transcultural memory studies (Levy and Sznaider, Human Rights and Memory), and histories of human rights (Moyn, The Last Utopia; Hunt, Inventing Human Rights) have begun to question, expand, and criticize the foundations of what is now the world?s principal social, legal, and political framework.

Over the course of the past few decades, human rights have become the global moral and legal discourse for victims of atrocity to claim recompense for violations of what is seen as their innate rights as human beings. Regardless of where or how human rights are (ab)used, the human rights movement is driven at its core ? even if sometimes only rhetorically ? by the appealingly decisive and clear basic principles outlined in its universal declaration from 1948. Indeed, modern activists and humanitarians couch their efforts and protests in the language of human rights so as to allow their claims to resonate with the dominant human rights culture.

One of the major interests that unites the diverging interdisciplinary perspectives on human rights is the centrality of witnessing and testimony. As James Dawes puts it, ?Atrocity both requires and resists representation. The argument that we must bear witness to atrocity, that we must tell the stories, is the core of the catechism of the human rights movement? (Evil Men 8). Testimonial narratives, in their various cultural and legal incarnations, have become pervasive as the main tool for making people aware of rights abuses in the era of human rights. Testimonies activate rights discourses; they make them real. Culturally, this dovetails with the philosopher Richard Rorty?s famous assertion that ?sad and sentimental stories? have the power to wake us up and make us take note of humanitarian crises. Of course, testimony is also an intricate part of legal rights discourses, as a witness?s or survivor?s account in court, as a narrative constructed by victims to acquire certain legal statuses (think refugee status), or more broadly as a means to claim the subjectivity to which human rights entitle us by reaffirming the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the speaker (Derrida, Demeure).

We invite paper proposals from PhD students from any field or discipline that address the place of witnessing, testifying, or testimonial narratives in human rights. Possible questions for discussion include, but are not limited to:

How has the use of testimony for humanitarian or human rights purposes changed over time?
What is the relationship between witnessing and testifying?
What is the role of testimony within the modern human rights movement?
What does the act of testifying accomplish at a social, political, or legal level?
How does the interaction between lived experience and collective memory affect human rights work?
What is or can be the place of rights holders? narratives in human rights law or policy?
Confirmed Keynote Speakers

lyndsey_stonebridgeLyndsey Stonebridge is Professor of Literature and Critical Theory at the University of East Anglia, where she co-directs the Writing and Rights Project as well as the interdisciplinary Humanities in Human Rights project. She specializes in Modern Literature and Critical Theory, particularly psychoanalysis, trauma theory, and, most recently, critical human rights and refugee studies. Her broad background in critical theory and human rights studies makes her an ideal contributor to the symposium?s attempt to deepen PhD students? engagement with the vast theoretical and methodological underpinnings of their research in the field of human rights and testimony. She is the author, most recently, of The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg (paperback, 2014). Other publications include The Destructive Element (1998) and The Writing of Anxiety (2007). She is currently completing a new book, Reading Statelessness: Rights, Writing and Refugees. In this book, she compares the emergence of the refugee into critical and cultural consciousness in the 1930s with contemporary refugee writing, arguing for an interpretation of modern literature that focuses on the type of subjectivity that emerges in the cracks between nation states.

kennedyRosanneRosanne Kennedy is Associate Professor of Literature and Gender, Sexuality, and Culture at the Australian National University?s College of Arts and Social Sciences. Her research focuses on trauma, memory, and witnessing in Australia and transnational contexts; life-writing studies; biography; and human rights and justice issues. As a scholar vacillating between legal and cultural conceptions of testimony within human rights discourses, she bring considerable expertise to bear on the interdisciplinary focus of the symposium. She is the author of, among many other essays, ?Moving Testimony: Human Rights, Palestinian Memory, and the Transnational Public Sphere? (in Transnational Memory: Circulation, Articulation, Scales; de Gruyter, 2014) and ?Memory, History and the Law: Testimony and Collective Memory in Holocaust and Stolen Generations Trials? (in Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject; Routledge, 2013). She is also a co-editor of World Memory: Personal Trajectories in Global Time (Palgrave, 2003), whichblends the study of trauma and memory with perspectives from postcolonial theory to explore a range of traumatic personal and socio-historical experiences.


The symposium will provide an interactive forum in which junior and senior scholars can discuss each other?s work in a convivial setting and reflect on interdisciplinary developments in the field of human rights, humanitarianism, and/or (trans)cultural memory. The aim is to help PhD students refine their research questions, reflect on the place of their research within a broader interdisciplinary field, and strengthen the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of their projects.

This three-day event will combine scene-setting keynote lectures by two renowned international scholars with student papers, responses, and Q&A. The symposium will also incorporate a reading group/workshop that will allow participants to reflect on the ties between their various papers and discuss a number of critical texts pertaining to the topic of human rights and testimony.

In order to ensure incisive and targeted feedback, all papers will be pre-circulated among the PhD students and keynote speakers. Additionally, a number of senior academics, including the two keynote speakers, will chair presentation sessions and prepare questions and comments to stimulate discussion.

The keynote speakers will also make a draft of their lecture or a relevant article available in advance, so as to provide participants with a shared background for the discussions throughout the symposium.

Practical Information


Ghent University, Belgium. Ghent is an enchanting and vibrant city in the heart of Flanders, easily accessible by train from Brussels Airport (BRU) and by shuttle coach and train from Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL). The symposium will be held at Blandijn, the main building of Ghent University?s Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, in the Faculty Room (first floor, right above the main entrance).


15-17 June 2015


None (optional: conference dinner ?50 / Guided museum visit + travel ?30)


A 300-word abstract for a 15-minute paper (including title, presenter?s name, institutional affiliation, and any technology requests), a description of your PhD research project (one paragraph), and a short CV (max. one page) as a single Word document to Sean Bex (, Prof. Dr. Stef Craps (, and Prof. Dr. Eva Brems (

Deadline for submission of applications:

24 April 2015

Notification of acceptance:

1 May 2015

Deadline for submission of paper drafts:

1 June 2015

Number of places:


Doctoral School credits:

PhD students participating in the symposium, recognized and funded as a specialist course by the Doctoral School of Arts, Humanities, and Law at Ghent University, will receive five credits: three for attending and two for presenting a paper.

To find out more about Ghent University and its Cultural Memory Studies Initiative and Human Rights Centre, the institutional home of the organizing committee members, please click as appropriate.

Organizing Committee

Sean Bex (UGent)
Prof. Dr. Eva Brems (UGent)
Prof. Dr. Stef Craps (UGent)
Scientific Committee

Prof. Dr. Philippe Codde (UGent)
Prof. Dr. Koen De Feyter (UA)
Prof. Dr. Stephan Parmentier (KU Leuven)
Prof. Dr. Pieter Vermeulen (KU Leuven)