In this Human Rights Day blog we spoke to Professor Sir Malcolm Evans about how his teaching has been influenced by over 10 years of leading the United Nations’ efforts to prevent torture around the world, how leaving your career planning a little to chance is not always a bad thing – and how choosing the LLM in Human Rights can open up a diverse array of career paths.
When I started teaching law, human rights really wasn’t something that was very much studied or very much taught. So when I began teaching here at the University of Bristol in the early 1990s, we established an LLM in International Law.
I thought it would be good to offer a unit in international human rights law, which was rather rash of me, quite frankly, as I had never studied international human rights at that point but for one week on my undergraduate course a couple of years earlier. The rest, they say, is history.
In order to teach others well, I got involved in the field of torture prevention. A colleague, who was a criminologist, had just started advising a newly established international body called the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which was about to start its work, going around, visiting prisons and discovering what protections there were for those who were in prison and other places of detention from ill treatment. We began talking about it. And then we began writing about it and researching about it. And one thing led to another.
My role in the UN really grew out of the work I was doing here as an academic over the course of time. We looked at the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and its work, and at that time moves were afoot within the United Nations to establish a similar international instrument, creating a similar body at the global level. So because of what we knew about the way this worked in Europe, we started talking to the people involved in this and became quite heavily involved in lobbying for the instrument and following the negotiation process until the international instrument was finally adopted in the middle of the 2000s.
I was inevitably drawn closer and closer to it in practice. And then, in 2009, I was offered the opportunity of standing for election to the Subcommittee itself. And so, for me, it’s been a fascinating journey because I started off looking at this area of torture prevention very much as an academic, moving on to viewing it very much as an advocate and then, finally, having to run the system. That’s quite a transition.
I’ve always been most interested in the way that one’s knowledge as a lawyer can be converted over into practical policy and have an impact through policy formation and development. So trying to influence public policy around international legal issues and human rights issues was the way to go. The idea of taking what we have learned through academic study and engagement and making that into practical policies that can be then implemented – completing the circle, studying and reflecting academically on the way human rights are implemented in practice.
I don’t know any more where the influence of my work within the UN in my teaching begins and ends, it has all become almost symbiotic. The one has over the years become the other. I teach what I do within what I have done within the UN. I seek to implement that which I’ve learned through my academic study, which is fantastic. From a personal point of view, rarely do you have that opportunity to be able to study as an academic to reflect with others on what you think should be done and then be in the position to try to really bring it about in the world, within the UN, within the UN Human Rights Treaty body system.
But it also means that back in teaching, what do I teach? I teach my experience within the UN. One becomes the other and students can draw on the practical experience of so many people that I have been working very closely with over so many years within the Human Rights Implementation Centre and international organisations within the development of human rights practice and policy – so many different levels. The insights that that can bring to the teaching is frankly a huge asset and very difficult to replicate elsewhere.
It really does enhance the prospects of students who want to go into practical work around human rights issues. One of the advantages our LLM in Human Rights Law is that it can open up a very broad range of career options. For many who’ve done the LLM, they may want to go into professional practice in the commercial or other law areas, and the human rights work they’ve done is something that they will carry with them. Increasingly, major commercial practices encourage those working for them to take part in pro bono work, and for many, that does take the form of human rights work. So having the LLM in Human Rights Law is a huge asset.
The LLM in Human Rights Law opens up a huge array of possibilities, not just in professional practice itself, but also in policy and other areas as well. Some of the students that we’ve had, have gone on to become legal academics in the area of human rights law themselves. Others have gone on to work within the United Nations, in the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, working alongside the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights in Africa, in a multiplicity of settings within International organisations, for the International Committee of the Red Cross and so on.
What’s next for me. I’ve said on many occasions, I’m not a great advocate for career planning. Things come along and you take them. Your options present themselves. Having just finished ten years as chair of the United Nations Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, at the moment I’m writing a book on it, but I’m still heavily involved in processes and thinking around the reform of the entire system of UN Human Rights Treaty Protection, and that will continue into the future. And I know that there are a variety of other UN opportunities and positions that may be coming up that I may be contemplating putting my name forward for in the future. But who knows? It’s good to take new challenges, but when one’s been working for as long as I have in the field, such as torture prevention, you can never really give it up.
It may sound trite, but genuinely it is seeing what so many of your students then go on to do – when you see what they say, read what they write, hear about what they may do in the organisations in which they work. And you think, I know why they think that because you remember talking to them about it. It is that sense that you have passed on something of what you have learned and you have thought, to others and see it influencing the way that they are going about their work and how they are influencing things around them that, to me, provides me with the greatest satisfaction.
Sir Professor Malcolm Evans is a Professor of Public International Law at the University of Bristol. He co-founded the Human Rights Implementation Centre and was instrumental in the introduction of the LLM in Human Rights Law. Recently, Sir Malcolm looked back at his years working for the UN in the prestigious Annual Grotius Lecture. The focus of the lecture was ‘What is to become of the UN Human Rights Treaty Body System?’ and reflects on some of the barriers he faced whilst striving to prevent torture around the globe. Sir Malcolm is currently writing a book on his time working for the UN which is due out in 2022.