Hidden in a small, academic office on Utica College littered with old “New York Times”, Theodore Orlin quietly checks his email and makes arrangements to travel to Albania later in the week. At first glance he looks like an ordinary professor, but a closer look reveals a man who has helped change the world and save lives.
Orlin is a human rights advocate, one of the most distinguished in the world. Human rights advocates are people who fight authoritarian governments so every human being has basic rights, such as the right to a nationality. This goal has sent Orlin throughout the world, including India, Romania, Kosovo, and Malawi to help protect people from horrible conditions that are unfit for human beings, as well as set up basic human rights principles such as free elections and the availability of clean drinking water. Orlin protects the less fortunate in these conditions by being their voice against corrupt governments.
Orlin began his career in the Peace Corps where he was stationed in Malawi, a poverty-stricken African country. He remembers waking up each morning and seeing a long line of mothers at the dispensary holding their newborn infants, some lifeless and some on the brink of death. Diseases such as malaria and other preventable health problems such as protein deficiencies caused this tragic phenomenon. This daily morning image changed Orlin forever; simple day-to-day problems seemed small and insignificant. He had found his calling.
Throughout the years as a human rights advocate, Orlin has seen many successes. His overseas work has built and improved strong non-governmental organizations to push for basic human rights. These non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, understand the treaties and documents ratified by their country and can use them effectively for the common good. Some famous non-governmental organizations are Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders. NGOs are not affiliated with any country or government and work to keep governments “in check” with basic world standards of health and human rights. Orlin has worked with NGOs in Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and Albania, to name a few. He believes strong NGOs are the main building block to success in establishing human rights.
His academic work has also been very rewarding. His writings on the death penalty and euthanasia have had a heavy influence on opinion around the world, especially in Eastern Europe. Changing world views and opinion about human rights issues can later help Orlin and future human rights advocates change policies and reality.
In Orlin’s eyes his biggest success is the young people he has helped inspire at Utica College. He is very proud of the remarkable things some of his students have accomplished in the world.
“Human rights is something we must always strive for; there will always be work to do.” Orlin said.
By inspiring young students, he is also helping future generations and their human rights struggle. Orlin has many students who now work for NGOs that he helped create and give power to.
Utica College senior Amanda Godkin has taken several classes with Orlin. “The first thing you notice when in a class with Professor Orlin is his passion for the subject matter and his knowledge he has in the subject,” Godkin said.
His success has also come with some risks to his own well-being. His work in overseeing the first free elections in Romania infuriated the current administration there. Orlin was constantly watched by the secret police and his landlord in Bucharest was questioned. His phones were tapped and although he encountered no physical harm, he felt tremendous pressure from the government. His work in Kosovo also put him in dangerous situations. Kosovo went through a bloody civil war and genocide in the late 1990s, which eventually led to a NATO intervention. He remembers surveying damage with NATO officials, where he “followed footprints” for landmines, which were placed all over the country to slow down a NATO invasion. Orlin’s human rights work has put him in many parts of the world where the average American would not feel comfortable.
Throughout his illustrious career Orlin has seen many fundamental changes in the field of human rights. He saw the Berlin Wall come down, something he said he could never imagine happening.
There has been a complete change in culture in places like the Balkans and central Europe regarding basic human rights. Eastern Europe was once a place with a terrible human rights record but they are now leading push for rights for all people. When he began human rights weren’t even a thought in many places. The never-ending problem of protecting humans from humans is something that has been recognized by nearly the entire world. Once radical ideas such as policies not to torture or a person’s right to a nationality are becoming mainstream ideas in places where they once were not, he said.
Currently Orlin is traveling to Tirana, Albania for the sixth annual International Human Rights Film Festival, of which he is the honorary president. Orlin helped develop this festival with his long-time companion Kujtim Cashku. He first met Cashku while working in Kosovo. Orlin urged him to combine his film school with his passion for human rights. That conversation started the International Human Rights Film Festival, which is now a five-day event with 36 full-length films. The festival is attended by many human rights advocates as well as citizens from around the world. The goal of this festival is to bring awareness to problems that are occurring all over the world.
Orlin would not say he is famous in Albania, but he is very well-known in certain circles. Albania and neighboring countries such as Romania and Kosovo have reaped the benefits of his work. He has had several articles in local newspapers and is considered a top human rights advocate. Albania is a fitting spot for the film festival.
When Orlin started his work it was a strict totalitarian state, but the country has seen dramatic changes. They have ratified the European Convention of Human Rights and have also become a part of the Council of Europe, an organization of European countries that put human rights as a priority. Orlin said Albania still has its share of human rights violations, but having the International Human Rights Film Festival there keeps the issue in the forefront.
Orlin believes more change is yet to come in the field of human rights. He believes if people stay focused and determined on making the world a better place, it will happen. “Young people are concerned about their own future or own well being, as they should be,” he said. “Quality of life is what you should strive for. Quality of life includes helping others. There is nothing wrong with caring for others, that is the quality of being a human being.” Orlin understands not everyone can be a crusader for human rights, but he does believe everyone should as least be conscious of the world’s problems.
Orlin thanks Utica College for his success. He understands that he wouldn’t be able to do his work in any other profession. The culmination of his life’s work in human rights advocacy is based on the opportunity and flexibility the college has given him for the last 27 years. Not only is Utica College beneficial to Orlin, but Orlin is also beneficial to Utica College.
Dean John Johnsen of the School of Arts and Sciences said, “Ted has been responsible for planting seeds in college life.” The seeds he is referring to are the college’s exchange program in Finland as well as the Archeological Field School in Albania.
President Todd Hutton also recognizes the clout Orlin brings to Utica College and the importance of his work around the world.
“Over the years, students have greatly benefited from the unique perspective that he brings to the field, and the College’s reputation has been greatly enhanced because of his work,” Hutton said. “More importantly, he has dedicated his life to improving the lives of men, women, and children who are suffering at the hand of political and economic oppression.”
He went on to say Orlin was the first Utica College professor to be selected for the Harold T. Clark Jr. Professor of Human Rights Scholarship and Advocacy.