“The Rule of Law Needs Robust Institutions”: An Interview with Saman Zia-Zarifi
Saman Zia-Zarifi, Regional Director Asia & Pacific at the ICJ, was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. He completed a BA from Cornell University in 1990 and a Juris Doctor from Cornell Law School in 1993, and later an LL.M. in Public International Law from New York University School of Law in 1997. Before his current position, he served as deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division from 2000 onwards, and as Amnesty International’s director for Asia and the Pacific from 2008 to 2012. Mr. Zarifi has recently been appointed to serve as ICJ’s next Secretary General, starting from April 2017.
ICJ, the International Commission of Jurists, works to promote and protect human rights through the rule of law. To achieve this, it aims to ensure the development and implementation of international human rights, secure the realization of all rights, safeguard the principle of separation of power, and guarantee the independence of the judiciary and legal profession.
Key Interview Takeaways:
- The international legal framework for human rights and rule of law is under high pressure worldwide. Trump, Duterte, and others are questioning and rejecting the very notion of rule of law as well as the necessity for human rights. A great challenge is arising for the human rights community, as international law is shaken to its foundations
- Asian countries are especially resistant to the applicability of the international framework. However, strong institutions of the rule of law foster much-needed sustainable economic growth and development
- Southeast Asia is Asia’s biggest disappointment: it should be doing a lot better in terms of international law and national development, and would strongly benefit from freer societies
- Strengthening institutions of the rule of law, ensuring their independence, and developing robust regional institutions should be key policy priorities for Southeast Asian countries
- Globalization has had some very beneficial effects, but also important drawbacks. Fortunately, those can be contained through strong institutions and an international framework that establishes strict accountability, serves justice, and fights impunity
- The international framework has caused great advances in human rights, but today’s rising skepticism could be attributed to the human rights community’s failure to successfully communicate its achievements
Q: Thank you for being here with us today, Mr. Zarifi. Could you start the interview by giving us a brief overview of your personal background? We are particularly interested in learning the reasons that awakened your interest in human rights and rule of law.
I was born and raised in Iran before the Islamic Revolution, in a family that was very politically active, and nearly always on the wrong side of the government. Unsurprisingly, many family members had to spend time in jail, or live in exile for several decades. During my childhood, Iran was ruled as a monarchy, organized around a government backed by the West, and a draconian and ruthless secret service trained mainly by the CIA. The Iranian secret service was notorious for its ruthlessness, and its indifference towards human rights. As a matter of fact, my own uncle was jailed at the time, his situation giving rise to a prominent international case, making him an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Similarly, he was also included in a study conducted by ICJ, on torture and unfair trials in Iran. Notwithstanding this international pressure, my uncle was eventually taken out of prison and executed, as was common with political opposition in those days. This left a very strong impression on me as a person, and I realized that I was living in a world replete with human rights abuses, characterized by strong limitations on political and civil freedoms.
In reaction to this, I witnessed on the one hand domestic pressures from ordinary people to have their rights respected and justice served, and on the other hand efforts from international organizations and international law. Unfortunately, regardless of their moral and ethical significance, most of these efforts did not bear any immediate results. Very soon, my family and I had to live through the 1979 Revolution, of which we were very supportive because it held a promise of change and justice. Sadly, as is customary with revolutions, the country was taken over by the most radical political faction, and declared an Islamic Republic. Many people supportive of the revolution were left disappointed, and placed once again under heavy pressure and control. Demands for justice were basically perverted into justification for oppression.
My teenage years coincided with the war against Iraq, which began in 1980. It was essentially one of the last old-fashioned inter-state military conflicts, with two armies taking each other on head first. My family and I experienced nightly bombardments of Tehran, and constant shooting, which in retrospect must have been a traumatic experience. However, it was just a part of our lives at that point, and to be fair it was actually pretty exciting. My friends and I were able to identify every single plane that we saw. At that age, given the circumstances that characterized my daily life, I realized the importance of international standards not only for how governments should treat their own people, but also how they should behave when they are fighting. Many of my friends and family were drawn into the war, and subjected to clear violations of the laws of war, by the Iraqis and their chemical weapons for instance, and also by the Iranian government and its human wave warfare tactics.
I left Iran for the USA when I was 15, and studied to become a lawyer. My upbringing left me very much aware of all the atrocities going on in the world, and therefore my feeling was that I, as a lawyer, had the responsibility to fight this. If I didn’t start fighting for it, who else would?
