Human rights come of age

One of the fastest-growing Masters degrees is no longer the preserve of law departments alone, writes Arabella Schnadhorst

Thirty-four-year-old Babatope Akinwande has just returned from two months in Liberia. As a senior programme officer for International Alert, a London-based NGO, he has been training journalists in preparation for the country's future elections.

Thirty-four-year-old Babatope Akinwande has just returned from two months in Liberia. As a senior programme officer for International Alert, a London-based NGO, he has been training journalists in preparation for the country's future elections.

His organisation specialises in conflict resolution and Akinwande, who was born in Nigeria, says that the MA in human rights he completed last year at Manchester University prepared him well.

"One of the main things that I learned on this course was the importance of cultural sensitivity," he explains. "You can't just sweep in and impose your western version of human rights. The people in Liberia have been through so much in the past few years and you have to respect their feelings and their rights. My challenge was to improve the local journalists' writing skills without offending them."

Manchester is one of several universities offering Masters in human rights. Since the MA was set up in 2002 there has been a huge increase in the numbers of these programmes on offer. Stephen Bowen runs a new human rights MA at Kingston University.

"The number of human rights organisations and the respect they're held in by governments and the world's population has grown enormously over the past 50 years," he says. "If the challenge of the 20th century was to set standards for human rights, the challenge of this century is to realise them. And we will need plenty of human rights champions to do this."

There is no doubt that the seven students studying for the new MA at Kingston are getting first-class tutoring. Bowen also runs high-profile campaigns for Amnesty International UK. His co-tutors are equally involved in human rights work. One is a barrister for Liberty and another, Professor Brian Brivati, is an expert in the study of genocide.

The course, says Bowen, looks into the history, status and scope of human rights, as well as enabling students to explore the successes and failures, in both theory and practice, in securing them today. As part of the course the students do a two-month work placement in a human rights-related organisation.

"It's a vital part of their study," explains Bowen. "Whilst there is a great academic discourse behind human rights, it's vital for our students to see these rights being challenged and secured on the ground."

Until the arrival of the first dedicated masters programme, at Essex University in the early 1990s, the subject was traditionally studied as part of a law degree. According to Dr Andrew Fagan, who now runs the MA course in Essex, that was rather limiting.

"Simply knowing the law on a human rights issue isn't enough to understand why a human right is being violated, or not being ratified," he explains. "You need the social, cultural and political knowledge that only comes from a multi-disciplinary approach."

Like the Kingston course, the programme at Essex concentrates on the theory and practice of human rights. Every year it welcomes a growing number of students from a variety of ethnic and academic backgrounds and this alone, says Fagan, can be very instructive.

"We have people from around the world, whose experiences of human rights are very different," he says. "We give them plenty of opportunity to debate between themselves and we hope that every one will leave with a more realistic, sophisticated and critical view of human rights."

City University in London, like several other institutions, offers a wide variety of programmes. Students can examine human rights exclusively or combine the course with other specialist areas, such as international politics, criminology and policing or refugee studies.

"Human rights are an enormous subject," says the founder of the masters programme at City, Professor Tony Woodiwiss. "We want to ensure that our students can specialise in areas that are of particular interest to them. This will also help with any future job choices that they might make."

Although some students use their qualification to move into further academic research, the majority look for work in the human rights sector. Several of last year's graduates from City are now working for international aid organisations or have moved into the NGO world. Some have gone to the Balkans and others are working in the United Nations system.

"It has become a very competitive job market," says Bowen. "But that's a small price to pay for at last having human rights so far up the global agenda."

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