When professor David Weissbrodt tries to remove his textbooks on human rights from a high shelf in his office, it sends a cascade of documents crashing onto a pile of computer disks.
Weissbrodt, a nationally recognized human rights expert and a University law professor who has written a widely-studied book on human rights, is the only private U.S. citizen to lead a U.N. subcommission on human rights. He has been trying to clean up his office since the summer.
The papers, reports and books that fill his office chronicle three decades spent interviewing political prisoners, observing trials and writing international policy on the treatment of citizens by their governments.
Weissbrodt was born in Washington, D.C., in 1944. He attended Columbia University for his undergraduate degrees and attended law school at the University of California-Berkeley in the late 1960s.
“What motivated me in my human rights experience was I had a very motivated and enthusiastic teacher at Berkeley, which I try and do now for my students,” Weissbrodt said.
In 1972, he put his studies to use during a fellowship with the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights organization comprised of lawyers and judges in Geneva, Switzerland.
He studied the plight of refugees in east Pakistan and interviewed conscientious objectors in places such as Francisco Franco-controlled Spain – which involved spending three nights sleeping in a cold monastery bathtub.
He came to the University in 1975 and soon after set up a formal internship for students interested in studying human rights.
The University’s Human Rights Center continues to help graduate and undergraduate students work for approximately 10 weeks with foreign or local organizations to learn how human rights violations are documented and investigated.
Through the International Commission of Jurists, Amnesty International and the United Nations, Weissbrodt traveled to countries such as Congo, Rwanda, Malaysia, Haiti and Croatia, developing a specialty in trial observation.
In Kenya in 1986, he witnessed political prisoners’ trials and interviewed them in jail. Their arrests were part of a crackdown on dissidents by the dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi.
“I interviewed an incredibly courageous lawyer who was taking on all these cases (of political prisoners), and I was just terribly afraid that he himself would get arrested because he was taking on the authorities,” Weissbrodt said. “I interviewed him at length as though he were a prisoner.
“Sure enough, a couple weeks later he was arrested,” he said. “He became the poster child of the campaign to release political prisoners.”
That campaign resulted in the release of many political prisoners that Weissbrodt had documented, but President Moi remains in power to this day.
Former President Bill Clinton’s administration nominated Weissbrodt to the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
The subcommission has 26 members from different countries. Unlike other U.N. commissions, its members are not representatives of their governments but are independent experts in the human rights field.
The United States changes its subcommission representative with each administration, and former President Clinton’s re-election meant a second term for Weissbrodt.
He was selected as chairman of the subcommission last summer at the group’s annual meeting, making him the first U.S. chairman in the subcommission’s half-century history.
During the Cold War, the United States, Soviet Union and China did not hold seats on most lower commissions to avoid overshadowing the United Nations’ work with political tension.
Next summer’s session will most likely be Weissbrodt’s last, as the George W. Bush administration will choose a new representative. But Weissbrodt said he’d serve again if asked.
He is currently drafting two new U.N. policies, one on the rights of noncitizens in foreign countries and another on the responsibilities of transnational companies regarding topics such as child labor.
Barbara Frey, University professor and director of the College of Liberal Arts’ human rights program, teaches an international human rights course with Weissbrodt and serves as his alternate on the U.N. subcommission. She said he made positive changes to subcommission procedures during his term as chairman.
“As chair, he was universally recognized for bringing in some important and timely reforms to the system,” Frey said. “It made things a lot more accessible and made the discussion much more meaningful.”