Hear from our LLM International Human Rights Law and Practice students about their placement collaborations and impact at home and abroad.

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Reflecting on the Human Rights Placements

Alice Trotter

One of the key components of the LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice is the two-week placement period towards the end of the first semester. Students are given the opportunity to conduct a research project in partnership with an organisation that is currently engaged in human rights work.

All students of the LLM are offered a choice between completing the placement period in York or Malaysia. I made the decision to remain in York and, with three colleagues from both the MA and LLM programmes, undertook a project working with the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN). Our group was tasked with researching good practices in the enabling of refugee leadership and participation across the Asia Pacific region. This research had been designed to feed into APRRN’s ongoing submissions to current dialogues surrounding the Global Compact on Refugees. As a team, we worked primarily over Skype, interviewing people involved with refugee projects in India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand. This was an invaluable opportunity to learn and practice some of the technical skills and competencies required for professional work in the human rights field with the supervision of the Centre's academic staff.

The placement period is challenging, there is no doubt about that. But the Centre for Applied Human Rights offers a strong support network to the students throughout the placement process; this encompasses opportunities to foster strong relationships with teammates, guidance from the project supervisors, and the preparatory Defending Human Rights module.

I cannot overstate the value of the placement; my experiences were immensely rewarding and incredibly interesting. Throughout the entirety of the process, I have continued to expand my understanding of human rights and their practice in a wide variety of contexts. I thoroughly enjoyed the Defending Human Rights module and would recommend the course as a whole to anyone looking to study human rights in a practical and applied manner.

Caitlin White

Having worked with a small development organisation in Uganda for two years between graduating from Leeds and starting this LLM, I wasn’t convinced what a two-week-long placement would add to my skill set. I was also uncertain about going abroad again having just landed back on UK soil. But, in the end, I decided to work with the legal aid organisation Asylum Access in Malaysia. And I am so glad I did.

The placement work was both challenging and engaging. I was part of a team of four whose task was to conduct research and write a report on the current situation for processing asylum seekers in Malaysia. With such a short time-frame, you are forced into a highly accelerated learning process. Not only are you trying to navigate new cultural norms in a foreign country, but you are also navigating a new team environment and being asked to undertake a whole range of new tasks.

I learnt so much on the go in those two weeks: the ethics of interviewing vulnerable groups, the complexity of 'independence' and 'objectivity', and the nature of leadership and of teams. Above all, I learnt a lot about myself. I have come to better understand my own natural skills and aptitudes, and the importance of recognising others’ strengths and abilities. This was by far one of the best modules on the LLM.

I learnt so much on the go in those two weeks: the ethics of interviewing vulnerable groups, the complexity of 'independence' and 'objectivity', and the nature of leadership and of teams.

I have come to better understand my own natural skills and aptitudes, and the importance of recognising others’ strengths and abilities.

Caitlin White, working with Asylum Access

LLM student team

One of the common reasons why members of our group decided to study the LLM in International Human Rights Law is because of the practical approach the Center of Applied Human Rights and the York Law School adopts in their pedagogy. What is remarkable about the placement opportunity is that the Center for Applied Human Rights has existing partnerships with prestigious human rights organisations that students can select from.

Our placement experience was with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The research project explored the impact of respect of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) on trust and reconciliation in the Western Balkans, with a specific focus on IHL provisions relating to missing persons. We relied on three case studies - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro to understand how their respective historic, socio-economic and political contexts have influenced the processes of reconciliation and trust-building.

We carried out extensive desk-based research complemented by Skype interviews conducted with practitioners and scholars within and outside the UK. The placement experience was challenging because of the intense research that was required, navigating through the complex research questions, and ensuring we effectively communicated our research contributions on the case studies to produce a comprehensive and cohesive report.

However, it was a very rewarding experience for us because of the wealth of knowledge we gained and the many practical and transferrable skills we got. Researching on this project remotely definitely improved our independent research skills and our ability to collate information with minimal contact with people. This skill is even more important now as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, where we have had to adjust to a new way of learning and working. The placement experience was profound and gave us a sense of how the human rights and humanitarian fields work in practice, and how to work with people in these professions. Also, having the experience of working with an organisation like the ICRC is an invaluable addition to our CVs.

A very rewarding experience for us because of the wealth of knowledge we gained and the many practical and transferrable skills we got. Researching on this project remotely definitely improved our independent research skills.

The placement experience was profound and gave us a sense of how the human rights and humanitarian fields work in practice, and how to work with people in these professions.

