Real-life Work for Human Rights

Author: Richard Conklin '59M.A.

Barbara Frey, a 1978 Notre Dame graduate, has never owned or discharged a firearm, but she can confidently refer to “hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers” and is among the world’s leading experts on how small arms and light weapons impact international human rights.

The 47-year-old attorney is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the human rights program in its Institute for Global Studies. In 2000 she became an alternate to the 26-member United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. Thus began her education in such matters as heavy machine guns, recoilless rifles and mortars of calibers of less than 100mm.

While headlines worry about nuclear arms and chemical and biological agents, the “new weapons of mass destruction,” Frey points out, are those designed for personal or small-crew use. “Circulating throughout the globe are an estimated 550 million small arms that cause at least 500,000 deaths a year, perhaps double that in injuries, including a disproportionately high number among civilians and children,” she says. Misuse of small arms throughout the world by state agents, paramilitary groups, insurgents and terrorists exacerbate human rights issues from rape to forced recruitment of children soldiers. Her study on this issue has prompted the United Nations to commission an extended investigation on how the international community can regulate small arms traffic.

Frey is somewhat defensive about sitting behind a desk in a campus social science tower. “Theory and research are critical to human rights work,” she says, “but I like to balance it off with real issues.” As a Notre Dame undergraduate, she spent an eye-opening summer of community organizing in Oakland, California, where she rallied neighborhoods to demand better trash removal and police protection.

Sister Jean Lenz, OSF, ‘67M.A., assistant vice president for student affairs, recalls Frey as the kind of leader "who didn’t become president of an existing organization but instead liked to start things from scratch." One of those things was women’s basketball, which Frey, a 5-8 forward, began at the club level in the pioneer days of coeducation. She has coached her daughter, Maddie, on a community recreational team that sported Ruth Riley headbands and “went manic” watching the Irish win the 2001 NCAA championship. Even today, Lenz notes, a conversation with Frey is apt to veer from, say, immigration issues to the coaching style of Muffet McGraw.

After Frey earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin, she spent six months in Santiago, Chile, working with the country’s Catholic human rights organization, the only bulwark for human rights against the oppressive regime of General Augusto Pinochet. That experience solidified her belief in a church where the dignity of the individual was an institutional value. She then joined a Minneapolis law firm, only to become founding secretary (starting things from scratch again) of a small group of lawyers that evolved into one of the largest human rights organizations in the country, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights. As its executive director from 1985 to 1997, her travels on behalf of cross-cultural human rights in those years included Chile, Greece, Switzerland, Argentina, the Philippines, Poland, Albania, Brazil, Austria and China.

Family considerations dictated a partial return to home base seven years ago. In addition to her professorial responsibilities, she has been a private international human relations consultant, with clients ranging from The MacArthur Foundation to the International Labour Office. A few years ago she taught human rights to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at a Saint Paul magnet school. “The youngsters even formed an extracurricular group on their own,” she recalls with pride. “They called it HOPE—Helping Other People Everywhere.”

Frey enjoys an extensive network of friends and acquaintances, all bound together by human rights concerns. Many of her friends are at Notre Dame, where she chaired an advisory committee for the Center for Social Concerns when Father Don McNeill, CSC, ’58, was director. “Barb was a lover and challenger of Notre Dame in the area of peace and justice,” he says. “She had a personal dynamism and great discernment.”

If there is a subject that brings a slight set to Frey’s jaw, it is the plight of women in much of the underdeveloped world. “Education of women is the key to so much,” she says, “not only elimination of human rights abuses directed at women, but also on larger issues such as poverty and health.”

The concern over human rights in America has heightened these days, but Frey doesn’t believe politics here will trump such rights. “Denial of significant human rights in our country has never worked,” she says. “If an idea is right, it cannot be turned back. We should see human rights as a cornerstone of national security.”

Dick Conklin retired as associate vice president of University Relations at Notre Dame and now lives in Mendota Heights, Minesota.