By Helle Abelvik-Lawson and Chloe Pieters

Chancellor’s Hall, Senate House, Migration Museum Exhibition at AHRI 2013

In September 2012, the HRC’s Associate Director Dr Corinne Lennox and newly-appointed Human Rights Project Officer Helle Abelvik-Lawson had the pleasure of going to Vienna for the Association of Human Rights Institutes (AHRI) 13th Annual Conference.  The AHRI network was supported by COST Action funding (COST being shorthand for European Cooperation in Science and Technology) and many delegates came from over 40 member institutions to participate.

At the end of the conference, the new Chair institute was appointed – the Danish Institute of Human Rights – but with funding running out, there were clear challenges ahead for the network.  Dr Lennox offered the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, as the 2013 conference venue in order to enable the annual conference – which brings together so many academics to share ideas and develop collaborations – to go ahead as planned.

“This network enables researchers to meet, collaborate, explore new questions and respond to challenges”

Fast forward a year to September 2013.  At 9am on the morning of Monday the 9th, the first participants filtered through the doors of the Chancellor’s Hall, past the ‘100 Images of Migration’ exhibition which had been lent by the UK’s Migration Museum for the conference (and beyond).

The conference began with a welcome from the School of Advanced Study’s Deputy Dean, Professor Philip Murphy, who is also the Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He outlined the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ commitment to providing a world-class human rights programme in postgraduate education and research.  Dr Damien Short then welcomed participants as Director of the HRC, briefly introducing our projects and publication work.

Dr Jonas Christoffersen, the Executive Director of the Danish Institute of Human Rights, introduced the speakers on the first of two panels exploring ‘Emerging Research in Human Rights’.  Full details of the workshops in which delegates participated are available here.

Particularly touching was Dr Christoffersen’s welcome speech. He told the conference that, as he was preparing his speech, he posed the questions to himself

“Do we want AHRI? Do we need AHRI?”

His answer was clear as he saw almost 100 delegates sitting in Senate House that morning – clearly, we do want AHRI, and until human rights are fulfilled all over the world, research in human rights will always be relevant and necessary.  This network enables researchers to meet, collaborate, explore new questions and respond to challenges in ways they might not otherwise be able to.

“a small evening event at the Houses of Parliament”

The AHRI conference is composed of panels involving all delegates and a number of breakout workshops in which researchers discuss and explore focused research themes of particular interest to them. Monday workshops covered a broad range of themes including human rights activism; EU trade and development investment policies; migrant communities; rights in times of economic crises; and mew approaches and mechanisms of human rights accountability.  For full details of each of the workshops, see the workshop summary document.

Panel 1: “Emerging Research in Human Rights”

Of these workshops a couple were particularly interesting for the HRC and its thematic project, such as the ‘Human Rights Activism and Risk’ session, organised by academics Dr Karen Bennett and Dr Alice Nah of the University of York, and the Head of Activism at Amnesty International, Dr Champa Patel, where the issue of environmental human rights defenders was raised.  The HRC has three projects that relate to environmental rights: The Ecocide Project, the Extreme Energy Initiative (which has its own dedicated project website), and the Indigenous Peoples’ and Minority Rights Project.

After Monday’s afternoon workshops we had the pleasure of bringing our AHRI colleagues to a small evening event at the Houses of Parliament.  The event included a panel discussion: ‘Key Priorities for the UK at the UN Human Rights Council: International Perspectives’, with Professor Martin Scheinen (European University Institute), Professor Manfred Nowak (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights, Clive Baldwin (Human Rights Watch), Jeremy Corbyn MP and Nicole Piche (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights).  A lively and engaged debate commenced – with perspectives from across Europe and input from UK ministers of parliament and representatives from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office – followed by a wine reception.

“new ideas for research and renewed collaborative vigour “

On day two there were three further workshops on prospective research themes, entitled ‘New Protocols and EU Accession to the European Convention on Human Rights: Impact of Current Developments on Human Rights Protection in Europe’; ‘The UN and the EU: an Ever Stronger Partnership in Human Rights?’; and ‘New role for soft-law in developing international protection of human rights?’  (Further detail about these is available here.)

All workshop outcomes were consolidated at the Annual General Meeting in the afternoon, where all workshop conclusions were summarised so that all attendees got a flavour of the discussions in each workshop.  An administrative AHRI meeting followed, which accepted new member institutes and made plans for the next conference.  The new members of AHRI are: the Human Rights Program of the Legal Studies Department at the Central European University, Hungary; the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law at the University of Strathclyde, UK; the Human Rights Implementation Centre at the University of Bristol, UK; the Centre for Human Rights at Ghent University, Belgium; and the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, University of Leuven, Belgium.

Taking place in parallel to this administrative meeting was the HRC’s Human Rights Research Students’ Conference. The HRC hosts two such conferences a year and this one was busier than ever, with panels on democracy, business, and indigenous peoples’ and minority rights.  The Research students’ panels continued through the morning of the 11th with a panel on European perspectives on human rights.  We were delighted to host so many PhD students researching at so many AHRI member institutions across Europe and hope that they all gained from the perspectives offered by the researchers who dropped in from time to time.

The AHRI conference was thus concluded, providing over 100 academics in human rights across Europe with many new ideas for research and renewed collaborative vigour in seeking funding for such research.

The HRC and all the delegates from AHRI member institutions have proved that even ‘in times of economic crisis’, interest and enthusiasm for undertaking human rights research prevails.