Written by Ashley Murphy

In 1948, the UN adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was largely a response to the horrors of World War II and a noble attempt to ensure such a dark period in history never be repeated. As such, the declaration represented the universal recognition that basic rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings, equally applicable to everyone, and that every one of us is born free and equal, regardless of national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. This became the foundation for what we today now as human rights law, which has undergone several revisions and updates to tackle late 20th century and early 21st political and cultural challenges and struggles, including enforced disappearances and the fair treatment for people with disabilities, migrants, and transgender people.

Human rights lawyers and activists play a fundamental part in making sure nation states and influential organizations uphold and promote such values. Their work is demanding, emotionally taxing, and often involves coming face-to-face with the most disturbing aspects of human behavior. But this is also what makes humans rights work so essential and rewarding.

So if you want to join the good fight, then here's what you need to know about studying human rights law. 

Reasons to study human rights law

If you are looking for a career where you can enact some real-world change, then enrolling in a human rights law program is a great place to start your mission.  Human rights lawyers and activists fight for the protection and expansion of individual freedoms all over the world.

In recent years, human rights groups have increased public awareness of many human rights violations, including child brides, suppression of religious freedom, and forced sterilization. The International Justice Resource Center (IJRC) is currently applying pressure on certain regimes to stop the inhumane practice of sterilizing people without their informed consent; these programs are often state-sponsored and target indigenous populations, persons with disabilities, or specific ethnic or religious groups.

Stonewall, an LGBT equality charity with the motto 'acceptance without exception', is currently fighting for the fair and equal treatment of transgender people. It forges close relationships with large businesses and organizations to encourage more inclusive workspaces, as well as adapting administrative processes which enable transgender people to be addressed and registered by their preferred pronouns. Stonewall took its name from the Stonewall riots, a series of demonstrations by members of New York's LGBT community during the summer of 1969. Thousands took to the streets to protest against unfair treatment by the New York police department and ongoing discrimination from mainstream society. With a human rights law degree you could work for, or with, organizations just like these doing great work to protect and enhance people's rights.

Picking the right course 

There’s plenty of competition for jobs in human rights law, so making yourself stand out from the crowd is essential. The first thing you can do is pick the right school. Ideally, you should be applying at institutions with a specific focus on human rights law. Most law programs will have some relevant modules, but they tend to be part of a much broader curriculum that includes international criminal law, public interest law, and corporate litigation. 

Another great tip is to do some research on the faculty members. See where their specialties lie, and if you see someone with a strong track record in human rights law, then you might have found yourself a potential mentor. Some professors even recruit undergrads and postgrads to support their current projects. Experience like this is invaluable for any budding human rights lawyer; it's also an excellent way to impress potential employers and build up a network of valuable contacts that every good human rights lawyer needs.

Moreover, these projects can often lead to exciting internships, such as gaining a place in a prestigious human rights clinic. These clinics give students the unique opportunity to work with national and regional organizations engaged in the promotion and protection of human rights law. Students are tasked with conducting comprehensive, high-quality research that meets the requirements set out by the partners in their initial project briefs. By the end of the project, the students produce a series of high-quality reports, each of which provides the partners with crucial, up-to-date research that feeds directly into ongoing litigation and policy drafting, as well as informing future projects. This is a real chance for students to gain some first-hand experience of human rights law, as well as a hugely beneficial learning experience that bridges the gap between theory and practice. Recent student projects in the UK include legal gender recognition, reform in the United Kingdom, assisting litigation in Libya, flag state research, and torture prevention. 

Preparing yourself for human rights law

If you are thinking about studying human rights law, then you need to ask yourself why. This might seem like an obvious question, but human rights is a very specific area of law which throws up some unique and challenging problems. Working in this legal field will be emotionally taxing and nerve-wracking, as much of your time will be spent assisting traumatized individuals who have been subjected to some of the worst crimes in history, often carried by large criminal organizations,  rogue armies, and even tyrannical and autocratic governments. 

The prospect of facing such issues would unnerve pretty much anyone, but if this also inspires you to take up the fight against oppression and exploitation, then you have what it takes to be a human rights lawyer. And you’ll definitely need plenty of commitment to the cause. While the earning potential is typically less than those who work in corporate law or private practice, humans rights lawyers still make very respectable salaries, 

On a more academic note, potential students should familiarise themselves with important legal documents that protect and enshrine human rights all over the globe. Essential reading includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and even older documents such as the Civil Rights Act, the American constitution, or the Magna Carta. For master's students, Blackstone’s International Human Rights Document is a go-to guide for human rights legislation. Getting to grips with these texts will help you write better essays, perform in exams, and, crucially, form stronger arguments for the protection and advancement of human rights. Bear in mind, some of this stuff is pretty heavy going, especially if you're unfamiliar with legal speak. But stick with it, because the student who walks into the classroom with even a basic grasp of these ideas will have a considerable advantage.

Career options

Graduates have a wide choice of career options. The most obvious path is to start practicing at a private firm dedicated to human rights legislation. You could then find yourself working on cases for the protection of fundamental human liberties or helping to create new legislation to deal with future issues, such as ensuring privacy in an ever more digital world or creating an internet bill of rights which prevents private companies de-platforming individuals because of their political beliefs. And the most talented lawyers can end up working on high-profile cases that may have a profound impact on our very notion of human rights. For example, the cases of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Alternatively, some graduates begin careers in world-leading organizations such as the European Court of Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, while others find rewarding work in charities, NGOs, or policy think-tanks. More job opportunities include the civil service, teaching, academia, and journalism.

The fight for individual freedoms will never be complete. Instead, it's a constant struggle that adapts to changes in the political and cultural landscape. Your job will likely involve implementing inclusive policies and protecting current human rights legislation which often comes under threat in times of political turmoil. Either way, the work you go on to do will play an integral part in keeping people safe and allowing all of us to lead safe and meaningful lives.

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