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Theoretical and practical human dignity during the 2nd Intercontinental Academia

by Richard Meckien - published Apr 06, 2016 10:55 AM - - last modified Jun 04, 2019 11:35 AM
Rights: Translation by Artemis Romano.

by Akemi Kamimura
Brazilian participant in the second edition of the Intercontinental Academia

Cartaz ICA Jerusalém

Can someone be tortured to save the lives of hundreds of people in imminent danger? Would you accept that someone was tortured to save your children in danger? Can torture be justified for national security protection? Who has dignity? What does "human dignity” mean? Is it an absolute or a relative concept? Does religion favor or hinder human dignity? Is dignity a value or a right? Do all people have dignity?

These and other questions were discussed during the first phase of the second edition of the Intercontinental Academia on Human Dignity, held at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, from March 6 to 18.

18 young researchers gathered for two weeks of master classes, academic debates and other activities related to the central theme. In August, the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University (ZiF) will be the host of the second phase while more classes, debates and discussions will be held in order to build a collective and interdisciplinary project on the subject. The program of the first phase is available at:

The group is formed by young researchers from various countries (Israel, Germany, USA, Italy, Romania, South Africa / Nigeria, Canada, Finland, the Netherlands, Brazil) and backgrounds (law, philosophy, theology, political science, anthropology, spatial planning, history, linguistics).


Perhaps because of having worked in projects and programs with multi / interdisciplinary approach regarding the defense of human rights, the proposal of the Intercontinental Academia on Human Dignity to "promote an unprecedented interdisciplinary dialogue and start cooperation between participants with different scientific and cultural backgrounds" has inspired me to dream of building something with researchers from around the world.

Participantes trabalhando na II Edição ICA Jerusalém
2nd edition of the Intercontinental Academia: 18 young researchers have met in Jerusalem to address human dignity

To promote human dignity, to alleviate human suffering and to combat human right violations, besides strengthening a culture of human dignity in Brazil and worldwide. To meet different people and realities, to contribute for a collective and interdisciplinary project on human dignity, and perhaps for the promotion of human dignity in an intercontinental academia. With all this in mind, I went to Israel willing to learn and discuss the topic.

But the path towards an intercontinental academia and a culture of human dignity is long and complex, and certainly does not depend on academic debates and conferences only. Theory and practice need to interact and dialogue with consistency.

One of the first activities was a round of presentations and a brief discussion on the understanding of each participant on the concept of human dignity. Is human dignity an open concept that would comprehend every and any value or ideal to be protected? Is it a tool for social transformation? Is there an "essential core" of human dignity? Does human dignity enshrine an individual or collective conception? Does human dignity include a sense of autonomy? What is the meaning of human dignity? Who has dignity?

Human dignity as a research theme has brought young scholars with different scientific, cultural and social backgrounds together. But the common theme of research does not mean a shared understanding of dignity by itself. This has been evidenced during the first discussion. Human dignity seemed to have different shapes, colors and forms for each participant.

A sum of different opinions and views does not necessarily reflect a consensus on the term and a collective construction - which requires time, dedication and joint efforts. But we were still getting to know each other, and a common concept of human dignity and an interdisciplinary collective project would be developed in the course of two weeks in Jerusalem or in the second phase in Bielefeld.

The lack of a common concept on human dignity was even more evident in the second week, with discussions of human dignity at the end of life (which brings up dignity throughout life), and on human dignity and the defense of national security based on the Israeli experience in jurisprudence and relative social (and sometimes institutional) acceptance of torture as a research method in "time bomb" situations or scenarios.

In Israel, torture is used as a method of investigation in certain cases of defense "necessity" in "time bomb" scenarios with relative approval of state institutions, including the Supreme Court. Is the protection of national security above human dignity?

For some, the practice of torture could be justified to "save lives" in a "time bomb" scenario. Thus, one would not question the violation of human dignity if torture was practiced to save "other lives". Is "life" the most supreme good of human dignity? Is one human life more worth than another? Is torture acceptable in a "time bomb" scenario? May torture be acceptable?

It seemed increasingly essential to have greater clarity on what the group meant by human dignity in order to develop an interdisciplinary collective project and a final product of this journey. How to build a common, collective and interdisciplinary project on human dignity if we do not even have a minimum common sense on the subject? How to discuss human dignity if some may have more dignity than others?

But perhaps human dignity will only prevail in theory and practice, without borders or possibilities for torture under any circumstances when each person starts being able to imagine themself in other roles and filling the shoes of the "enemies" under torture or their families.

If an interdisciplinary approach invites each discipline to have doubts and questions for a collective construction, it becomes evident that to deliver a joint project on human dignity we must have a solid, well-defined and interdisciplinarily built foundation of concepts. But before that it seems even more necessary to go through some personal reflections, show humility, openness and maturity to questions and dialogue, to enable a common and collective understanding of human dignity, so we can move towards a collective and interdisciplinary construction. Debating human dignity in an intercontinental academia seems to require that each participant makes a constant exercise of otherness and questioning, and not only discuss academic concepts of each discipline or the daily practices of institutions and societies. It is necessary that the other is seen and considered with equality of human dignity.

In the logic of war, the other is seen as an enemy. In an authoritarian past, the other should be watched and punished, if not "deleted". A slave story: the other as an object. In everyday life, is it worth questioning whether the other is worthy of dignity? Who decides who can (or should) live or die? Who has human dignity? Is this intrinsic or conquered? Is dignity absolute or can it be relativized? How to foster a culture of human dignity? What is the role of academia?

But even these questions also seem to have been carefully prepared by the organization and the coordination. In addition to master classes and lectures with experts and important figures of the Israeli scenario (see material:, visits and social activities have allowed an acquaintance with the social, cultural and religious identity of Israel, and has promoted greater interaction among the participants. In conversations during meals and tours we could know each other, discuss situations and issues that contributed to a sense of mutual trust and community that favor a joint project and a collective construction.

Even with the differences, the dialogue, reflection and discussion have prevailed among the participants. Opinions have been respectfully heard and debated. The limits of performance and arguments began to be outlined and reflected.

Participantes II Edição ICA - Jerusalém
Participants of the 2nd Intercontinental Academia

Social activities have allowed us an overview of Israel from the Holocaust memory at Yad Vashem to the promise of rebirth, reconstruction and return of the Jews to the promised land, represented by the works of the Israel Museum. We have got to know the role of the Supreme Court and the proposal of the current government for social integration, the narratives of the institutional practice of national security, and the representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through documentaries. Bombings and terror news, fear and insecurity reactions, relative ease of everyday life: "just another day..."

The individual questioning may probably also take part of an interdisciplinary collective construction on human dignity: it requires from us to exit the comfort zone provided by the training and academic discipline to discuss possibilities of common and collective projects. Although we have not returned from Jerusalem with a clear idea of the contours of this collective and interdisciplinary project, our discussions and conversations have led to a proposal for a third phase, still to be defined: a publication, a workshop, or some other format to contribute with the debate on human dignity, and perhaps for its implementation and execution.

But it may still be necessary for each participant to return to their daily activities so that the intense reflections and discussions decant a bit and we can boost a collective and interdisciplinary project on human dignity, with a solid common base grounded in interdisciplinary dialogues. It might take place in Bielefeld, or on a third stage, wherever it is.