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Tanner Lecture

Michigan is one of nine institutions worldwide that hosts an annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values. Tanner Lectures are funded through the generosity of the late Professor of Philosophy, industrialist, and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner, and his wife, Grace Tanner. Professor Tanner wrote:

I hope these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior and human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.

Although the Tanners established the supporting endowment in 1978, Joel Feinberg's April 1977 lecture at Michigan inaugurated the international series of Tanner Lectures.

Each year, Michigan has a Tanner Lecture combined with an interdisciplinary symposium to which we invite distinguished scholars from around the world. The complete list of Tanner Lecture Programs at Michigan is available here.

2016-17 Tanner Lecture:

The Personality of Experience and the Universality of Values

Radhika Coomaraswamy

Chairperson of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission from 2003-2006 and UN Under Secretary General and as Special Representative of the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict from 2006 until her retirement in 2012

4PM Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Michigan League Ballrooom (2nd Floor)


Since the writings of Althusser and since September 11th 2011, humanism and humanitarianism have been at the receiving end of a great deal of criticism. While in the 1960s and the 1970s, academia and human rights practitioners worked closely together, since the end of the century there has emerged a sharp division especially among progressive circles- a belief that humanism and humanitarianism were the invention of colonialism and a catspaw to allow colonial countries better access and control of subordinate populations.

I would like to contest this line of thinking. My thesis is that humanism has always existed among most human populations though practices have differed over time. The Enlightenment did bring in a particular approach to human rights and humanism with an intrinsic duality, much of it progressive but some of it mired in the colonial project. Post structuralists, post-modernists and post colonialists have spent a great deal of time researching and condemning this duality. This continues today in human rights and humanitarian activism around the world. The way forward is not to reject what has become an almost universalist discourse but to continue the project of evolving a dialogic universalism which can only emerge if we rediscover Human Rights as a grassroot ideology of dissent and protest.

I will make my argument by highlighting three cases from the Asian tradition that clearly prove that humanism existed long before the enlightenment though it may have taken other forms. The humanistic impulse is said to be near universal if not universal and many feel it is intrinsic to mankind and not constructed. Secondly I will look at the enlightenment heritage primarily from a practioner’s point of view and its passage through the United Nations in the twentieth and twenty first century. I will also try to evaluate the virulent criticism that has been made against human rights and humanitarianism, its causes and its consequences in working on humanitarian issues in the present world context. I will do so with cases drawn from my own personal experiences as Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and The UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict.

My final section will attempt to devise a way forward. Human rights is a discourse cemented by the consent of 190 countries who have signed the United Nations Charter. Dialogic universalism is therefore a possibility. It is the one common language or discourse of dissent we have to speak to each other. The need of the hour is to radically revise grass root versions of human rights and humanitarian action so that they become the language of change and dissent and not the language of pragmatism and technocracy.

Symposium on the Tanner Lecture

Thursday, March 30, 2017

10:00—12:30 p.m. / Vandenberg Room, Michigan League



Susan E. Waltz, University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy


Radhika Coomaraswamy

David Kennedy, Harvard Law School

Samuel Moyn, Harvard Law School

Steven R. Ratner, University of Michigan Law School

About Radhika Coomaraswamy

Radhika Coomaraswamy received her BA from Yale University, her J.D. from Columbia University and her LLM from Harvard University. Her high School education was at United Nations International School in New York.

Radhika Coomaraswamy served as UN Under Secretary General and as Special Representative of the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict from 2006 until her retirement in 2012. In this capacity she worked with the Security Council to record and prevent crimes against children committed during war.

Earlier, from 1994 to 2003, she was the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, an independent expert attached to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In this capacity she reported to the Commission on matters relating to domestic violence, rape, trafficking and exploitation, and violence against women in situations of armed conflict. In both her UN assignments, Ms. Coomaraswamy was extensively in the field speaking to women and children who were victims of crimes and violence and bringing their stories to the United Nations and other multilateral forums for immediate action and implementation of UN norms.

In 2014, the UN Secretary General asked Radhika Coomaraswamy to lead the Global Study to review the fifteen year implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. The Global Study was submitted to the Secretary General in October 2015.

In Sri Lanka, Ms. Coomaraswamy was the Chairperson of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission from 2003 to 2006 and was a Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies from 1984 to 2006. In this capacity she helped direct its research program on constitutional law, human rights, ethnicity and cultural studies as well as women’s rights.

She is currently a civil society member of the Constitutional Council, a senior body appointed by Parliament and the President to primarily make appointments of members to serve on independent commissions and the higher judiciary.

Ms. Coomaraswamy is also an academic. She is a Global Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law where she has taught courses on Women’s International Human Rights and Children and Armed Conflict. She taught at New College, Oxford University in its Summer Programs on International Human Rights during the 1990s and the early 2000s, She has also been a visiting lecturer at the Faculty of Law at Colombo University.

Ms. Coomaraswamy has received Honorary Doctorates from Amherst College, University of Edinburg, University of Ulster, City University of New York and Rutgers University among others. During her career Ms. Coomaraswamy has also received international Human Rights Awards, the International Law Award of the American Bar Association, the Bruno Kreisky Award, the Human Rights Award of the University of Oslo, among many others. She was also been privileged to be asked to deliver the Grotius Lecture of the American Association of International Law in 2013.

Ms. Coomaraswamy has written books on constitutional law and many articles on women, ethnicity, pluralism, cultural studies, human rights and children and armed conflict.

In 1995, in recognition of her services to the country, President Chandrika Bandaranaika Kumaratunga conferred on her the National honor of Deshamanya – “jewel of the nation”.