Q: Which global and regional contemporary challenges and trends do you believe most highlight the importance of organizations such as ICJ, and justify their efforts?
I believe that there are three global developments that affect our work in human rights, which I will discuss in descending order of historical magnitude. First and foremost, the post-World War II period is known for its development of an international human rights legal framework. The legal framework set into motion a wave of positive human rights developments that stretch all the way to the present day, but it is currently facing its greatest challenge since WWII. We must never forget what an extraordinary accomplishment this is. Governments agreeing to a common set of principles on how people should be treated, and committing to the notions of equality and prohibition of discrimination, represented a globally unprecedented step forward, which paved the way for today’s human rights environment. Organizations such as ICJ, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, which I have all worked with, were deeply involved in the development of the international framework.
The second development is the turn that took place in the last two decades, following the narrative of governments after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. In fact, terrorists’ use of attacks on civilians to goad state actors, and particularly the most powerful state (the US), into abandoning their own values, was very successful. The fact that the US declared a global war on terror, not terrorism, combined with its military and geopolitical responses, was in many ways exactly what the terrorists wanted. Terrorists, of which I saw many up close in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, clearly committed atrocities and violated the laws of war and human rights. The reason behind it though, is because they were seeking to provoke horrible retaliations, in order to create a narrative of equality, and generate some false legitimacy as to why they needed to resort to brutality. From this perspective, the terrorists’ strategy has been extremely successful.
This second wide-scale wave of change in terms of human rights caused some sort of a career change for myself. At the time, I had been a corporate lawyer, then an academic, and I had just begun working with Human Rights Watch on issues of academic freedom and globalization. On September 11th, 2001, I was working in our Human Rights Watch office, located in the Empire State Building. It was an early morning and one of my colleagues suddenly ran into my office saying that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Our office had a clear view on the WTC, and the day was very clear, beautiful in fact. At that point I saw one of the two towers on fire, and watched as the second plane hit the other tower. Obviously, it was not a random accident. During my hectic run home, the two towers fell, marking the most shocking and horrifying level of terrorist brutality in our modern world.
A few weeks after the attacks, my career track took a twist, and I was deployed to Pakistan on the Afghan border, after which I ended up spending quite some time in Afghanistan. At that time, the global war on terror turned to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places such as India, Southern Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. A lot of my work immediately after 9/11 focused on ensuring that the existing international legal framework for human rights would achieve two goals. Firstly, it needed to address and contain the abuses, atrocities, and savagery committed by the terrorists, of which there was absolutely no doubt when for instance experiencing what the Taliban had done in Afghanistan. However, there was strong doubt whether international law could handle these kinds of actors. In my opinion, the response to terrorism should have been to provide more justice and better law enforcement. Unfortunately, many governments’ response echoed the US’ decisions to not follow the law. Accordingly, international consensuses were abandoned in favor of a notion that state security should be protected at all costs — even at the cost of human rights. The most striking example was the abnegation of the international consensus on torture, replaced by governments’ new-found justification for torture, illegal retention, arbitrary arrests, and other violations. Quite infamously, this led to the creation of closed-door torture centers such as Guantanamo Bay.
Consequently, the second part of my work and of most of the human rights community, was focused on addressing abuses and atrocities perpetrated by terrorists, while at the same time fighting for the respect of international laws by making sure that governments themselves did not violate them. Personally, a lot of my work in that area consisted of monitoring what the US was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the first international observers (there were four of us) monitoring the first trial at Guantanamo, which I have to say was one of the most depressing moments from my experience as an American lawyer. The tribunal unit in Guantanamo really bore no resemblance to the rule of law, it was more of a parody, a perversion of American justice. Hence, the process was absolutely worthless in terms of providing justice or accountability, but very effective in terms of supporting the narrative of terrorists that their actions are justified.
The third and final wave that has important ramifications on human rights is the most recent wave of populism. People like Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US are clearly asserting that they will torture if they need to, despite international laws, because they want to catch “the bad guys”. This represents an unprecedented questioning and rejection of the very notion of rule of law and of the rule for human rights. At least after 9/11, there was still a hint of hypocrisy in what governments were doing, in the sense that they rhetorically assured people that they were following the laws, even though in practice it was different. The particularly alarming aspect of today’s situation is that it is not based on a real threat, but rather on pure fear mongering and cynical electoral calculus. For instance, in the Philippines, the government has provided no evidence that its drug war is actually fighting a real problem, or that the extent of brutality has any effect on the threats that allegedly justify it. This represents a new and important challenge for the international human rights movement, one for which we don’t have a response yet.