LLM student team, working with the International Committee of the Red Cross

Jack Mudd

If you ask the students at the Centre for Applied Human Rights why they chose to study here, you will hear them mention the practical side of the course over and over. This was certainly true in my case. I had spent a year in various unpaid roles from working in Bolivia with the International Citizen Service scheme, to Westminster with my MP, and then as an intern at Amnesty International. It quickly became apparent that a Masters degree and more experience would be required for me to make the step from being a volunteer to being a professional.

When I finished my undergraduate degree I told myself that I wouldn’t be going back to university -- that education and I were "consciously uncoupling". I was set on becoming a professional in international development, tired of spending hours eternally debating academic theories and answering unanswerable questions. So, you can imagine that it was no easy decision for me to commit to a year's course and a bucket of money spent in my return to academia. I had to do it right. If the end goal was employment and preparation for the professional world, then it couldn't just be any course that I would do.

That's when I found the course at the University of York – a seemingly perfect blend of academic qualification and professional development, aka a no-brainer. As well as spending our lectures and seminars debating with seasoned human rights veterans, we would work on a placement with an NGO and submit a report to complement their work. No other university in the country offers such a combination of theory and application.

I worked for an organisation called International Service, a York-based human rights organisation operating in a number of countries across the globe. I had worked with the organisation during my time in Bolivia, and was intrigued by the prospect of developing a number of global indicators that would show the progress of their development projects in all of the countries where they work.

It was an ambitious project to say the least; International Service's projects vary from involving people with disabilities in sport in Burkina Faso, to helping women grow and sell vegetables in Bolivia, to helping Palestinian youths express their feelings and experiences through art and comic strips. How do you come up with an indicator that accounts for the different locations, demographics and focuses within International Service's mandate?

From the word 'go', International Service treated us as fellow professionals (refreshing in itself after a year of voluntary work). After a number of meetings they had made clear what they expected from us in our role as external contractors. They set us up with a desk in their relatively small office, made available many of their resources and set aside time in the diaries of many of their staff. This was all before the official placement period had even started.

For me, the most compelling aspect of all of this was that we were being asked to produce something that was clearly necessary. This wasn't an essay doomed to spend eternity in my completely unfiled filing cabinet, but a report with tools and recommendations to be incorporated into the way in which International Service worked. We were having meetings with the CEO, e-mailing country directors, presenting to trustees. By the end of our placement, I had forgotten that I was enrolled at a university and was instead wondering when my pay-cheque might be arriving.

At my next job interview, it won't be the books I've read in the library or the debates we've had in seminars that I'll talk about – it'll be the work that we did with International Service, and how I had taken a step closer to being a professional.

Daniel Aguilar Hernandez (Chevening scholar)

The LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice has a strong emphasis on making students experience some of the real-life challenges human rights professionals encounter. A great component to this objective are the placement opportunities the CAHR offer. They are a unique opportunity to work with NGOs and their partners in a human-rights-related issue.

While students can choose between placements in York or Malaysia, I decided to stay in York. This decision was heavily influenced by the fact that as a student and lawyer from Mexico, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the human rights challenges York and the United Kingdom are facing.

I had the opportunity to be involved in a project with the York Human Rights City Network (YHRCN), an organisation which advocates, researches, acts as a network, and organises events, all regarding human rights in York. The YHRCN has several partners. One of them is the North Yorkshire Police (NYP). Our team was composed of 4 members, from Bangladesh, Belize, Mexico and the United Kingdom. We worked with both the YHRCN and the NYP. Our aim was to find the extent to which the Human Rights Based Approach is embedded in the NYP. We conducted interviews with 24 police officers of different ranks and departments to get a better sense of their approach to human rights in their everyday work-related activities.

The preparation, the placement, and the work we did to produce our project output were a unique experience for me. I learnt a lot about what is needed to conduct interviews, which was very stimulating and interesting too, since it was the first time I was interviewing people about human rights. I had the chance to practise team work and project management abilities.

I embraced the opportunity to interact with the different personalities and cultural backgrounds of my teammates. The whole process of the placement made me develop skills I had not put into practice before, which will be very valuable in my future work as a human rights lawyer. The placement was an experience which got me out of my comfort zone, and made me aware of some of the different challenges that entail working with an NGO and a team in the field of human rights.

Kashif Zulfiqar (Chevening scholar)

The sole motive behind my joining the LLM at the University of York has been its unique feature of placing students for two weeks with different human rights organisations within the UK and abroad. Perhaps no university in the United Kingdom offers this sort of practical opportunity and that's the hallmark of this degree program. Luckily and to my amazement, the list of placement organisations given also included North Yorkshire Police and I opted for it before giving it a second thought.

