Keith David Watenpaugh

Keith David Watenpaugh

Position Title
Professor and Director, Human Rights Studies

  • Human Rights Studies
  • Article 26 Backpack
  • Human Rights Big Idea
  • Public Scholarship and Civic Engagement
902 Sproul Hall
Office Hours
Mondays, 10:00 - 11:00am, outdoors at Scrubs - it's the cafe near near MedSci. Tuesdays, 11:00 AM - Noon, ASUCD Memorial Union, Coffee House - CoHo (outdoors.)

A leading American historian of the contemporary Middle East, Human Rights and modern Humanitarianism, he is an expert on Genocide and its denial, and the role of the refugee and displaced peoples in world history.

Watenpaugh is the founding director of the Human Rights Studies Program, the first academic unit of its kind in the University of California system. He has been a leader of international efforts to address the needs of displaced and refugee university students and professionals, primarily those affected by the wars and civil conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

He is a founding steering committee member of the University Alliance for Refugees and at-Risk Migrants

Over 2020-2021 he has been a UC Davis Public Scholarship and Engagement Fellow and holds fellowships in public scholarship from both the Davis Humanities Institute and the University of California Humanities Research Institute.

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

His team developed and deployed in the Middle East (2017-, the Article 26 Backpack™ - The Universal Human Rights Tool for Academic Mobility. At its core, it provides refugee young people with a way to safely store and share with universities, scholarship agencies, credential evaluation services, and even employers their educational background, employment history, professional achievements and goals. The Backpack builds connection and inclusion. Backpack is available in five languages: Arabic, English, Spanish, French and Persian.

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 Venezuela with it, as well. The team is exploring its use to support DACA recipients in the US.

Author most recently of 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.  His first book, Being Modern in the Middle East (Princeton, 2006) 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 and the Waif: A Human Rights Critique of Humanitarianism 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 humanitarianism history as a way  to create a more humane, non-discriminatory and effective humanitarianism in the now.

Watenpaugh teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Human Rights, Genocide, and Humanitarianism.

Education and Degree(s)
  • Ph.D. UCLA History of the Modern Middle East
Honors and Awards
  • Institute of International Education Centennial Medal
  • Best Book Prize Competition - Honorable Mention - Pacific Branch America Historical Association
  • Richard von Weizsäcker Distinguished Visitor and Lecturer - American Academy in Berlin
  • 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
  • Distinguished Visiting Professor, American University in Armenia (postponed)
  • Senior Research Fellow, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut
  • Distinguished Visiting Professor, Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
  • Visiting Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University
  • Human Rights Educators USA - Edward O'Brien Award for Individual Achievement in Human Rights