Q: What would you say have been ICJ’s biggest accomplishments, and the main challenges or difficulties that it has faced during your time as a regional director?
The ICJ was established in 1952, as one of the first big international human rights organizations. Its creation was coincident with the drive towards establishing an international human rights legal framework that characterized the post-WWII period. ICJ played an important role in this process, establishing international norms, the treaty language, and so on. Furthermore, the ICJ was also instrumental in the notion that these laws should actually be applied to concrete situations, by holding certain events to an international standard. This was very novel, as there was a strong notion that state sovereignty shielded any degree of international involvement or engagement. ICJ proudly embraces this heritage.
During my five years as a regional director for ICJ, I would say that the largest challenge has been to get Asian countries to accept the applicability of the international legal framework. There used to be bizarre claims that Asia was exempted from international human rights, justified by a notion of Asian values. However, these Asian values are a construct, used as an excuse by governments abusing their own people. This model has since made space for a more cynical calculation, which has been called the Chinese model, or the Singapore model. The idea is that Asian governments will provide economic development in exchange for a limitation on their population’s civil and political rights. That is a highly sub-optimal trade-off though, because other Asian countries that have done very well, such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, provided strong economic growth alongside civil rights. Even though China’s economic development has been exceptional, it came after a process of liberalization and improvements in civil and political rights. In the end, this is exactly what the ICJ is doing: fighting governments who justify their oppression on the basis of economic development, or some cultural aspect.
Q: Do you think that countries’ economic development would be higher if they incorporated more civil and political rights? For instance, despite China’s impressive growth, do you believe that it could grow/have grown faster, had it incorporated more civil and political rights early on?
The establishment of strong institutions of the rule of law always helps to foster sustainable economic development. It is definitely possible for countries to experience unsustainable short-term economic growth, but to experience sustainable and long-term growth, they need strong and accountable institutions of the rule of law that minimize inequalities caused by short-term growth. Rule of law incorporates within it a notion of respect for human life, dignity, equality, and lack of discrimination, which are the pillars of the international human rights framework. Both intellectually and empirically, there is no doubt that governments that can provide those pillars will do better, in a more sustainable and equitable way.
Q: What are your views and thoughts on the current and likely future state of rule of law and human rights in Asia? Is there a wide degree of inter-country divergence? Which areas of human rights and rule of law do you think are the most worrisome?
Governments in Asia are doubting, in an unprecedented way, the very necessity of the rule of law, which constitutes a serious threat and challenge. For instance, President Duterte of the Philippines openly asserts “To hell with human rights”, saying that he would just kill people, forsaking any of the commitments that the Philippines has previously made. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen made it clear that he wouldn’t listen to what anybody has to say, which he has been doing more boldly in the last few months.
To separate out the Asian region a bit, Southeast Asia has seen substantial economic development, and if you take a 40 or 50-year view, also witnessed tremendous improvements in people’s lives. However, when looking back over the last 10 years, it’s clear that some human rights developments have actually plateaued or even been eroded in many countries. Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines for instance are countries that really slid. Places like Cambodia and Vietnam, where we had hoped to see far more development, are now frozen and perhaps even sliding as well. Because of what is happening in the world right now, and because of rhetorical statements from world powers like the US and now China and Russia, an environment is created where local authoritarian figures feel emboldened to disregard the international framework.
Other parts of Asia are more complicated. North-East Asia, with Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, is in a slightly different trajectory, and there haven’t been as worrisome developments. South Asia really struggles, and India is at the core of it. The Indian government has articulated some rhetoric that is problematic and discriminatory, but Indian civil society and Indian institutions have shown themselves to be quite robust. Sri Lanka and Nepal have shown themselves to have civil society and institutions, especially judiciaries that can fight back. Even in Pakistan and Bangladesh we still see a struggle – so there is hope.
The real disappointment in the region is Southeast Asia, because it should be doing a lot better in terms of both international law and national development. Countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines, would strongly benefit from freer societies especially given the incredible emphasis on the digital world and modern forms of communication. These are by nature areas of economic activity that require openness and protection instead of more restrictions on freedom of expression. We need Southeast Asia to lead the way given its economic development, but it’s actually falling back on old strategies that suggest governments that are afraid of their populations, trying to control them instead of helping them grow and develop.
