Image of Dr. Watenpaugh

Position Title
Professor and Director, Human Rights Studies

  • Human Rights Studies
  • Article 26 Backpack
  • Public Scholarship and Civic Engagement
  • The UC Confronts Hate, Violence, & Mass Atrocity: Conversations on Human Rights, Humanity and Peace
902 Sproul Hall

An American historian and theorist of human rights and humanitarianism, Watenpaugh is an expert on genocide, and the role of the refugee and the forcibly displaced human in world history. He is a leader of international efforts to defend the human rights of displaced and refugee university students and scholars, primarily those affected by the wars and civil conflicts in Syria, Central Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe.

Watenpaugh is the founding director of the UC Davis Human Rights Studies Program, the first academic unit of its kind in the University of California system. Under his leadership, it has grown to one of the largest programs in the nation encompassing a comprehensive interdisciplinary curriculum of over 20 undergraduate and graduate courses and a vital internship and global learning component. In 2024, over 80 UC Davis students majoring in History, English, Political Science, International Relations, and STEM and pre-Med fields graduated with Human Rights Minors. 

With support from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities, he wrote the multiple award-winning Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (California, 2015.) His articles appear in the American Historical Review, Perspectives on History, Social History, Journal of Human Rights, Humanity, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and the Huffington Post. He has lived and worked in Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Armenia, Iraq and Egypt and his writing has been translated in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and German.   Being Modern in the Middle East (Princeton, 2006), his first book, pioneered the study of the middle class and non-Muslim minorities in the Arab Eastern Mediterranean.  

He is currently at work on a new book - The White Savior, the Waif and the Ends of Humanitarianism: A Human Rights Critique  that explores how historians, aid workers, and humanitarian organizations can work to systematically recover the voices of refugees, IDPs, rape victims, and genocide survivors in the past as a way to create a more humane, non-discriminatory and effective humanitarianism in the now. Watenpaugh talked about the book in his 2021 Hardt-Nickachos Lecture in Peace Studies at Arizona State University.

Over 2020-2022 he has been a UC Davis Public Scholarship and Engagement Fellow and held fellowships in public scholarship from both the Davis Humanities Institute and the University of California Humanities Research Institute. In cooperation with the History Project at UC Davis, he is leading a new project "Human Rights Studies for 21st Century Californians"  to support k-16 education and lifetime learning. In 2021 Human Rights Educators USA awarded him the Edward O'Brien Prize for Individual Achievement in Human Rights Education.  Read more in his recent interview "Public Scholarship for Peace."

Since 2013, Watenpaugh has directed an international multi-disciplinary research project to assist refugee university students and scholars fleeing the war. This project has garnered support from the Carnegie Corp. of New York, the Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation.  He was awarded the Institute of International Education Centennial Medal for his efforts in 2019.

Backpack Camera Kizibe
Joining the Backpack community at the Kizibe Refugee Camp, Rwanda (2022).

His team developed and deployed first in the Middle East (2017-, the Article 26 Backpack - The Universal Human Rights Ecosystem for Academic Mobility. Used by thousands of young people, scholars, and activists around the world, at its core, it promotes and defends the human right to education by providing a way to safely curate, protect, and share with universities, scholarship agencies, credential evaluation services, and even employers critical evidence of educational achievement, employment history, professional activities, and research. More important,Backpack builds connection and inclusion.

The digital platform is available in 7 languages: Arabic, English, French, Persian, Russian, Spanish, and Ukrainian.

Listen to Watenpaugh talk about the origins of the Backpack idea and the role of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Human Rights and Humanitarian thought and policy or watch his Richard von Weizsäcker lecture delivered at the American Academy in Berlin, "Suffering, Compassion, and Responsible Scholarship about the Middle East.” 

Watenpaugh is collaborating with the MasterCard Foundation to deploy Backpack in Sub-Saharan Africa.  His team is working to connect young refugees and displaced people from Afghanistan and Ukraine, with it, as well. The team is exploring its use to support DACA recipients in the US.

Watenpaugh teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Human Rights, Genocide, and Humanitarianism. His graduate students come from Religion, Native American Studies, International Agricultural Development, History, and Cultural Studies. 

people in front of a mountain

A father of twin teenagers, when not sailing his sloop Mutara Nebula II beyond the Golden Gate , he can found hiking the Sierras, Cascades or Olympics, fly fishing the headwaters of the Sacramento, listening to the Grateful Dead or watching Star Trek.

Education and Degree(s)
  • Ph.D. UCLA History of the Modern Middle East
  • University of Washington BA History; Near Eastern Languages and Civilization (Honors)
  • American University in Cairo Junior Year Abroad
Honors and Awards
  • Public Scholar Award, International Association for Research on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement
  • Institute of International Education Centennial Medal
  • Human Rights Educators USA - Edward O'Brien Award for Individual Achievement in Human Rights
  • Senior Research Fellow, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut
  • Richard von Weizsäcker Distinguished Visitor and Lecturer - American Academy in Berlin
  • Distinguished Visiting Professor, Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
  • Best Book Prize Competition - Honorable Mention - Pacific Branch America Historical Association
  • Ahmanson Book in the Humanities
  • American Council of Learned Societies/National Endowment for the Humanities International and Area Studies Fellow
  • Senior Fellow in International Peace, US Institute of Peace
  • George S. & Dolores Doré Eccles Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Democracy and Diversity, Tanner Humanities Center, University of Utah
  • Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, Williams College
  • Visiting Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University