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The Rights Issue

The Rights Issue

Meet Alice Edwards (LLM Public International Law, Distinction, 2003), a human rights lawyer whose casework and research has shaped the fate of millions of refugees for the last two decades. 

When Alice was just six years old, she learnt that girls had a different set of rules. Left humiliated and hurt after defying a group of boys who didn't want her to play on their monkey bars, she concealed the broken arm she sustained for days afterwards. 

"Even then, I felt an overwhelming sense of shame. I didn't tell my mother," said Alice. Yet this moment of tender vulnerability has influenced the fascinating career of a remarkable woman who has gone on to champion the human rights of women and refugees and to fight inequality wherever she has found it, becoming Chief of the Protection Policy and Legal Advice Section at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva and, is currently, Head of the Secretariat for the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI)

Rights and justice 

Nottingham is home to the world's largest group of rights and justice scholars. With 700 staff members, 300 postgraduates and 20 research centres, our work and research focuses on all areas from human rights, civil rights, criminal justice, social and economic justice and minority rights, to all forms of equality and discrimination.

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"A career in human rights wasn't an obvious trajectory for me. I studied commercial, tax and corporations law, and went on to work for the largest law firm at the time in Australia. It gave me an excellent foundation in how to practice law but it wasn't quite right – I found myself searching for something different." 

"I'm driven by the concept of fairness. I have always loved playing sport – it's a great equaliser; a space where people can develop their own talents while working together as a team. In sport people tend to play by the rules – sadly in life, people often don't."


Challenging attitudes to violence against women    

A well-respected academic, Alice has also published a much-acclaimed book Violence against Women under International Human Rights Law. She holds a Masters of Law and Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education from Nottingham, plus a PhD in international law from The Australian National University, her native country. Her work has taken her to the world's most troubled areas to see first-hand the injustice of inequality.

"Armed conflict situations offer a sharper lens on attitudes towards women and minorities prevalent in peacetime. 

"Humanity's worst traits are exaggerated with devastating consequences not only for individuals and communities but for society too. Violence destroys lives not only in the very physical sense, but also in the psychological and emotional sense."
      Edwards presenting on anti-torture legislation with Vice-Chair of African Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Mr Jean-Baptiste Niyizurugero, Secretary General of the Association for the Prevention of Torture, Mr Mark Thomson, and Chair of the UN Comm


Working on the front line 

When first starting out in the 1990s, Alice recalls interviewing a grandmother who was raising her grandson in abject poverty close to the village of Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She was forced to live within eyesight of where her family had been killed and she had been subjected to horrific sexual violence in a rape camp. 

"I can see the pictures of the women who had suffered in my mind. The perpetrators of these terrible crimes were still walking around as though nothing had happened," said Alice. "The study I authored for the UNHCR called for appropriate processes to be in place for minority women to receive compensation from their pre-conflict properties without being forced to return. It was a watershed moment for women's rights in armed conflict. Today, it barely feels believable that rape was only classified as a war crime in the late 1990s."

"Studies like this, along with litigation are for me, what makes being a human rights lawyer so worthwhile. It gives you the chance to help shape, set and apply the standards. During the Libya crisis, we were able to save lives by winning a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights, stating that it is unlawful to push back asylum seekers in the Mediterranean without properly considering the reasons for their flight."

This ruling, and others, continue to impose important limits on governmental action particularly relevant, yet continually being tested, for example in response to the European refugee crisis. Alice was responsible for over 90 amicus curiae interventions in multiple jurisdictions during her time as UNHCR’s legal chief.

"Litigation is undeniably tiring and stressful – you're working long hours to tight court deadlines in different time zones from an office based in Geneva. But getting the right judgement is immediately rewarding. It resonates for other judgements and sets the standard for other courts to follow." 

A career in human rights requires passion and a willingness to embrace opportunities, people and places. When the horrors of humanity are before you, you need to remain objective. It's a hard but undeniably rewarding field to work in.

Bringing an end to torture around the world 

Alice's current role as Head of the CTI in Geneva, a government-led diplomatic initiative, now sees her working with the 195 United Nations member states to ratify the UN Convention against Torture by 2024 – no small task. So what does it take to influence and unite powerful governments? 

Human rights lawyer Alice Edwards at the CTI in Geneva

"First, you need to know your stuff – preferably better than those you're dealing with. Always be well briefed. Next I'd say perseverance – you have to be determined, with the ability to roll with the punches and step aside when needed. It's equally important to understand your context, and be prepared to re-evaluate your assumptions. Diplomacy is built on personal relationships – take the time to develop them."

"Dialogue is also key – you need to create a space where people feel they can talk openly and freely. Persuading governments to change is very hard to drive.

"You need to understand where a policy or mindset has come from and why it exists – and taking things at face value won't always give you those insights. A combination of public and private dialogue can start to open doors to new ways of thinking."

Advice for a career in human rights 

There is no set path to a career in human rights – no annual deadline on training schemes to apply for. So what advice would Alice give to those wanting to follow in her footsteps? 

"Nottingham students are already at a competitive advantage. A law degree from Nottingham, with its many opportunities to study international law, is a very good spring board to a human rights career.

"It's also important to be well-rounded – to maintain a sense of balance through time with family, friends and outside interests. 

"When confronted with situations that put you or others at risk, you may need to make a spot decision as to what you're going to do and that requires emotional intelligence.

"Finally, if graduates are looking to stand out, I'd encourage them to develop a historical perspective. Great leaders know where they have come from and where they are going. It's important to look past your own existence."

Ending slavery 

There are more slaves alive today than at any point in history. Around the world, nearly 46 million people are forced to work against their will for no pay. 

The University of Nottingham is home to the world's leading contemporary slavery experts. We have built the world's first large-scale research platform for ending slavery - a world without slaves is possible. Find out how. 

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