Helena Kennedy: University helps fight for human rights

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HUMAN rights issues are on every page in the papers, but maybe people don’t immediately badge them in this way, as they can carry a more reflexive, emotive emotion first. But they are about human rights, make no mistake.

It could be about the use of torture in our world or about trafficking or the racism that blights people’s lives in our criminal justice systems.

It may be about the continuing use of the death penalty in certain countries, the rape of women and children in conflict zones or domestic violence on our own doorsteps.

Even the abuse and neglect of our elderly in care homes is a severe breach of people’s human rights.

The list is long. We need new generations of lawyers to come through the system of training understanding that justice involves understanding our world.

This is where Sheffield Hallam University is being so innovative and forward thinking by creating the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, which launches on January 15.

The new centre will inject legal education and research with a true understanding of law’s role in making society stronger, more humane and just.

I’ve already been impressed by the work going on at the university to promote human rights and was proud to join Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, the mother of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, as one of its honorary doctors last November.

A new masters’ course in applied human rights should appeal to anyone who reads the newspaper headlines with a true desire to affect change and challenge the rights and wrongs in how we tackle global issues of international justice.

Staff within the new centre are already working with officials in Haryana state in India as part of an international study of the effectiveness of responses to gender violence.

Another study of deaths in police custody with the Malaysian Human Rights Commission is in full swing.

But the university has got an eye on the ball much closer to home, too, and this is one of the things that drew me to Sheffield Hallam.

In my practice, back in the 1970s, I occasionally came to Sheffield to do murder trials. They were cases with a backdrop of domestic abuse, as this was one of my areas of specialism. The rights of women are human rights issues and too often that is forgotten. We read of these cases every day.

I was delighted to learn that students are organising an event which will look specifically at issues of arranged marriage in Rotherham and that an impressive guest lecture list for 2015 includes director of Liberty Shami Chakrabati and Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The new courses, too, pride themselves on having an applied nature of how human rights’ works in the real world.

Meanwhile, the multi-disciplinary approach means the courses are not just legal, but social, criminological and political, too.

Every kind of lawyer from the corporate lawyer to the family practitioner needs to be a human rights lawyer in the 21st Century.

But good legal systems also need the input of criminologists, whose scholarship helps us find solutions to many of our social problems. This is 
again an area where Sheffield Hallam excels. 

Bridging the world of education and practice is the way to effect change. It is something that I have long advocated in my 40-year career as a writer, broadcaster, lawyer and activist.

It is something that I have learned while taking part in such cases as the Balcombe Street Siege, the Brighton bombing, the Guildford Four appeal, the Michael Bettany espionage case and the Jihadist fertiliser bomb plot.

Developing legal education and practice has produced significant law reform for women, especially relating to sexual and domestic violence, while it has also led to equal opportunities in the legal profession for women.

Whether it is from my seat in the Lords, or through my long association with justice across the world, these issues will remain close to my heart and the news that I am to have my name on this world-leading centre for international justice is truly humbling.

I can think of no greater honour.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is a lawyer, human rights campaigner and journalist. She is the patron of Sheffield Hallam’s new Centre for International Justice, which launches on Thursday.