HKS Affiliated Authors

Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy
Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy


In November 2023, the Carr Center and Harvard Kennedy School welcomed President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia (2010–2018) for the 2023 Godkin Lecture, introduced by the Carr Center’s Faculty Director, Mathias Risse.

The event was part of the Carr Center’s efforts to recognize the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was passed on December 10, 1948. Risse’s introductory remarks are included below.


“The first thought articulated in the UDHR is the connection between human rights and freedom, justice, and peace in the world. Without human rights there is no peace, and without peace, human rights cannot prevail. The Colombia peace process therefore has been a momentous occurrence for the human rights movement. 

Before saying more about the peace process, allow me to also recognize another human-rights anniversary connected to Colombia. It was in Bogota, in April 1948, that the Ninth International Conference of American States adopted the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, also known as the Bogota Declaration. This was the world’s first general international human rights instrument, preceding the Universal Declaration by eight months. The fact that this happened in Bogota — 75 years ago — highlights the special importance of Latin America in the human rights movement. 

When the Bogota Declaration was passed, a period of Colombian history known as La Violencia was just beginning, an especially vicious period in a conflict that is a century old and is ultimately about access to Colombia’s ample resources and economic possibilities. Over time, the conflict has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands, ruined the lives of millions more, and spread fear and anguish across Colombia. 

There have been many parties involved in the conflict against the government, including both left- and right-wing military groups. On the left, the FARC and the ELN stand out. It was with the FARC that our guest of honor made peace in 2016, for which that same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize. This agreement is a historic achievement, in terms of both complexity and inclusiveness; there has simply been nothing like it, ever. 

It is practically impossible in a conflict of such proportions to find solutions that satisfy all parties. Accordingly, there has also been much resistance to this agreement. President Santos’s successor, Ivan Duque, won on a platform opposing the peace. The current president, Gustavo Petro, again took a more positive stance towards negotiations, announcing his Total Peace plan last year — a plan that also involves the ELN. 

The situation continues to be dire, and among the regular bad news is that of assassinations of community leaders and human rights activists. Peace, after all, is something you make with your enemies, not with your friends, and making peace after decades of pain and anger is a task for generations — but a task that, to a large extent thanks to President Santos, has a firm place in Colombian institutions and day-to-day politics.

All this is a suitable subject for this year’s Edwin L. Godkin Lecture. The Godkin lectures are among Harvard’s most prestigious lecture series and were established exactly 120 years ago. The lectures honor 19th-century Irish-born journalist Edwin Godkin who founded the magazine The Nation and was editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post. The theme of this series is ‘the essentials of free government and the duties of the citizen,’ and over the years many distinguished leaders have given this lecture. The essentials of free government and the duties of the citizen are much on the mind of today’s Godkin lecturer. 

President Santos was in office from 2010 to 2018, and during that time also succeeded in significantly improving Colombia’s social, economic, and environmental indicators — a matter not accidental to the peace process. While he has been a politician for much of his career, he also spent years working as a journalist and has always felt a special commitment to freedom of the press. His connections to Harvard are deep. He earned an MPA midcareer degree from HKS in 1981, later was a Nieman fellow, and after his presidency was named the Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow for 2018/19. 

The Carr Center has long been involved with human rights in Colombia. Carr Center scholars were among the first to study the magnitude and scope of the reparation efforts introduced as part of the peace process, and Carr Center Faculty Kathryn Sikkink has been the most senior one of them. Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and is one of the world’s leading authorities on human rights and much of whose work has focused on transitional justice with a special focus on South America, specifically also on Colombia."

Kathryn Sikkink joined President Santos on stage in conversation after his address.