Taylor Whitsell (Government, Secondary in European History, Politics and Societies, 2022) received a Senior Thesis Grant in 2020 and a Summer Internship Grant from the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies (CES) in 2021 to conduct a virtual internship at the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Taylor Whitsell came to Harvard with a mission: to learn about and fight against human rights violations. While the journey exposed him to the depths of human cruelty, Whitsell possesses a steadfast optimism. Where does it come from?
Whitsell grew up in Danville, KY, where he often felt isolated by his peers - but he found strength in this ostracism. As he explained, “I found it difficult growing up. I got politically engaged from a young age because my views and opinions went against what was conventional in my community.” In school, he was often the only person presenting a different perspective, requiring him to have a deeper understanding of the issues. “I felt that in order to hold my own, I needed to do my research. I needed to know more, learn more.”
“We are having conversations we’ve never had before, and by uniting against grand corruption we are opening up the ability to build a better society moving forward.”
Whitsell also always had the support of his parents, who encouraged him to develop his ideas and translate them into action. Both mental health workers, his parents were active in the community, despite opposition. They also, as he put it, “tried to instill a sense of compassion and empathy.” Whitsell now places this at the heart of his values.
For Whitsell, optimism comes by gaining knowledge, even if it’s ugly, then reacting with activism, not nihilism. This is how Whitsell reacted when the Armenian members of his family shared stories of the horrors that befell their native country. Although not Armenian himself, Whitsell was deeply affected by their depictions of the genocide and the deep wounds it left on a people’s collective consciousness. It motivated him to learn all he could and help in the fight against genocide and human rights violations.
“I wanted to go beyond just being that inconvenient voice in the classroom,” he explained. “So instead, I tried to seek out opportunities in my community where I could make a difference.” He attended political conferences, phone banked, and taught citizenship classes to immigrants and refugees.
Working with refugees and immigrants, who had arrived in Kentucky from places like the Congo and the former Yugoslavia, made him consider the pattern of human rights violations, beyond his personal connection.
“All these threads of human rights, diplomacy, genocide awareness and prevention were running through my head. And I knew I wanted an opportunity in college to
work more on those issues and that just wasn't going to be available to me back home in Kentucky. So, I ended up applying to Harvard.”
As soon as Whitsell arrived at Harvard in 2017, he was ready to start this work. In Dr. Gloria Ayee’s class, “Transitional Justice and the Politics of Truth Commissions,” Whitsell found his path to address human rights violations in the field of transitional justice. Having observed the long-term effects of these crimes on the Armenian members of his family, Whitsell was eager to explore this approach, which didn’t only address the damage inflicted by extreme violence but also the systems that made these abuses possible.
His passion for transitional justice materialized as a senior thesis, “Shielding Justice: National War Crimes Prosecutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, which outlined the successes and failures of national war crimes prosecutions in the wake of the Bosnian War.
Whitsell’s research is also relevant to Russia’s war on Ukraine and its effects on Europe. As a result, Whitsell is anxious that we learn from the mistakes that took place in Bosnia and the Balkans. “I’m excited by the show of solidarity currently taking place across Europe and the world in support of Ukraine.” However, he also remembers the failures of Bosnia and the cost when the international audience became disaffected and turned its eyes away.
“What's unfortunate is that in this age, social media has amplified the information war. It's become very fuzzy to people and it's easier for people to check out and say, ‘well, I'm not a geopolitical expert so I shouldn’t have an opinion.’”
Whitsell is eager to leave Harvard and enter the fight again misinformation and ignorance that can easily drive people to apathy or worse, violence. After graduation, he begins work at Integrity Initiatives International (III), an NGO in Boston, which works transnationally in the fight against corruption. For as Whitsell described, when you “investigate the catalyst for the events in Bosnia and Herzegovina and other areas of gross human rights violations, it becomes clear that corruption is usually at the heart.”
He was particularly drawn to this organization because it doesn’t simply provide a top-down solution, but amplifies the work already being done by local grassroots organizations, helping them to leverage their power and connect with other likeminded groups across the world. “It's about being more strategic in adapting to and realizing there's no one-size-fits-all template,” he explained.
He acknowledges there is still a lot of work to be done; transitional justice and the fight against corruption, is difficult and is, by definition, context driven. “Sometimes it feels like all we know is what doesn’t work” he admitted, but “we are having conversations we’ve never had before, and by uniting against grand corruption we are opening up the ability to build a better society moving forward.”
In the end, his belief in change and the strength of individuals within a community to provide even imperfect solutions means that, despite current obstacles, Whitsell remains optimistic about the future.