Law graduates: fighting for justice around the world

With human rights under threat, graduates are signing up for Masters programmes in how to defend us.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When he started out, the phrase "human rights defender" didn't have the same ring to it in Europe. Since then, laws protecting basic human rights have undergone dramatic changes. And, over the past 15 years, UK universities have responded by leading the way in equipping people with the knowledge and skills needed to defend those rights: enter, the Masters in human rights.

The 12-month Masters in human rights is offered at more than a dozen universities. The degree is offered in two variants: there is the LLM in human rights law, and a multi-disciplinary MA in human rights. The syllabuses can be broad, covering law, politics, sociology, history and even anthropology. It can open doors to careers in international bodies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). "The fact that there are now several human rights courses at universities is long overdue but very exciting. It is a sign of how mainstream our message has become and also an indication that ever-greater numbers of young people want a career in social change," says Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK.

Essex University's Human Rights Centre was among the first to offer an MA in human rights, in 1991. Core courses cover the philosophy, law and politics of human rights, and their impact on society. Students then specialise by picking two options in areas relevant to their career aspirations. Those interested in working with refugee organisations will be more attracted to a course on the international law on the protection of refugees.

Essex's law faculty independently runs an LLM version, focusing on human rights law. "Unlike the MA, the LLM is not multi-disciplinary," argues Andrew Fagan, director of the MA programme. It is intended for lawyers who want to look at how human rights are written into law, and at how institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, ensure that the rules are applied. One of the biggest attractions to the two courses is the diversity of students it brings together. "There are over 50 students on each course, and around 80 per cent are from overseas," says Fagan.

"A minority of students come directly from undergraduate degrees, but most are already operating at professional level as police officers, diplomats, NGO officials," says Sir Nigel Rodley, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture who teaches on the LLM.

Similar stories emerge from Nottingham's School of Law, which has been running an LLM in human rights since 1994, and the London School of Economics, which is offering an MSc in human rights. "Last year, 60 different nationalities applied for a place," says Harriet Gallagher, the LSE course administrator. Lewis Davis, 22, who is studying for the law Masters at Nottingham, says: "My fellow students are an eclectic mix of people and it's really refreshing to talk to someone about their experiences in a country that you didn't know existed!"

Professor Geraldine Van Bueren of Queen Mary College, part of the University of London's intercollegiate LLM in human rights, remembers some of her own students. "One had worked in Afghanistan before joining the course, while another was a criminal prosecutor from Zambia who came specifically because she was re-writing the children laws there."

Although most students on the LLM will have a first degree in law, that is not a prerequisite at several universities. After all, even Lord Plant of Highfield is no lawyer, yet he sits on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. "It is important to have a non-lawyer, to ask the stupid question the answer to which can be quite revealing,"he says.

Apart from the rich diversity of students on the human rights programmes, another key attraction is the staff. "Because the work in the human rights field is new and pioneering, people who teach are often at the forefront of their field - students appreciate that," says Van Bueren, who helped draft the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

However, it pays to research which Masters programme suits you best. Although the core courses cover similar ground, differences do exist.

"What's particularly interesting is that, while some of the new human rights courses focus narrowly on human rights law, others concentrate on practical skills such as campaigning and lobbying. That's very valuable," says Allen.

If you are after more fieldwork, but not less bookwork, Kingston University offers a Masters programme where students are required to go on a work placement at an NGO. And, the taught part of the programme balances theory with a "practical course based on case studies that explore how human rights have been promoted and protected," explains Joanne Sawyer, a barrister who combines teaching at Kingston with her current post as Legal Officer for Liberty.

"There is increasing competition for jobs in organisations dealing with human rights. I would strongly recommend that students develop a strong understanding of what they want to work on," cautions Sawyer. "First and foremost they should have the ethos and values of human rights, and should be grounded in practicality and reality - meaning they should understand how the mechanisms to secure human rights work, how Parliament works, and how bills are passed."

The University of Wales offers an MA in human rights where students can learn in-depth about the impact of human rights on social development, such as health and education. At Sussex University, the course is taught by experts gathered across several faculties, including anthropology and languages, to give students a strongly multi-disciplinary perspective.

When Michael Mansfield QC started out, the law of human rights didn't exist: "My route into human rights law was through a series of serious miscarriages of justice. As a result, I helped establish InterRights as a complement to Am-nesty. Human rights is the most challenging of all fields because you are dealing with the most basic of human values, namely the right to life and access to justice without which it is often impossible to establish peace."

For NGO volunteering: (charity founded by Clive Stafford Smith)

'The lecturers are all practising in human rights and are inspirational'

Joanna Cartwright, 21, is studying for an MA in Human Rights at Kingston University and has a BSc in Biomedicine.

I decided to study something I was passionate about and in which I could make a difference to people. The course is hugely varied and we have the opportunity to explore human rights from all angles, including history, case studies, independent research and work placement.

The lecturers are all practising in human rights, and are enthusiastic and inspirational. The biggest difficulty has been to complete sufficient reading each week because I am also working part-time to fund my studies.

My work placement has been at Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia society, where I have been working alongside Keith Reed, the campaign director. It has been an incredible opportunity. I have been given huge responsibility from the outset, working on a campaign, helping to organise a conference, and researching current news, along with many other tasks that I would be expected to do if I were the director of campaigns in a human rights organisation. I have benefited immensely from my placement in increased experience and knowledge.

There are seven students on my course, aged from 21 to 50, and they all come from different geographical and educational backgrounds, which adds diversity to debates. Many people had set ideas about what they thought on certain topics, and I think that everyone has been forced to rethink their views, which has been really enjoyable.