Q: Based on your assessment, what would you say are the main policy priorities in Asia to move in the right direction?
At a macro level of development, naturally my main priority is to strengthen institutions for the rule of law. Within Asian countries we see, if I may generalize, very weak rule of law and this has a clear economic impact in terms of both foreign investments and local economic development. By and large, Asian judiciaries are heavily constrained and under pressure from political authorities, which is a problem. Where Asia also lags is in the development of proper regional institutions. If you compare it with any other region in the world, Asia is really the glaring exception to the development of regional institutions that can handle both the economy and human rights – two aspects closely linked. Inter-ASEAN trade is clearly growing, and represents a source of development for the region and for the world, but ASEAN as an institution has done very little to address the predictable problems that would come with inter-ASEAN economic development. In short, people have no effective means of seeking cross-border accountability. Of course, outside of ASEAN South Asia has at best a rudimentary system, and the rest of Asia doesn’t really have anything. The development of those robust institutions is the most important policy commitment that governments in the region could and should make.
Q: In a world, and especially an Asian continent, increasingly shaped by capitalism and globalization, where do you see specific threats with regard to rule of law and more particularly, human rights? How does big business fit in the picture?
One of the central pillars of the ICJ’s work over the past few decades has been the notion that all rights are interconnected. I’ve talked a lot about civil and political rights but in fact a lot of the work done by the ICJ is on economic, social, and cultural rights. When we talk about globalization, there are many aspects which are in fact quite positive. A sizeable part of that is the development of an international legal framework for human rights. Globalization has also had a lot to do with many modern-day advances in terms of quality of life, drops in overall poverty, drops in maternal and infant mortality, and increases in education especially for girls. However, what globalization has also enabled, and what many people mean when complaining about globalization, is the ability of non-state actors to navigate the international framework to their own advantage without accountability. For instance, there are multinational corporations whose budget and influence dwarf that of nation states, and who pervert and/or influence national policies for their own benefit, purely for the profit of their shareholders.
There is clear empirical data on the rise in inequality, especially over the past thirty years, which really encapsulates the problems of globalization. We have seen the 1% who are reaping a much higher percentage of economic development benefits than the rest of the world. That is clearly unsustainable and a lot of the political populism that we are seeing around the world is driven by the public’s anger and resentment regarding that kind of inequality and unequal economic development. The most frustrating is that right now, the very same forces that benefited from globalization (the so-called 1%, or elites), have managed to turn that public anger against classic scapegoats: foreigners, immigrants, and the most marginalized. This is a classic deflection strategy. Whether it’s in Malaysia, the US, or Europe, people who say they are angry and fearful about immigrants clearly don’t seem to be taking into account the economic benefits that they bring, while also not challenging the perversion of justice and the weakness of institutions of the rule of law that let very powerful and wealthy corporations or individuals get away with corruption and the violation of national policies. That is why ICJ is working at a global level to develop an international agreement that would impose accountability on for-profit entities and corporations for the violation of human rights. Clearly, individual nation states are no longer able to monitor these transnational entities and hold them accountable, which is why a global framework is needed. A regional framework for Asia, and ASEAN is also needed, as academics and civil society increasingly acknowledge that growing human rights abuses connected to cross-border investments by ASEAN entities need to be addressed. Right now though, there are no mechanisms to hold those entities to account, which is completely unsustainable, since it will cause both political and human rights problems.
Q: Do you believe ASEAN and its Human Rights Declaration have had a positive impact on the state of human rights in Asia? The Rohingya case, or the Philippines’ current war on drugs (with re-instatement of the death penalty) for example, tell a very different story. Do you believe a supranational institution such as ASEAN has the potential to shape the human rights and rule of law landscape of its member countries?
The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was a tremendously disappointing development. The hope was that such a regional system would be stronger than international mechanisms because there is greater proximity with each of the individual countries. The ten countries that make up ASEAN could have decided that because they have more in common, they should come up with a system that will do more to support human rights. Instead, what resulted was a declaration far below the existing international commitments that these individual governments had already made. Some hugely problematic provisions are formulated in the declaration, and especially its preamble statements, such as the suggestion that rights can be balanced against obligations, and that national security or cultural values trump those rights. As a result, the declaration can be viewed as having zero value in terms of international law.
