Reflections from a human rights clinic in the midst of Covid-19

Academic institutions all around the world are increasingly applying practice-oriented pedagogies in the form of human rights and humanitarian law clinics. There is much to learn from each other’s experiences, as one’s learning may facilitate others’ wise choices tomorrow.

Since 2009, the Human Rights Centre Clinic of the University of Essex has brought together talented postgraduate students and national and international partners in the human rights field.

Like everyone else in the last year, Essex’s HRC Clinic had to adapt to a challenging scenario under COVID-19, with physical distancing rules and human interaction exclusively online. It is time to reflect on the lessons from this trying year and the path ahead.

The projects of Essex’s HRC Clinic span from November to June, but the preparatory work starts much earlier than that. In February, the Clinic begins to seek expressions of interest from potential partners for the following year—for which we draw from the Human Rights Centre’s network of more than 3,000 alumni. This preparatory stage takes about two to three months. The team looks for a diverse range of projects in terms of human rights topics and regional focus, looking for at least one project in solidarity with an organization from the Global South

The projects should be sufficiently challenging but also deliverable by a group of postgraduate students under supervision, who are also being trained on impact assessment, interviewing, and strategic communications, among other transferable skills. Above all, the projects must be impactful: A human rights research clinic must strive to change policy and make a difference in the outside world.

This year we considered twenty promising ideas based on the mentioned criteria. And in June 2021, we announced the six single-year projects, in addition to two multi-year projects. 

Last academic year, screen fatigue and isolation made teaching and working online considerably more difficult. Before the pandemic, postgraduate students were based on or near campus, they could meet anytime, and they would see each other nearly every day in class, the library or the corridors. Lockdowns and physical distance changed all that. They made human interaction much more complicated. It became necessary to work on some routines, for example ensuring regularity in meeting times. We learnt that keeping more detailed minutes than usual could help avoid leaving behind a team member who might have been temporarily unavailable due to illness. Occasionally, we had to set guidance to limit out-of-hours text-based communications to respect everyone’s right to disconnect.

Despite the uphill struggle, the new situation also made human rights research more realistic in a way. After their master’s degrees, students will work in a global sector with colleagues living and working all over the world. They will spend hours in meetings and interviews in front of their screens, perhaps not as intensely and exclusively, but qualitatively not dissimilar from the learning and work experience of the last year. Among other things, 2020-21 will help us gauge the transferability of clinical human rights education to an online setting.

A successful human rights clinic project needs to be deliverable by a small team of capable postgraduate students supervised by a faculty member with expertise in the subject area. At Essex, the team has just over six months to work on a project, and this includes well-deserved holidays and many other assignments from other modules. Research includes interviewing academic and policy experts as well as people who have suffered human rights abuses. Interviews require ethical approval to make sure interviewees are giving informed consent and their personal data is stored safely. One also needs to be aware of the power imbalance between interviewer and interviewee, particularly when dealing with people with lived experience of human rights abuses.

In an ideal world, desk research would precede most of the field research, but a human rights clinic does not operate in an ideal world, particularly when there is a pandemic around.

Internal ethics review processes take time in academia. That is why we encourage students to submit their requests as early as possible, within the first two months. However, by then, students have not had the time to complete desk research, which means they cannot have a sufficiently good understanding of the issues at play, the academic and grey literature, or other types of evidence that may be available online. From a methodological perspective, desk research should inform field research; students need to know what they do not know so they can figure out who they should talk to and what questions they should ask. In an ideal world, desk research would precede most of the field research, but a human rights clinic does not operate in an ideal world, particularly when there is a pandemic around.

I have to say we have not squared the circle of short timeframe, ethical approval, and interviewing after desk research. If someone out there has found a way around this, we would be keen to hear from them. One of our short-term objectives is to make the ethical approval process smoother so students have more time for desk research before organizing and conducting interviews and focus groups. 

Clinical human rights education is a highly rewarding experience for teachers and students alike, and it is very much appreciated by external partners as well. On top of the personal reward, human rights education should strive to be impactful outside academia. Impact requires serious research from students, but it also requires a pertinent research question from partners, as well as a well thought-out strategy later on. That is why it is necessary to spend a good amount of time developing a project proposal with partners months before research begins.

Alongside valuable theory and critique, human rights education has an important role to play in human rights practice. And human rights clinics can help students become the effective, resourceful and critical human rights defenders the world so desperately needs.