Frequently asked question: how do I become an international human rights lawyer?

April 27, 2013

How do I become an international human rights lawyer? is the topic of an article by Hannah Gannagé-Stewart in the Guardian of Friday 26 April 2013. She rightly starts by stating that “the life of an international human rights lawyer is not all jet setting glamour”. Still, it is one of the most frequent questions put to me at the end of a lecture, often during the reception afterwards under 4 eyes: “I would like to work for human rights – what do you advise me?” is the usual opening line. My half-serious standard reply: “if your really want to work FOR human rights, I advise you to get very rich and donate half your wealth to the human rights movement“, is not always appreciated, but correct at the macro level as the shortage of funds is much more problematic than that of talent and devotion in the human rights movement. The question asked was of course situated at the micro level as in: “I want to work IN human rights (even if the pay is not very good)“.

The Guardian piece (although focusing on the UK) contains good, practical advice and most of it would be valid in other countries:

“Jet-setting round the globe, setting the worlds highest courts alight with spectacular oratory performances, radically changing the lives of the most vulnerable. Hell, theres probably a Nobel peace prize in there somewhere too right? Think again. There are actually very few lawyers who would describe themselves as international human rights lawyers, partly because there are so few opportunities to practise…..” writes Hannah Gannagé-Stewart  ….”If you want to shape and influence policy and change people’s lives, rather than make big bucks on corporate transactions in the City, then the first thing you need to do is think about whose lives you want to change and why?

The writer than quotes two young lawyers who found their way into human rights: Emma Douglas who went on a nine month placement at an NGO called Peace Brigade International in Indonesia (academia is no substitute for hands-on experience but it is a good idea to tailor your studies towards human rights work as early as possible e.g. by choosing immigration, welfare and benefits and crime rather than commercial property or business) and Ben Jaffey (“The most interesting cases do not just walk through the door“), who began by volunteering on public law and human rights cases with the Free Representation Unit (” You receive training and get the chance to work on your own cases“). Jaffey also recommends a stint working for government, as it offers a different perspective of human rights issues. Languages are also important in human rights work, in particular French, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. Strong campaigning, fundraising and communications skills, particularly using social media, are also highly sought after by NGOs.

via How do I become an international human rights lawyer? | Hannah Gannagé-Stewart | Law | guardian.co.uk.

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