Ideologies clash as President Biden rededicates UConn human rights center

·9 min read

Oct. 16—STORRS — President Joe Biden arrived at the University of Connecticut on Friday afternoon to recognize a longtime friend: former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd.

But he also used the presidential visit, the highlight of the dedication of the Dodd Center — which the UConn board of trustees decided to rename after both Chris Dodd and his late father, Thomas Dodd, also a former senator — to tout his administration's stances on human rights and to warn that democracies around the world are at a crossroads.

"As we look around the world today, we see human rights and democratic principles increasingly under assault. We feel the same charge of history upon our own shoulders to act," Biden said to the UConn community from a stage in front of the Dodd Center on an unseasonably warm October day. "We have fewer democracies in the world today than we did 15 years ago." He paused for effect, then bellowed, "Not more. Fewer!" before continuing on. "Cannot be sustained. That's why from day one of my administration I've taken concrete steps to put human rights back at the center of our foreign policy and reassert our moral leadership on the global stage, with the power of our example, not the example of our power."

The event, titled "Human Rights for the Next Generation," was by invitation only, though the public could view via livestream.

Leading up to Biden's appearance, students and other protesters also came to campus to broadcast their positions. Their ideologies clashed but many of the demonstrators essentially agreed on one thing: not liking Biden.

A caravan of cars displaying "(Expletive) Joe Biden," "Blue Lives Matter," "Trump 2024" and "Don't tread on me" flags rolled around campus.

At the student recreation center nearby, a student activist group, UConn UNCHAIN, protested Biden's visit from the left, arguing that he is not a champion of human rights. The more than 50 students staging a sit-in wore black and held signs and chalked the ground with messages like, "No more deportations," "Abolish ICE," "Abolish prisons," "Justice for migrants" and more.

Organizer Nell Srinath said the group has been together since February, when it started conducting mutual aid in Willimantic including food service and community cleanup. They explained the connection, or disconnect, between the protesters from the left and the right.

"It's a bunch of old white people is my answer. I know it's blunt, but there's a clear demographic shift and we don't fit into any of those boxes," Srinath said. "The majority of us are of marginalized backgrounds. We're people of color, we're queer, we're trans. There's really no overlap between the people who don't like Biden because he's not abusing enough human rights and the people who don't like Biden because he betrays the ideals of human rights."

The sit-in, which drew an even larger crowd of stragglers who hoped to witness the spectacle, was held strategically next to where invited guests for Biden's event were waiting in line.

Three students waiting in line said they weren't necessarily Biden's biggest supporters but were looking forward to seeing a sitting president speak.

"I'm a political science and human rights major, so for me I have mixed opinions. It was better than the alternative for the 2020 election," Sofia Karalekas said. "There are some places he can work on obviously, but regardless of where you stand on Joe Biden, this is a great experience for students to be here while he's here."

Student Helen Nguyen said, "Whether or not you like him or enjoy what he does politically, it's still a great opportunity to, one, be in the presence of the president of the United States, and two, be in this kind of atmosphere, especially as a human rights major."

Also majoring in human rights and political science, Natasha Silva said she "definitely expected the protests."

"We're a very diverse campus, so people on campus are going to have a lot of different views on things," she said. "This is freedom of speech, you can say what you want to say. Their opinion is valid, you are allowed to protest and say whatever you're feeling about a certain subject."

Dodd Center rededication

The facility originally was dedicated as the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in 1995; Thomas Dodd was a lead prosecutor during the 1946 International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which ultimately convicted 19 Nazi leaders of war crimes and other charges. The facility stands next to the university's Homer Babbidge library and facilitates research for students and faculty of all disciplines, as it contains the archives and special collections of UConn's libraries, the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and the Human Rights Institute.

Dodd introduced Biden and reflected on not only his father but the Connecticut delegation, including U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, 2nd District, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who filled Dodd's seat when the former senator decided not to run for reelection, and Sen. Chris Murphy.

"Today we gather on the campus of a great American university, and at the entrance to its center of human rights," Dodd said. "Here at this center, at this university, in this our country, we will invoke the precedents and call upon the law that was made at Nuremberg 75 years ago."

