David Kaner ‘10, Advocates for Human Rights

David-Kaner Ross School alumnus, David Kaner (2010), is making a difference in the world of human rights. A 2014 graduate of the University of Chicago, David holds a master’s degree in International Relations and a bachelor’s degree in Law, Letters and Society, which he describes as “a social sciences degree with an emphasis on law and political history.”

Several months after graduating, David moved to India. He was working there as an intern at a local organization when something extraordinary happened: a fellowship, usually awarded to a graduating senior at the University of Chicago, announced they had extended eligibility to graduates one year out of school. David applied for the grant and became the eighth recipient of the Dr. Aizik Wolf Post-Baccalaureate fellowship at The Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago.

The grant enabled David to work for 12 months at a non-governmental organization, government agency, or international body dedicated to human rights. David linked up with The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi, where he has been working for the past year.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent, non-partisan, international non-governmental organization mandated to ensure the protection of human rights in the countries of the Commonwealth. It was founded in 1987 because advocates in member states felt that, while they had both a common set of values and legal principles, the Commonwealth needed an independent voice for human rights.

Much of his work in New Delhi focused on promoting civil society space issues, such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly. In his first seven or eight months on the job, David co-authored a report in advance of the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on Commonwealth civil society engagement. “It taught me a lot about how human rights advocacy works, from researching to crafting an effective argument to helping put together a side event at the Meeting itself for activists to discuss how to create more space for civil society with the Commonwealth Secretariat.”

Additionally, David drafted statements for the United Nations Human Rights Council. “This was one of the more exciting things I did; watching on UNTV as words I wrote were read to diplomats from many different countries was really cool. It also helped my writing, as you need to be very concise with your argument and information due to strict time limits. Writing a statement on the death penalty and the need for abolition, an issue I care strongly about, was particularly meaningful.”

Throughout the course of his fellowship, David participated in consultations in Istanbul and New York as part of the Civil Society Innovation Initiative, a project of the US and Swedish governments that aims to create regional hubs to support and strengthen civil society. He explained that, over the course of these meetings, they explored the challenges facing civil society and co-created a draft plan for what a hub would look like (in Istanbul) and strategized how to lead regional consultations to refine the plan (New York). “It was really incredible getting to meet people from organizations all over the world working on an array of issues. It gave me a sense of the broader international civil society community and how they often share similar issues (funding, messaging, government restrictions) despite operating in different contexts.”

Through his work with CHRI, as well as time spent studying and working in Cambodia, Barcelona, and Cairo, David said he has really embraced the global experience. He notices common themes in the discussions people are having at the global level: “finding jobs, having their children educated, looking for a better standard of living, where their countries are headed politically….” These themes are particularly salient at a time when there is an element of fear in the United States and abroad.

David said that dialogue is essential in creating the connections to others that will help bring about positive change. When asked what he would suggest to future Ross graduates, he said that no matter what challenges and opportunities they face, they should approach them as a critical thinker and lifelong learner.

Back in the United States, David reflected with us on his experiences. “Advocacy is a really tough field. People are very dedicated. Oftentimes, people spend their entire lives working on the same issue and it can be really hard to gain traction. I’m walking away from this experience truly inspired by working with this community of people. I have gained a realistic understanding of how difficult working on thing like civil liberties and human rights can be, especially when they are so politically sensitive. It is tough work and requires a lot of nuance—how you make your arguments, who you make those arguments to—it is very complex. But overall, this field takes an enormous amount of commitment, understanding and passion.”

David will wrap up his work with CHRI in the next few months, and he looks forward to continuing a career with an international focus—something he says was originally fostered at Ross School. “Certainly, I think going to Ross and receiving a global education made me excited to engage with the world, and it’s been a wonderful experience to take action to advance human rights.”