Even in the fast-changing modern world, human rights are not guaranteed. Luckily, committed academics like Old Blue Peris Jones, from the Class of 1989, a Professor at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oslo, work to keep justice for all on the global agenda.
What attracted you to working in the human rights sector?
It was probably all the injustices we felt as boarders compared to day boys, like only two biscuits and a cup of juice for supper! Although I was a boarder, I’m also from Liverpool and it’s a city where there’s an historical association with a deep sense of what’s unjust and just. It probably rubbed off on me in ways I didn’t even know or appreciate until I left. From an early age I tended to question why things are the way they are and whether we could improve them.
Did your studies at Blue Coat stimulate this interest?
I really liked human geography, learning about different places and countries, although I was rubbish at physical geography. The non-stop insistence that you could always do better was very important. It was an attitude also helped by all those extra-curricular activities that teachers did then in their voluntary time: like driving us to football, or athletics, chess, or the pantomime. This really helped me to think I could achieve things and I thank the teaching staff for all that!
What did you read at university and what was your career pathway?
I read Development Studies at university, which was about parts of the world considered less wealthy. But these categories are less and less relevant, as we increasingly find poverty in developed countries and lots of wealth in those so-called ‘less developed’. The course was multi-disciplinary, which was an advantage in seeing complex problems from a lot of different perspectives. It took a while to get going after graduation – initially I wanted to be a journalist at the Liverpool Echo, but by a twist of fate I applied for a PhD scholarship in a geography department, without knowing anything that a PhD entailed. It was probably not a great basis to go straight from a BA, but I got the PhD, and it took me to South Africa. Plus part time teaching English in -28c in rural Norway served to work wonders for wanting something more relevant.
I got a job as a research assistant at the University of Liverpool working on urban issues in the city-region, and then as a lecturer there, that pulled me back to academia. Then I relocated to Norway with my partner, finally getting a break in the human rights sector at the University of Oslo on a practical human rights programme, supporting organisations in South Africa. Since then, I’ve done consultancy work for Swedish and Norwegian foreign aid. Wanting more experience of practical human rights work, I joined Save the Children in Oslo. Ultimately, I like writing and the space to think, and I’ve returned to the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, as a Professor in Human Rights. I’m not a lawyer and human rights is too important to be left only to lawyers. I run our MA programme on the Theory and Practice of Human Rights that brings different disciplinary perspectives to human rights (law, social science, philosophy) and has practical components, like internships.
You’ve won an Antipode Foundation award to research ‘Killings and Violence in Nairobi’ – what are the worst human rights violations you’ve researched?
I lived over four years in Nairobi, and I was very privileged to link up with grass roots human rights defenders in the poorer parts. Young men in one area are routinely killed by the police (so-called extra-judicial killings, i.e outside the legal process). Bigger organisations were either not documenting these cases or only a very few of the thousands of killings happening annually. With a local organisation we developed a community project to record this. Brave members of the Mathare Social Justice Centre documented 50 cases, in spite of police brutality (including threats and abductions) and local resident’s suspicions. This provided evidence which no one could ignore. Many killings are truly shocking: young men trying to run away (so not resisting arrest or a danger to the police) or shot in the back, often through mistaken identity. I also cut my human rights teeth earlier during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 2000s. Much of those efforts were about expanding access to medication in which human rights were a positive driving force. I’ll never forget visiting homes in South Africa and seeing the devastation to families, especially mainly young people and young parents who got ill and died unnecessarily when treatment would have prevented it. But violations happen everywhere and right now human rights have an image problem in the UK. Instead, if we start to think of what happens to patients in our hospitals, to our old people in care, to our children in schools, or to our families caught up in disasters like Hillsborough or Grenfell Tower, we can start to see that human rights affects us all. A case can be made that human rights measures, like the right to freedom of information, as well as the right to life (from the European charter, and then UK Human Rights Act), for example, were absolutely integral to uncovering the truth about Hillsborough. We need to hear more about such positive effects of human rights!
Is the promotion of human rights progressing in Africa and Asia or do governments see it as yet more post-colonial interference?
There has been incredible progress in human rights across the world, especially since the 1970s, as not only something pushed, but accepted by many governments and with lobbying by organisations and citizens who demand rights. Sometimes this was seen as interference in the business of other countries, but states anywhere don’t like human rights because it can ask awkward questions about state conduct. Now the world is at a tipping point where Western power to determine human rights is going to be seriously challenged, even by the US itself, and in the back lash we see across Europe and the growth of China, amongst others. It is interesting to note how even authoritarian states like China (who are regarded as not respecting human rights) still use the language of rights, albeit adapted to their own agenda. All these developments mean we need to be aware when human rights are wrongly seen as a scape goat when actually we need to be fully alert to the need to defend these common standards for us all.
Is living in Oslo different to living in Liverpool? Do you speak Norwegian?
We are both by water and like premier league football – which are good starting points. But, in spite of being just across the North Sea, there are many different cultural aspects, ways of doing and saying things. Not least, there’s national obsessions with not queuing and with ski-ing. There’s far less random small talk or ‘banter’, which I miss from Liverpool. Visitors are outraged by high costs, but it’s not so bad on a local salary. Norway probably has the world’s best welfare state, very beautiful mountains, forests and fjords. As for learning Norwegian: “Det har tatt flere år men jeg kan norsk!” (it has taken several years, but I can speak it). While it’s very much easier for foreigners to live here these days, if you want to stay long-term it’s best to learn Norwegian.