Striving to defend our rights

Chalking of the steps on the University of Essex Colchester Campus

The ever-evolving landscape of human rights means new challenges and humanitarian crises are constantly developing around the world. 

At Essex, the Human Rights Centre Clinic aims to stay one step ahead by not only training up the next generation of human rights lawyers, but giving them invaluable, practical experience they can use in their careers. 

The work they do with the Clinic means they are already leading change and improving lives, even before they start their careers in the field of human rights.

Students chalking on the steps at the University of Essex

What is the Human Rights Centre Clinic?

The Human Rights Centre Clinic launched in 2008 and has seen staff and students partner with organisations across the world. Each year, around 25 to 30 postgraduate students carry out research with our partners, under the supervision of our human rights experts.

Students are trained on critically important transferable skills for human rights practitioners, such as impact assessment, dealing with journalists, strategic communications, power dynamics with NGOs, strategic litigation and interviewing skills.

While the learning process is crucial for students, they are also working on significant projects which fundamentally contribute to policy/law changes and provide a voice to people who would otherwise go unheard.

Human Rights Centre Clinic

Making friends around the world

Marwan Yaghi is one of dozens of students to have volunteered for the Digital Verification Unit (DVU), based within the Human Rights Centre Clinic.

As a Palestinian refugee, he worked for the DVU alongside studying an LLM in International Human Rights in 2021.

Key to the DVU’s work is analysing images and videos posted online which appear to show human rights abuses around the world. The DVU uses open-source techniques to establish if the content is real and whether it can be used as evidence in international criminal courts.

Marwan was able to lean on the experience he had already gained while working as a lawyer at the Palestinian Center.

“Working with the Clinic allowed me to apply my legal background and technical skills to contribute meaningfully to the verification and documentation of digital evidence,” he said.

“By fulfilling these responsibilities, I played a part in supporting the DVU's mission to shed light on human rights violations, strengthen accountability, and advocate for justice.”

Marwan’s tasks working for the DVU included analysing and examining videos and images on social, verifying the content, and writing reports on any confirmed evidence of human rights abuses.

He added: “I had the opportunity to collaborate and build relationships with individuals from various corners of the world.

“Making friends and networking with inspiring people from all over the world, that was something huge for someone who came from Gaza and did not travel even once in my 29 years of life.”

After graduating in 2022, Marwan started work as a diplomat at the Palestinian Mission to the UK.

Marwan Yughi standing in front of office tower blocks

My ‘life-altering’ experience

Ayushi Kaylan

Ayushi Kalyan is one of a number of our students studying LLM International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law who has partnered up with Essex again later in her career.

It was during her year at Essex that Ayushi volunteered with the Clinic – something she describes as a “life-altering” experience that prepared her for a career in human rights.

“I worked with a brilliant team and got to interact with students from several universities around the globe, as well as directly with Amnesty International,” she said.

“The many evenings spent in the library, engrossed in readings, continuing legal and political discussions in corridors and in kitchens with friends and sharing lived experiences didn’t only extend my understanding of human rights but also helped shape my politics, worldview and character.”

After graduating, Ayushi has been working at FIAN International, an international human rights organisation working on the right to adequate food and nutrition, and related human rights.

It’s thanks to her time at Essex and working with the Clinic that she is now able to make a difference around the world by working with the United Nations and governments to raise living standards and work with communities being exploited by large corporations.

Ayushi added: “As part of my work on corporate accountability, we are actively lobbying with states to draft and adopt a robust international legal instrument that will create binding obligations for corporate harm.

“This will provide affected communities a solid legal framework to access remedies and help dismantle the current architecture of corporate abuse and impunity affecting people.”

A catalyst for change

Between 2021 and 2023, Dr Erin Pobjie led a group of students from the Clinic on a project exploring ways in which to improve accountability around the UK’s Special Forces.

The report called on the UK to replicate systems of accountability similar to those set up by the likes of the United States of America and Australia.

Among the recommendations were giving certain MPs access to classified information, appointing an independent auditing group and creating a reporting system to ensure whistleblowers in the Special Forces don’t face recrimination.

MPs and politicians in the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Conflict now hope to use the report to debate accountability of Special Forces in Parliament – a move which they hope will lead to policy and legal changes that will bring the UK in-line with its allies.

Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament

Greta Ciucci was among the students working on the report with the APPG, which was the culmination of a two-year research project.

Other students working on the project included Hamza Bozkurt, Jack Millar and Vanessa Topp.

They helped research existing laws and policies surrounding Special Forces around the world, as well as conducting interviews with experts.

It was an experience that Greta believes has given them a real insight into working in the field of human rights, and given them new skills that they can now use in their future work.

Greta said: “It’s the soft skills that are great for everyone to learn. I really appreciate them when I’m doing job applications because I have interview skills and know about advocacy. You have the basics you can work on and that’s really valuable.”

Vanessa added: “One of the most useful skills learned for me was getting to practice the structured interviews and having experience with the qualitative data analysis process.

“Also, having the opportunity to work with external stakeholders and see what the process of drafting a report together with an external partner is, especially when it’s a something that’s a very politically sensitive topic like this was.”

Greta Cuicci

Greta Ciucci

Greta Ciucci

Successful collaborations

It’s not just the Clinic’s current and former students inspired by its work.

Partners around the world have benefited from the work of the Clinic, including ProDESC, an organisation devoted to the defence and promotion of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) in Mexico.

Its partnership with the Clinic has seen Essex students and experts provide invaluable support to give communities greater rights against big businesses, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding the right to land, territory and natural resources.

Eduardo Villarreal Cantú, Coordinator of Analysis and Advocacy at ProDESC, said: “Students and professors from the Clinic have contributed to a global policy analysis supporting the organisation's advocacy and defence processes.

“The students showed constant interest and effort and the Clinic consistently provided expert guidance, ensuring a result of quality and excellence.”

The collaboration has increased public awareness of gaps in the design of national plans in six countries and identified recommendations for the development of the National Action Plan in Mexico.

Eduardo added: “ProDESC benefits from the Clinic's research activities, enabling students to contribute to the implementation of the organisation's strategy.

“This alliance, in addition to generating valuable information and tools for defence processes, contributes to the training of human rights professionals, giving them insight into fieldwork.”

ProDESC supporters in a cattle field

Working with partners

Students can find themselves working with many different organisations stretching across civil society, international and transnational institutions and governments.

Amnesty International is one of the Clinic's longest-standing partners and the Digital Verification Unit emerged from those close links.

Students have also worked on many other individual projects with Amnesty International including research into policing protests and women's rights.

Allan Hogarth, Head of Advocacy and Programmes at Amnesty International UK, said: “The students from the Clinic delivered high-quality research and analysis that we could utilise in real time advocacy and campaigning work. The two projects were developed and delivered in a collaborative and professional manner.

“Students’ research will help inform and identify areas of focus for delivering effective human rights change in the UK.”

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