A few people assert that even this declaration is better than nothing, that it suggests there is at least some commitment to human rights in ASEAN. However, as a lawyer, I have to point out that from an intellectual point of view, that is not true. This declaration is actually worse than no declaration, because it seems to be an attempt to erode existing and applicable international standards, which were pretty clear. From a practical point of view, which might be even more important, the declaration has in no way led to rhetorical or actual improvements in terms of the respect, protection, and promotion of human rights in the ASEAN region. Most of the very serious human rights crises faced by ASEAN in the past few years have not even included a single reference to the human rights declaration. Whether it’s the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the more general immigration problems linked to the Rohingya, the fighting in Southern Thailand, or the current extra-judicial killings in the Philippines, it’s like the declaration is non-existent since no government has had any recourse to it. This represents a wasted opportunity, and it will take years before ASEAN governments will finally agree on a better and more sensible declaration for human rights. The ICJ is attempting to smoothen and speed up this process.
Nevertheless, ASEAN has a clear potential to shape the human rights and rule of law landscape of its member countries. In fact, it’s the only player that can help positively address predictable human rights abuses that come with regional economic development. On the few occasions where ASEAN has acted, some countries have benefited, Myanmar being the prime example. Many more countries would benefit, especially ones that still face real problems in terms of armed conflict. However, it is not very clear whether ASEAN’s member states have fully committed to regional integration as in practice, ASEAN itself is built upon very weak institutions, with a very small secretariat. For instance, ASEAN’s inter-governmental Human Rights Commission has very little staff, of which only a small portion is properly trained, with a limited amount of proper human rights experts. However, ASEAN is the only regional institution with large potential, which explains why the ICJ is absolutely committed to working closely together with ASEAN until member states actually commit themselves to the regional institution.
The cynical part is that ASEAN member states and the secretariat itself continually claim that there is a certain consensus according to which ASEAN governments will not interfere with the sovereignty of other member states. Of course, that is absolute nonsense, since these governments interfere in each other’s sovereignty all the time when they have to. When haze from Indonesia comes across into Singapore, the Singaporean government not only complains very bitterly, but also imposes economic sanctions on companies that are involved. This is a very cynical, shortsighted, and ultimately counterproductive approach by ASEAN governments.
Q: As future secretary-general of ICJ, are there any projects that you look forward to getting started, or give priority to? How do you plan to leave your mark on the organization?
It’s a huge challenge and clearly an honor to be the next secretary general of the ICJ. Personally, it’s a really big deal for me since the ICJ was an organization that I grew up with, an organization of foreigners that were interested in Iranians and Iran, and wanted to help us fight against a very powerful and nasty government. Of course, I feel a very personal connection with the organization, so I am extremely happy to have been promoted secretary-general. I’m the first American and definitely the first Iranian-American to become secretary general, during a very interesting point in time. Indeed, at a strategic level, my main challenge as well as ICJ’s, is to respond to the threat imposed in part by the current US administration which rallies against the rule of law and human rights. This challenge is unprecedented, as the very notions of international rule of law and human rights are being questioned. ICJ and the international human rights community will need to fight back really hard.
For me, part of this will entail explaining that the international framework has actually resulted in many huge advances, that in many aspects respect for human rights and human rights laws have improved people’s lives. Every person should understand that the very real problems created by globalization require a global response, and that retreating into short-sighted myopic nationalism and jingoism will provoke the empowerment of all the worst parts of globalization, while destroying the very important benefits that have been brought by it (that is at a strategic level). There are also two additional operational projects that surround ICJ’s work. The first is to fight for global and regional commitment to the notion that sound rule of law is a key ingredient to sustainable development. Thankfully, the UN’s SDGs and specifically SDG 16 finally emphasize the importance for sustainable development of the rule of law and therefore the respect of human rights.
The second overarching theme in ICJ’s work is the global push for accountability, and the fight against impunity. The ICJ has spent the last 60-plus years developing international law to nurture the acceptance of accountability. If there is a violation, the people whose rights have been violated are entitled to a remedy and they’re entitled to justice. Perpetrators should be held to account in proper trials. Simply getting that acceptance on a global scale has been a major accomplishment, and now ICJ is in a stage of further effort in which it will hopefully also lead the way. Basically, if a major human rights violation takes place, for instance if there is an extra-judicial killing or an enforced disappearance, international law demands that the government(s) involved properly investigates and brings to account the perpetrators. However, usually governments will just say “oh we’re investigating it” and that will be the end of the story, without any actual investigation, any actual justice, or any accountability. Right now, a large part of what the ICJ is working on around the world, is the creation of some basic standards that capture global best practices, and the provision of training and assistance to interested governments about what a proper investigation and real accountability actually look like. Some of it is very prosaic, for instance if a government says it’s investigating an extra-judicial killing, they should be looking at closed-circuit TV recordings, phone calls between the victims, phone calls by the suspects, etc. These are tactics that have been developed in national courts, and are being increasingly used at international criminal tribunals. We also hope to foster such standards at the national and regional rule of law levels. Overall, my personal hope is to mount a more vocal and robust defense of the global rule of law to fight for its importance in terms of sustainable development, and to push for real accountability, and real justice.
