The Storyteller: Dustin Sharp

Dustin Sharp puts a human face on peace and justice

The searing image lights up the screen on the front wall of Camino 130, instantly eliciting muffled gasps from the class. A Guinean prisoner reveals fresh wounds on his backside so deep and broad from whipping and torture that the outer layer of skin is simply gone.

This image — part of a groundbreaking report on human rights abuses compiled in 2006 by Dustin Sharp as a researcher in West Africa — is just one part of the day’s lesson on the work of activists and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Sharp’s International Justice and Human Rights class.

Somewhat of an experiment itself, the class is half law students and half peace studies students, loosely replicating the real-world experience of human rights lawyers and policymakers working side by side in the field. It makes sense to train side by side as well, suggests Sharp, an assistant professor in the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.

He speaks ably to both groups on the complex realities of human rights work and transitional justice, as a Harvard-trained lawyer who has served in the Peace Corps. He has also held positions at the U.S. Department of State and Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s largest human rights NGOs.

“What did you notice when you read the report?” Sharp queries the class about his 2006 missive. “Was it the statistics and tables
of data?”

“No, the stories,” several students answer.

“Yes, the documentation and reporting style is heavily anecdotal, heavily victim-based in terms of testimonies,” says the soft-spoken, swift-talking professor, who opened the class lamenting only half in jest that he has 25 topics he wants to cover this semester, but only14 class sessions. “One reason is to get around the notion that what is happening is just a statistic. Your victim is an actual person.”

One of four core courses required for the Master of Arts in Peace and Justice Studies, Sharp’s International Justice and Human Rights seminar is a mixture of foundational studies on international law and human rights policies as well as skill-building through focused in-class group activities. Every student monitors a country for human rights conditions throughout the semester — and the class itself is generously populated with international students — which builds a wide knowledge base for the student participation encouraged by Sharp’s soft Socratic method.

Able to draw from his own work in Chad, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere, on this day, Sharp walks the students through the realities of research in the field, from how to gain access to victims for testimonies, to the pros and cons of bribing checkpoint guards, to learning when to push research-gathering methods.

Sharp describes to the class, for example, how, after several weeks of taking testimonies at the Guinea prison, he saw his opportunity to sneak in a “clunky, old digital camera” on his last day. He was quickly snapping images of inmates’ injuries when a guard, who had been sleeping on a box spring at the end of the cellblock, saw him. “He looked up at me and all he said was, ‘Tell them that we were not the ones who did it,’” Sharp recalls. The actual torture took place at police detention centers, not the prison.

Transfixed, the students pepper Sharp with questions. “Do you budget for bribes?” “How willing were the prisoners to have their pictures taken?” “Did you see a change after your report came out?”

Change in human rights is often measured in small victories, explains Sharp, such as the shift from denying that torture exists to debating who is responsible for the torture. In a more concrete triumph after the 2006 Guinea report, new interest from the diplomatic and donor communities led to funding for pro bono lawyers and, in turn, to improved conditions and earlier releases for the prisoners.

Among Sharp’s students, change can be measured as they master both the critical thinking skills and the big-picture analysis that leads to transformative work in human rights advocacy.

“In my classes, I try to balance the critical theory and the critique of human rights with the hope and promise of human rights,” Sharp says. “I tell my students that they need to be able to navigate between the Scylla of destructive cynicism and the Charybdis of naïve idealism. If you can find the path between the two, you can do some interesting work.” — Trisha J. Ratledge