Katharine Young (Lee Pellegrini)

Crossing boundaries

Boston College Law School Professor Katharine G. Young is a leading authority on how human rights are interpreted and administered across nations

The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 established international human rights as we know them today, but 75 years—and nearly as many treaties—later, these rights have evolved, and so has the world. Boston College Law School Professor Katharine G. Young is a leading authority on how human rights are interpreted and administered across national boundaries in an era marked by globalization, political polarization, and climate change.

Young, who is a Dean’s Distinguished Scholar and the associate dean of faculty and global programs at ϱ Law, is an expert in the fields of international human rights law, comparative constitutional law, economic and social rights, and law and gender. She is the author of Constituting Economic and Social Rights and the editor or co-editor of two other books. Most recently, she was invited to co-edit The Oxford Handbook on Economic and Social Rights, which will feature chapters by 52 scholars from diverse disciplines and regions about the state of these rights in the 21st century.

“So many constitutions around the world now integrate rights to education, health care, housing, Social Security, food, water, and sanitation,” said Young, noting that many of these constitutions drew inspiration from the Universal Declaration and other human rights instruments. “The next step is to see what it means to be in a legal system where these are actually guaranteed.”

In her recent research, Young has studied the right to housing in South Africa, the right to health care in Canada, and the right to asylum in Australia, as well as the barriers that can slow or limit access to these rights, including long queues and complex bureaucracies. In a 2022 article in Georgetown Law Journal, Young identified another potential barrier: the recent effort by President Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to limit the scope of human rights to an interpretation of the UN’s original 1948 Universal Declaration and the United States 1776 Declaration of Independence.

The judicial theory called originalism, which asserts that the law should be interpreted according to its original meaning at the time it was written, has long been applied to the U.S. Constitution, but Young said that the extension of originalist interpretation to the human rights field is recent—and concerning.

“The U.S. is singular in allowing human rights to explicitly inform its foreign policy, and that’s something to be celebrated,” Young said. “But if we use a view of human rights that’s frozen in the past, I believe that could be very problematic for recipients of U.S. foreign aid, and selectively diminish human rights that were recognized more concretely after 1948, including women’s rights, disability rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and rights that prevent race-based discrimination.” It could also diminish recent evolutions in the interpretation of economic and social rights such as the human right to water, she noted.

Young first became interested in international human rights as a law student in her native Australia. This interest led her to study abroad in Germany; after graduation, she practiced in Melbourne, Ghana, and New York City and earned two advanced legal degrees at Harvard Law School.

In 1999, Young interned at the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Even then, it was already clear that climate change was a global crisis that would not be avoided in any country or community, and that there would be significant obstacles to addressing it,” she said. Increasingly, her work on economic and social rights intersects with the pressing challenges created by climate change.

This academic year, as part of ϱ’s new Program on Global Ethics and Social Trust, she is chairing an interdisciplinary Working Group on Climate Change and Migration. The group includes ϱ faculty members Noah Snyder, professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Hanqin Tian, Schiller Institute Professor of Global Sustainability and professor of earth and environmental sciences; Andrea Vicini, S.J., the Michael P. Walsh Professor of Bioethics and chair of the Theology Department; and Maryanne Loughry, senior advisor to the vice provost for global engagement and social work lecturer. It also includes scholars from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, Pontifical Catholic University in Chile, and Sophia University in Japan.

“The science on different energy models and sustainability is robust, but the obstacles to implementing it are often cultural, legal, and political,” Young said. “There is so much to be gained by speaking about these challenges across disciplines and national boundaries.”

The working group held three meetings this fall, and it will meet three more times before publishing its findings next summer. In the meantime, Young will continue her own research.

“The economic and social rights that I focus on, from food security to housing, are all subject to different understandings when you consider sustainability as a factor,” she said. “In the year ahead, I want to study the pressures climate change is placing on human rights as I continue to learn from my peers in other fields.”