Processing the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) records

“First of all, congratulations on finishing your oral exams.”

So reads the first sentence of a correspondence found in the first box of the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) records, which I am processing as part of the Graduate Student Internship Program in Primary Sources at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library this summer. The introduction caught my eye; it made me smile since I’d also just finished my oral exams. Yet there were crucial differences between this missive and ones I’d recently received. That much is clear from the next sentence: “Under the circumstances it is all the more impressive that you and Mary Kay were able to do as much work on the Iraq analysis as you did. I am sure you are relieved it is over and you can now devote your full attention to finishing your dissertation.” Attached are a series of edits to a draft of “Infant and Child Mortality and Nutritional Status of Iraqi Children After the Gulf Conflict.” The message is from UNICEF. 

There is at once so much that I recognize in this letter sent to Sarah Zaidi, one of the founders of CESR, and so much that remains outside of my experiences. At the time of this message she, like me, was a graduate student beginning her dissertation. She, like me, was interested in the repercussions of American aggression in Iraq. She, in true graduate student form, was asking for guidance and feedback on her research. But the differences between us can’t be ignored; after all, the report she is receiving feedback on would lead to the creation of the Center for Economic and Social Rights– an organization that helped usher in a new era of human rights work. 

The documents located in the Center for Economic and Social Rights Files reflect an important shift in how we conceive of human rights. In 1993, the year CESR was officially founded, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action was adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights. The declaration asserted that human rights– be they civil, political, social, cultural, or economic– were indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated. As such, they all had  to be protected. Two years earlier a Harvard research team had highlighted the relationship between economic sanctions and human rights. The team, which included the three founders of CESR, interviewed hundreds of women to assess the impact of sanctions on Iraqi children. In their first report the team writes “[our] results provide strong evidence that the consequences of the Gulf War and sanctions caused a three fold increase in under five mortality among Iraqi children. We estimated that an excess of 46,897 children died between January and August 1991” (box 1, series I.1). The importance of this work, work that would be picked up and continued by CESR in three subsequent parallel research missions, is evident not only because of the injustices it laid bare, but because of how it anticipated crucial reform in human rights work.  

And still, among the important and devastating facts detailed in the CESR files there is a joy to looking through these files. One discovers, for instance, that Mary Kay Fawzi-Smith, one of the members of the Harvard research team, signs her correspondence with a smiley face and is referred to as “De-Lovely!” To look into the CESR files is to see the birth of an organization fighting for an end to human rights violations, starting in Iraq and quickly expanding to focus on a variety of issues across the globe. 

In a rather contentious set of email exchanges related to the Iraq Sanctions Project, a CESR project from 2001, CESR team member Aun Rahman defends the organization’s fight to end human right violations. He writes: “have you ever seen a human rights group state as a goal that it would like to “reduce” rather than “end” human rights violations in Pakistan, Guatemala or any place in the world? The people at HRW and Amnesty (and CESR) almost certainly understand that the goal of ending human rights violations, at a practical or even theoretical level, is impossible under any conceivable real-world circumstances, yet they also almost certainly understand that the goal of ending violations is commonly understood by almost everybody as doing one’s level best to achieve as much as possible towards this laudable goal” (Box 7, series III). In processing these files I saw the work of a team consistently working towards this laudable goal, particularly in Iraq, where the team spent years going door to door to gather information on widespread violations against individual citizens as the result of American aggression and economic sanctions.

–Evelyn MacPherson, GSAS 2025