He recognized the importance of such a research center, saying, "Today, hate crimes and hate speech are on the rise. Supremacist groups are proliferating at home and around the globe as well, and the number of autocratic regimes around the globe seems to grow on a daily basis."

In his more than a half-hour speech, Biden cited Thomas Dodd's work on the Nuremberg Trials as a way of saying democratic countries must stay vigilant and speak out against issues like rising antisemitism or authoritarianism.

He also touched on disinformation and misinformation, which are tactics that hurt democracies both at home and abroad and fly in the face of truth. He repeated a quote from former President Bill Clinton's speech at the Dodd Center dedication in 1995: "The road to tyranny begins with the destruction of truth."

Biden lobbed another thinly veiled attack at former President Donald Trump for leaving the Paris Climate Agreement. Some of the human rights advances Biden touted are reversals of Trump-era policies, including the fact that the "first 10 minutes I was in office, I ended the Muslim ban" and overturning the ban on trans people serving openly in the U.S. military.

"Look around the world today and we cannot say the specter of atrocity is behind us," Biden said before noting current human rights atrocities in the world today, including China's genocide against the Uyghurs. He called out "rampant abuses including use of starvation and sexual violence to terrorize civilian populations in northern Ethiopia."

But he also looked inward, at the U.S. He admitted that the words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," have never been truly realized.

"We have never lived up to it," but, he added, "We never until very recently walked away from it. The arc has always bent closer and closer to justice and inclusion."

Biden stated that the U.S. cannot pretend "our history has been perfect," but "We make the best case for gender equality, racial justice and equity, religious freedom, LGBTQ+ peoples and other marginalized communities around the world by practicing what we preach."

He celebrated the Dodd Center as well as its namesake family, recounting sharing plane rides during the 2008 presidential campaign with then-Sen. Chris Dodd to and from Washington, D.C., and Democratic debates. He said the center and its stewards would be a part of a human rights reckoning the world must undergo to progress.

Toward the end of his remarks, Biden expressed what he called "the radical idea at the core of the founding of our nation": that people possess their rights because they were born, and Americans gave up some of their rights in the Constitution.

Prior to the event, Biden touched down at Bradley International Airport at 12:30 p.m. and went to the Capitol Child Development Center in Hartford, where he met up with Gov. Ned Lamont. Biden arrived at UConn via helicopter about 2:40 p.m., and members of Connecticut's congressional delegation began to speak at the Dodd Center a short time later.

In his own speech, Courtney went back to Dodd's upbringing in "romantic Willimantic," noting that Dodd "spent much of his childhood in nearby Norwich" before becoming the congressman from eastern Connecticut.

Courtney also brought up Biden's visit to the Coast Guard Academy, noting that Friday's event was the president's second visit to eastern Connecticut in less than a year.

"When President Biden spoke to the graduating cadets in New London last May, he openly framed their work as part of the 21st century struggle between autocracy and democracy," Courtney said. "Those cadets, who are now ensigns ... are out on patrol as part of the effort to protect the rule of law on the high seas in the Indo-Pacific, which is under constant attack under the new autocrats."

During his remarks, Gov. Ned Lamont praised Thomas Dodd for his unerring support for the rule of law, even when inconvenient. "This was at the end of World War II, and the question was, how do you deal with these Nazi leaders? Some thought maybe they should have a trial. Stalin said, 'What's a trial?' Even Winston Churchill said maybe they should just be executed. But the president of the United States and Judge (Robert) Jackson and Thomas Dodd thought otherwise."

Murphy, who was interning for Chris Dodd when President Clinton dedicated the Dodd Center in 1995, said "the work of upholding human rights" is about allowing people to register grievances with their government, meaning civil disobedience.

DeLauro, who Dodd described as essentially a member of the Dodd family, and who worked for Dodd as both a campaign manager and chief of staff, later in her career found herself working alongside Dodd. She expressed concern for "the threats posed by China and Russia" and warned against "Democratic backsliding" in countries such as Brazil, Hungary and Poland given a rise in authoritarianism.

Noting that "there is no mistaking how deeply President Biden is committed to this cause," Blumenthal said, "The Dodd Center will advance the cause of human rights in teaching and research, and yes, in activism, around the world. It will put UConn on the map as the premier institution for human rights and liberties around this nation."

s.spinella@theday.com

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