A Question of Rights

Prof Rachel MurrayProfessor Rachel Murray is Professor of International Human Rights at Bristol University. She’s also Patron of our charity. We quizzed her on everything from the importance of African-made rights to what individuals living in the UK can do…

Q: How did you get into human rights?
A: I studied law at Leicester University in the early 90s. After I graduated I wasn’t sure exactly where my heart really lay. So, I decided to go travelling and I taught English in Cairo and Thailand and also did some voluntary work in India… and my mind was made up. I wanted to do international human rights law. I enrolled for an LLM (Masters of Law) at the University of Bristol and wrote my dissertation on the African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights – the African equivalent of the European Commission of Human Rights – and I was hooked. I then went on to do a PhD on the African Commission.

Q: What are you currently working on?
A: I have lots of projects on the go! I’m Director of the Human Rights Implementation Centre at the University of Bristol. I also advise governments and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) on human rights issues and make comments on draft legislation. I still have a particular interest in the African human rights system – I advise organisations and individuals on how to use the African human rights system – and I am also involved with the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture, which has established an international inspection system. I’m also on the Board of Interights, an international legal human rights NGO based in London, and the Human Dignity Trust.

Q: How did you get involved with African Initiatives?
A: When I was doing my PhD in Bristol, the founder of African Initiatives – a guy called Mike Sansom – asked me to be a trustee. At that time the organisation was very small and we worked on getting it charitable status and putting the necessary procedures and protocols in place. After my PhD, I went to Belfast to lecture at Queen’s University and then to University College London. I came back to Bristol in 2003.

Q: Why are NGOs such as African Initiatives vital?
A: Like other NGOs, African Initiatives does good work by having a specialism and a niche. African Initiatives, for example, concentrates its efforts in Tanzania and Ghana and specialises in girls’ education, HIV/AIDS education, sustainable farming, women’s rights and land rights. In order for an NGO like African Initiatives to win funding, whether from the Department for International Development or Comic Relief or a charitable trust, it needs to be able to demonstrate that it has something special to offer and is making a real difference.

Q: Which are better: small charities like African Initiatives or the big boys, like Oxfam?
A: It’s not a case of which is better. Different NGOs perform different roles. You need a mix – sometimes the larger international organisations can mobilise and lobby, whereas local organisations may better understand the country and culture.

Q: It sounds daft but what exactly is ‘human rights’?
A: Human rights and human rights law is really a legal tool for individuals to challenge those in power. Legally, it may not always offer a simple solution; it can be a balancing exercise. The issues can often be extremely complex.

Q: What are the most important human rights issues?
A: It depends very much on the context. They are all important, but different countries – and individuals within those states, for example – may have priorities which to them are more important at a particular moment in time. African Initiatives is working, for example, with the Maasai of northern Tanzania to address the human right of girls to an education and is also involved in the land rights of the pastoralists – currently the Maasai are bringing a legal action over disputed land in the Ngorongoro District. Human rights is a political game – much debate may not be visible and goes on behind the scenes. In reality, the human rights arena is all about dialogue and the involvement of a range of actors, including those who may be seen as extremists and those in the middle, in the hope of finding a solution that does not fall below international legal standards.

Q: How important is the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights?
A: In a word “very.” In some contexts, governments and organisations in Africa may take more seriously African-made statements on human rights than those adopted at the UN, or made by Western governments or organisations. For example, when the African Commission ruled in 2010 that the Kenyan Government had violated international human rights law for the 1970 eviction of the Endorois people to make way for a wildlife reserve and ruby mining, it was extremely powerful.

Q: Is the African Commission always behind the American and European systems?
A: The media gives us a skewed image of Africa. It is usually headlines about war, famine, AIDS… or else features about safaris and animal conservationism and paradise beaches. It’s rare that we’re presented with a picture of normal life or hear about progressive projects where the Africans are excelling. For example, the African Commission for many years was particularly progressive in how it approached indigenous peoples and their rights as groups as well as individuals. Its ruling on the Endorois was a watershed case for indigenous peoples in Africa where states have historically denied the existence of indigenous communities. In an international first, the African Commission found that by evicting the Endorois from their ancestral land, the Kenyan Government had violated their rights (as individuals and as a group) to freely practise their religion, as well as their right to property, to culture, to development and to the right to compensation and restitution.

Q: All the issues seem so enormous. What can we ‘little people’ do?
A: If everyone does a little bit which moves us just a step or two in the right direction the world will be a better place. Whether that’s just shopping ‘ethically’ or just being more aware of where your money goes. The odd little things can still make a difference… hiring a local taxi or eating in a local restaurant when you are on holiday.

Q: What do you say to the people who say “I’m not giving to Africa, charity begins at home.”
A:  I think it’s very difficult to say what people should and should not give money to. There are, of course, many who are still in need ‘at home’, as well as abroad, whether that is Africa or elsewhere.

Q: So how good are you at giving?
A: I do give money, although I could probably give more. I give regularly to a number of charities, and I also agonised over whether to sponsor a child and whether this was an ethical and appropriate thing to do. However, in the end, I decided it was better than nothing and someone could benefit directly from my money. It has also shown my own children how lucky they are and makes them think about someone else.

Q: Are you positive about change?
A: I don’t think the overall global environment in terms of economic and social disadvantage, poverty and conflict is going to change significantly in my lifetime because there are no easy solutions. But I am positive. Most people don’t want to see other people suffer and want to help.

Professor Rachel Murray has written numerous papers and books. These include:

* Human Rights in Africa, from Organisation of African Unity to African Union, Cambridge, 2004
* The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The System at Work, with Malcolm Evans, Cambridge, 2008
* The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and International Law, Hart Publishing, 2000.