Q: Looking back at your long-standing career in human rights and rule of law, would you say that today’s environment is in better or worse shape than when you started?
We’re living in a very interesting point in time when it comes to international human rights, because looking back at the beginning of the international legal framework, there have been massive improvements after WWII. We’ve mentioned improvements in terms of poverty, public health, standards for government conduct, and so on. Furthermore, for the first time in history, the Western hemisphere is characterized by a lack of armed conflict, both transboundary and internal. That is an astonishing development. Even in Asia where there have been serious conflicts, their intensity and violence has dropped. No large armies are fighting each other anymore, and that is a big step forward, achieved thanks to the global rule of law framework.
Yet, despite all of this there is huge skepticism towards the value of international law and global rule of law. In my opinion, that is being driven by very cynical political calculations of people who in part want to weaken the rule of law for their own benefit – be it political or economic. Maybe the rising skepticism can also be explained by the failure of the international human rights community to clearly highlight its achievements. We tend to focus solely on disasters, of which there are a lot to talk about. We cannot stop talking about Syria, Yemen, North Korea, and Iraq, and don’t misunderstand me, we should not stop talking about them. But I believe sometimes we should also let people know that some real improvements are being made. As I take the position of secretary general for ICJ, I think it is becoming an urgent necessity to debate within the international human rights community about how we should best communicate with the world. I’m not sure that we are doing this in the most efficient way, as our reports tend to be long legal discussions. There’s a need for that, but there’s also need for other kinds of communication. Taking a step back, what we should be communicating to the people of the world in simple words, is the real value of international human rights.
Q: To wrap up our interview, what do you think it takes to build a successful career in the field of human rights and rule of law? Accordingly, what would be your top recommendations for young people?
The field of human rights has become much more professional than when I started. You can get a degree in human rights law now, and for students interested in human rights, this is very important. But it’s also important to point out that a degree in human rights does not necessarily give you the full picture. For instance, activists involved in the labor movement, environmental rights, land rights, and indigenous rights are also human rights defenders, even though they don’t per se have a human rights background or training. It’s important to remember that human rights careers are not reserved for people lucky enough to afford a university degree. People interested in human rights should be able to engage in it and support it across a range of different methods. Of course, training in human rights is very important, which is why it’s great to have specialized university degrees, but as important is expertise in a particular thematic or geographic area. At the end of the day, our work relies on a sound analysis of human rights problems, and sound recommendations on how to fix them. It’s not enough to just highlight the problems, we have to offer solutions. That is why you either need to be an expert in a particular field, public health or labor for instance, or you have to be an expert in a particular geographical area. And that expertise can come from the lived experience of civil society facing those human rights challenges, or from human rights activists who have properly listened to and learned from the rights-holders and can offer some technical expertise in support of their needs and demands.
In a nutshell, what it means is that you don’t necessarily need a degree in human rights to do human rights work. In fact, some of our best human rights professionals don’t come from such a background. If you’re not directly from an affected community, then when you’re starting, the most crucial thing is to go and meet those people whose rights are being violated. Human rights is not a place for office work, or clean hands. To get somewhere and become a useful human rights activist or professional, you should always focus on working as closely as you can with people whose rights you’re trying to protect. And that means going out into affected communities, going to the factories, going to the fisheries, working with sex workers, trans-genders, minorities. This is crucial not only for your personal development, but it’s also what employers are looking for. We see a lot of people these days coming out of university programs with a degree, but in-the-field experience is minimal. What we, as employers, really want to see is people who are 100% committed to this field, and who show that commitment by practically working in defense of human rights. Of course, there are millions of people around the world who support human rights by campaigning, or donating, or protesting, or simply caring enough to read and care about people facing a difficult time. But having a career in defense of human rights is more than just a profession or just doing what makes you feel good, it’s a life choice and you have to really live it.
This interview was conducted by Siri Luther, Project Assistant at CPG.