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The Italian job

Written by Deborah Feldman. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the Northeastern Law Magazine.

They didn’t go for the wine. Or the food. Though this was Italy, so, of course, the cuisine was a marvel. As were the views across Lake Como. But inside the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, a small group of the world’s most distinguished leaders in social and economic rights theory came together for three days in April to bring their groundbreaking book, Social and Economic Rights in Theory and Practice: A Critical Assessment, one step closer to completion.

“The working premise we are testing is that enacting, implementing and enforcing SER can play a meaningful role in making our societies more equal, just, inclusive and caring, and in fostering human dignity and self-realization,” says Northeastern law professor Lucy Williams, who is editing the book with law professor Karl Klare and Helena Alviar García, dean of the Faculty of Law at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

The book’s authors are all members of the International Social and Economic Rights Project, a worldwide network of lawyers, judges, human rights advocates and academics focused on identifying and promoting legal developments in the service of social justice. iSERP is based in the School of Law’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy.

iSERP was launched at the School of Law in 2009 when Williams brought together a number of leading human rights specialists. Since that first conversation, iSERP has gradually expanded to a core group of about 25, while holding conferences at the Faculty of Law at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, in 2010; the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, in 2011; and University College London in 2012.

Northeastern law professors Karl Klare (left) and Lucy Wiliams.

Northeastern law professors Karl Klare (left) and Lucy Williams.

“iSERP has two special features for a group in the legal-academic world,” notes Williams. “We are committed to cultivating a collaborative, dialogic and non-hierarchical work style. And we bring a critical perspective to our work. We consider weaknesses as well as strengths, the limitations as well as achievements of rights-based advocacy, and the difficult trade-offs that must be faced even when a legal community is totally committed to human rights principles in the abstract. In addition, unlike some of the mainstream legal scholarship, our work attempts to be acutely sensitive to the racial, cultural and gender implications of human rights practice.”

As the book began to take shape, the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation provided support for iSERP to convene the book’s contributors at its Bellagio Center, which promotes innovation and identifies impact-oriented solutions to critical global problems.

“The Bellagio grant was a major academic accomplishment,” says Williams. “In addition to hosting us and covering many travel-related expenses, the Rockefeller Foundation asked us to participate in a video conference with foundation officers so that we could advise them on how our work links up with the foundation’s top priorities.”

“Our book and iSERP’s continuing work over the longer term is intended to promote legal and strategic approaches that will encourage judges and other decision makers to adopt robust and transformative approaches to SER questions, something many decision makers now hesitate to do,” explains Klare. “We believe and seek to demonstrate that expansive definition, implementation and enforcement of SER combined with nuanced grassroots activism will benefit poor, vulnerable and marginalized people and enhance human dignity and self-determination.”