Alina Utrata ’16 is one of 40 recipients of the 2017 Marshall Scholarships, which finance young Americans of high ability to study for a graduate degree in the United Kingdom. After graduating as a history major with a minor in human rights, Utrata will pursue a master’s degree in conflict transformation and social justice at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. During her time at Stanford, Utrata has been involved in the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice and the Model United Nations Team and has conducted summer research about international criminal courts in Bosnia and Cambodia. The Daily interviewed her about her journey studying human rights.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you become interested in human rights?
Alina Utrata (AU): My journey began in high school when I joined Model U.N., which first got me into international affairs and issues of human rights and conflicts. The summer after sophomore year, I went to Bosnia and The Hague, where I was researching the impact of the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia) on Bosnia, and that’s what my thesis is going to be about. That year, I got involved in the Handa Center for Human Rights [and International Justice] here at Stanford, which is a new center. They have an internship in Cambodia [that] is trial monitoring the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh.
TSD: What made you decide to concentrate your studies on international courts, specifically?
AU: During my freshman year at Stanford, I took two favorite classes. One was HISTORY 4N: A World History of Genocide, with professor Norman Naimark, and he’s my thesis advisor. It’s a really fantastic class, which got me really interested in genocide, and professor Naimark has been an incredible mentor throughout my four years here. Another class was THINK 19: Rules of War, taught by professors Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner. When he was in the U.S. State Department, Allen Weiner actually worked on ICTY and other tribunals, so his anecdotes in lectures got me really interested in tribunals, and how they impact society.
I think international court is a really fascinating and understudied aspect of post-conflict that we don’t think about, which is people’s desire for justice and how people come to terms with atrocities after they happen. We hear about horrible situations on the news every single day, and I find myself asking, “What happens afterwards?” and “How do these societies move on and put themselves back together again?” And international justice is sort of the focus for me to study that.
TSD: What would you say is the biggest challenge for international justice?
AU: I think there are two big challenges. One is the pragmatic challenge of funding. Now in Cambodia, even though there is a desire for justice, it’s sometimes hard to get people to fund that. The second big challenge, which is what I study, is how societies and communities respond to these courts. In Bosnia, there are a lot of criticisms about the court — what it is doing and what its purpose is. I think communicating what international courts can and should do for society is the second-biggest challenge, one that they have definitely got better at over the decades.
TSD: Please talk more about your summer abroad at Bosnia and Cambodia’s international courts. Is there any moment that really stands out and gives you insights into the topic you’re studying?
AU: Yeah, I think I try to approach international justice very skeptically, always asking “What is the point of this?” and “Is this helping people?” One of the really impactful experiences in Cambodia is called Day for Statement of Suffering, where civil parties [in court] are people who are victims of the committed crimes communicating the stories of everything happened to them. It was an amazing and also incredibly sad experience, because you hear these really harrowing stories about Cambodian survivors of Khmer Rouge, and I remember one day the court literally had to stop because the civil party was crying, and the civil party lawyers were crying. That experience really brought home to me how powerful those courts could be in symbolically raising up and providing a platform for people’s stories.
TSD: What’s your plan for future, and how do you think the Marshall Scholarship fits into that plan?
AU: Through [the] Marshall Scholarship, I’ll be able to study at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, which I’m absolutely excited about. I’m doing a program called Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, and I’m excited both because the program seems amazing, and because Northern Island has a history of conflict as well, and it’s very recent, and I really look forward to learning about people’s experience during the time of the troubles. Unlike Bosnia or Cambodia, there wasn’t a court, but there were many other ways that people tried to address the legacy of conflict, so I’m really excited to learn about different approaches people took in addressing legacies of conflict.
I definitely want to continue to work on post-conflict issues in the future. I think it’s really important to think about laying foundations for peace, and make sure conflicts don’t break out again. Exactly how this career path will turn out I’m not sure, but I do know at some point I want to go to law school, and maybe work at whether the U.S. government, the U.N. or maybe one of the tribunals. I want to work more on outreach, how communities could interact with these courts.
TSD: Could you give some advice for students who are also interested in human rights?
AU: Well, if you’re in interested in human rights, definitely come by the Handa Center! We have incredible things, and no matter what discipline you are, we have plenty of opportunities for you. And I think for scholarship, or just throughout your undergraduate career generally, you just have to do what you love, and what you think is important and impactful. I think the committee can tell if you do it because you love it – your passion shines through your application.
This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.
Contact Celia Chen at xinuo ‘at’ stanford.edu.