Afua Hirsch on human rights

Afua Hirsch

Tell us something about yourself.

I'm a barrister - practised in criminal defence, public and international law. Based in London, I'm now the legal affairs correspondent for the Guardian.

When was the first time you became aware of human rights?

At university: studying politics, philosophy and economics and getting involved in student Amnesty campaigns.

What do human rights mean to you in your own life?

I worked with human rights on a daily basis as a barrister, and saw first hand the power of the Human Rights Act to protect vulnerable people and ensure minimum basic standards in the criminal justice system and public sector. Before that, I worked in development in 18 West African countries and saw what it means not to have those protections and basic minimum standards. I now teach human rights and constitutional law and see students regularly inspired by human rights. It's an area of law that is both accessible for its human impact, and exciting because of its aspirational core.

What do you think is the public perception of human rights in the UK?

The Human Rights Act is generally little understood. At best, people who are not lawyers or employed in civil society organisations usually don't understand what human rights are or how they work. At worst, they have a vague notion of the 'villains' charter' type of news coverage the Human Rights Act tends to get. International human rights instruments and norms are even less understood, and I have found knowledge of regional and international charters, such as the Universal Declaration or the African Charter, to be generally the preserve of lawyers, activists and academics.

What more can be done to encourage people in the UK to think and feel positively about human rights?

Education about human rights should be a compulsory part of curriculae, in much the same way as students in Germany or France learn about their constitutions and the concepts of rights and responsibilities. Human rights should be integrated into other aspects of education and social services - they are not meant to be theoretical but tangible; a tool people can use.

Name your human rights hero/heroine.

Barack Obama. He is an excellent example of how powerful a rights-based approach appears when you have experienced the opposite. I also think it's useless if society becomes more rights-aware if governments ignore them, but governments also come under the most pressure to sacrifice rights in the name of competing concerns. If anyone is going to have their commitment to rights tested, it's him.

 

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