The University of York's Center for Applied Human Rights and North Yorkshire Police are partner organisations in furthering the cause behind the York Human Rights City project. What could be more rewarding for a police officer than to have a placement with another police force abroad known best for upholding professional, democratic and human rights values!

Before the start of this placement, we were prepared academically and equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to work with a public sector organisation. Step-by-step guidance and supervision by the project supervisor remained the best thing so far to tackle unforeseen challenges in the field. We were encouraged to work in a team under agreed upon code of ethics.

We as a group interviewed frontline police officers and tried to explore how human rights are perceived by these police officers. Throughout this placement, I remained interested in human rights issues regarding BAME people. It was heartening to learn how police officers value human rights in their day-to-day interactions with the public at large. For me, it was exciting knowing about human rights legislation, training and current trends related to modern slavery, hate crime etc. This two week exposure has stimulated me to appreciate how human rights are embedded into day to day affairs of policing in the UK and enabled me to identify loopholes in our policing system back home.

Helen McCall

After finishing my law degree, I volunteered for 6 months at an anti-death penalty charity. Having only limited practical experience in the field, York's LLM (and especially the placement) seemed like an opportunity to enhance my professional skills. Now that I have completed it, there is no doubt it has made me more confident to pursue work in the human rights field.

I had originally intended to go to Malaysia but, due to personal circumstances, I decided to pursue a project in York instead. I chose to work with Unite Community York as it allowed me to further explore my interest in cuts to benefits provisions, which I had researched during my LLB degree.

My group's project was to write a best practice guide to setting up a benefits advice service by Unite Community in York. As we interviewed a variety of people and organisations during the placement, I was surprised by how much I learned in two weeks without travelling to some far off place. Our excursions to Barnsley and Durham to interview Unite Community members there gave me a great insight into Yorkshire’s proud trade union history and the human rights work which is needed on the ground in the region.

The ethical dilemmas and practical skills that we talked about in class were demystified through the placement and through writing up our report. As Unite Community York was a very new organisation, we were sometimes confronted with unforeseen challenges, which it was useful to explore in the supportive environment of the Centre. Importantly, the placement also gave me the opportunity to build strong relationships with my team members and activists in the community, which has helped me to enjoy and make the most of my time in York.

Having only limited practical experience in the field, York's LLM (and especially the placement) seemed like an opportunity to enhance my professional skills. Now that I have completed it, there is no doubt it has made me more confident to pursue work in the human rights field.

Helen McCall, working with Unite Community York

Marina Vukovic (Chevening scholar)

I had been working in Montenegro's NGO sector on democratization and human rights for more than seven years when I was awarded a Chevening scholarship. I have gained much more than I expected from the LLM. Apart from acquiring theoretical knowledge on international human rights law, I have become more familiar with the position of human rights defenders worldwide. I also got an opportunity to broaden my knowledge on organisational development issues through interactive lectures and seminars. For my placement, I worked with the York Human Rights City Network, helping them to identify the most important rights for York residents.

In my opinion, the LLM programme is a very well-balanced combination of theory and practice. The added value of this programme comes from inspiring and dedicated lecturers who encourage critical thinking, numerous public events organised by the Centre, and a friendly atmosphere. Studying in this environment strengthened my motivation to continue working in the human rights field and inspired me with new ideas that I intend to apply in my future career.

Mayada Soliman

There are three main reasons why I chose the York Travellers Trust (YTT) for my placement. Firstly, I eventually want to work with minority groups, so I felt this would give me the relevant experience. Secondly, I would be working with a minority community (the Gypsy and Traveller community) that we don’t have in my part of the world (Middle East and North Africa). Thirdly, as a citizen of the Global South, I was curious about how human rights NGOs operated in the UK.

The aim of the project was to develop an advocacy strategy that YTT would be able to use to counter the UK government’s proposed changes of the Traveller definition in planning legislation. We examined how the proposed changes will impact Traveller identity, as well as future planning and housing policies. YTT found the advocacy strategy that we produced very useful and have already circulated it. The realization that we were able to help them is incredibly gratifying.

This was also an incredible learning opportunity for me. Despite the fact that I worked in the human rights field, I had never done an advocacy strategy before. My prior experiences were centred around achieving short-term solutions for refugees – a form of service delivery. By contrast, this project forced me to focus on a long-term goal, and achieving results on a larger scale. This placement has gone a long way in helping me develop these skills.

Miguel Ángel Chin Aguilar (Chevening scholar)

I applied for the LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice at the University of York because I discovered the Centre for Applied Human Rights while researching schools. What caught my eye in particular was the opportunity that the CAHR offers to pursue a two-week placement with its NGO partners in Malaysia or York. It is not a program of theories, but actual 'hands-on' participation, which offers a chance to truly see and learn about the impacts of law.

