Human rights law takes, as its primary objective, the defence and enforcement of laws designed to protect the fundamental rights of all people, without ‘distinction of any kind’. The field is central to social change and policy making, and demands of its practitioners complete commitment to a broad and inclusive conception of the law.
Many of the most influential human rights bodies are international. They include the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and places such as the International Criminal Court, where crimes against humanity can be tried.
Human rights law is diverse, complicated and constantly evolving in both theory and application. It is important, however, to distinguish between work that takes a direct human rights-based approach, and work that improves human rights standards but isn’t necessarily ‘human rights work’. For example, policy officers might work on diversity and inclusion in private organisations or government departments, but not necessarily oversee human rights cases. Human rights lawyers also contribute to public policy debates, and tend to spend a lot of their time focused on law reform work and submission writing.
For committed graduates, human rights law offers a way to tangibly improve the lives of those whose rights have been violated or infringed upon. Indeed, some human rights lawyers may dedicate their entire careers to combatting specific issues, such as sexual slavery, child labour, war crimes or ethnic discrimination. This is, for many human rights lawyers, the most rewarding aspect of their job - the sense that they have returned to specific individuals their fundamental and inalienable rights.
The competition for jobs in human rights law is reflected in the growing number of postgraduate degrees - such as the Masters of Human Rights Law - designed to help aspiring lawyers demonstrated their human rights bona fides before commencing their career. As with international law, there is no clear path toward a career in human rights.
Many human rights lawyers begin their careers by volunteering or completing internships with community legal centres and human rights organisations. Experience in a development context is particularly valuable, and internship opportunities are available with various UN agencies and international NGOs.
Within Australia, there are limited opportunities for graduates to work for the Australian Human Rights Commission or with non-government organisations, such as Amnesty International, that focus on human rights advocacy.
As a human rights lawyer, you will have to work hard to advocate for the issues with which you align yourself. This might involve seeking employment in influential organisations, or submitting proposals with a view to changing public policy. Unfortunately, the development, implementation, and enforcement of human rights laws is an ongoing challenge that will likely grow more complex over coming decades as new issues arise. As a qualified and tenacious human rights lawyer, you will have numerous opportunities to develop a stable career that makes a positive impact.
Learn more about working in human rights law.