Why I work in human rights
Human rights work can both be very satisfying and very frustrating. Over the long term human rights promotion is an incredible success story. From the first treaty – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to the hundreds of treaties, resolutions, opinions and judgments at national, regional and international levels that now exist is a testament to this success. Millions of pounds each year are paid to local and international NGOs and charities to fund human rights work around the world and thousands of people are employed in the promoting human rights.
However improvements tend to come slowly and not quick enough for those of us working in the field. There are also regular setbacks. Wars and conflicts create casualties every day – not just the soldiers but the civilians and the refugees. Conflicts create the perfect circumstances for the security services “requiring” detention without trial or the suppression of freedom of speech. Meanwhile issues like an adequate income or a home or the absence discrimination or respect for minorities like lesbian, gay or transgendered people get lost.
9/11 and the “war against terror” created a real set back everywhere but human rights defenders have pushed back and space has now been created to discuss privacy and the collection of data and surveillance by governments and the internet industry itself.
I started my career working in local advice centres and law centres in London giving advice and representing people who had difficulties with the welfare system or with housing (or the lack of it) or were the subject of discrimination. In those far off days we talked about rights but not particular about “human rights” – human rights were about people in other countries. You obviously don’t need to be a lawyer to fight for human rights and I wasn’t qualified for the first fifteen years of my career. I became a lawyer because I thought that I could be more effective with legal skills and knowledge – and, that the qualification itself, made me a more effective advocate.
Like most people in the business I started work as an unpaid volunteer when I was unemployed and living on benefits. I know now that even getting that opportunity was a privilege.
For lots of people it is important to do a job that has meaning, that gives you the chance to make a difference. Human rights work is that and more. I think it is a privilege to work as a lawyer creating, selecting and pursuing strategic legal cases in national, regional and international courts, UN treaty mechanisms and tribunals to promote and protect human rights around the world.
Working for human rights was the right choice for me – it is possible to make a real difference. The work is challenging – intellectually and in terms of developing relevant useful experience. Jobs in charities and NGOs are not well paid but there are the other obvious rewards.