I decided to take the opportunity to work with the York Travellers Trust (YTT) because I wanted to know how the UK NGO sector works. The Trust was established to give the gypsy and traveller community the support, guidance and services that they require to develop their independence, so they can maximise their inclusion in society. The trust requested that my team produce a short paper, which, among other things, explored the legal framework for a possible change in the ownership and/or management by a Housing Agency that the City of York Council (CYC) had for the three-site management for gypsies and travellers in York (James Street, Clifton and Osbaldwick).

We were also supposed to research good practices in relation to site management across the UK. During the two weeks, three specific topics covered in both lectures and seminars came to my mind as they highlighted theory learned in classes which were applicable to reality: working effectively in teams, project planning and interviewing.

As a human rights lawyer and a public servant, the two-week field study - taught by academics who are leading experts, - gave me the opportunity to be involved in actual application of law. Bringing together researchers, practitioners, and members of organisations who address human rights provided me with valuable experience and increased my capacity in the legal profession to deliver services that are focused on increasing access to justice and public policies.

I am so glad that I participated in developing an advocacy strategy that examines how public policies can be combined for mutual benefits. I believe that sharing the knowledge I have of the Mexican legal system and policies was a plus to the research we conducted.

Listen to LLM student voices

Keep up to date with the work of our latest LLM International Human Rights Law and Practice changemakers on York's Student Voices blog.

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Remembering Sam Pegram

The Sam Pegram Human Rights Placement Award celebrates the life and honours the memory of Sam Pegram, our LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice alum, who died tragically in the 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash. We remember Sam as an exceptionally bright student, a committed humanitarian, and a profoundly kind soul.

The award recognises human rights projects developed by students in partnership with inter-, non- or governmental organisations, which shine through their dedication for reflexive human rights practice and seek to centre the voices of research communities in need.

Feedback from our project partners

The students from York brought passion, a diverse range of experiences, and a real focus on the application of human rights principles to the problem of human trafficking. The group that worked with us produced an excellent framework on how local councils can work within the national framework to combat human trafficking in a situation where the Federal Government is vested with enforcement powers and where the Malaysian Anti-Trafficking in Persons law is a Federal Government-driven initiative.

The group very clearly articulated the importance of the local council in public awareness, training for local licensing law enforcement and also their collaboration with federal law enforcement. Until now, their policy suggestions remain a key document in the formulation of local state and council strategies and in our advocacy with the Federal Government. Besides work, we had a great deal of fun not only in Malaysia but in our continual discussions through emails and Skype discussions.

International Service worked with a team of students from the Centre for Applied Human Rights in 2013. The students conducted desk-based research analysing the key security issues in Mali following the coup d’etat in 2012, the ensuing conflict in the North of the country and the restitution of democratic process in 2013. The student team worked from the offices of International Service on a regular basis, making contact with our partners in Mali, as well as a variety of representatives within national and international agencies operating within Mali, including the local Government and diplomatic services.

The final research included recommendations which informed the redevelopment of our programme in Mali following our suspension of operations in 2012. The research also supported us in securing $300,000 from USAID which has enabled us to take forward our work in Mali once again, supporting seven local partner organisations providing support to people living with disability across all of Mali, who themselves represent the poorest and most marginalised throughout and following the conflict. It was a pleasure working with them; their professionalism and enthusiasm for the work was excellent. We look forward to identifying further similar opportunities to collaborate with the Centre for Applied Human Rights.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s (UNHCR) engagement with UN Human Rights Mechanisms lies at the centre of its Human Rights Engagement Strategy. In order to better analyse the opportunities which exist for UNHCR to leverage the mandates of UN Special Procedures to address issues of displacement and statelessness, UNHCR was interested to have a baseline analysis of how several relevant mandates have addressed these issues in recent years and what opportunities and obstacles existed for enhanced collaboration.

A thorough mapping and semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders were conducted by a group of students on the LLM in International Human Rights Law and Practice as part of the Human Rights Placement module. The research led to a useful summary of the existing work of the respective mandates on displacement and statelessness, accompanied by recommendations on how UNHCR can further enhance the strategic engagement with these mandates.

The recommendations will serve to inform and guide UNHCR’s forthcoming engagement with these mandates, as well as other UN Special Procedures more broadly, strengthening UNHCR’s efforts to promote the human rights of displaced and stateless persons. The collaboration with the students was very smooth throughout the whole duration of the project - they were very motivated and professional, and the collaboration yielded very concrete and practical recommendations.