Interview with Professor William Schabas

By Hanne Melgaard Watkins in conversation with William Schabas | 27 May 11
William A. Schabas is director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where he holds the chair in human rights law. He is also an Associate Professor at Middlesex University, in London, and an honorary professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing. He is currently in Melbourne as a guest of the Castan Centre of Human Rights, where he is holding a series of lectures and attending the Human Rights 2011 Conference. Right Now spoke to him about starting out in human rights, the meaning of human rights, and victor’s justice.

RN: It’s probably fair to say that most of our audience are students, and not quite as far advanced in their careers as you. But do you have any general tips, or suggestions, or memories from when you started out, that you’d like to share?

I always say to my students that if you want to do human rights, you will be able to find a career in it. It’s not like some jobs – say like being a rock star, where you can dream about it and you can practice guitar as much as you want, but you may never get anywhere. In human rights, my experience is that people who are determined to do it succeed in doing it.

Right now the field is competitive, in that there are many people who have done a fair amount of education in the field of human rights. This is new; 15 or 20 years ago when I started out you could barely study human rights, but now there are programs all over the world, at different levels. In Ireland we have a program at the BA level, so I teach a class of 18 year olds, fresh out of secondary school. Those types of programs are more and more common. My impression is that if you’re going to work in human rights, you’re likely to be doing something where you need an advanced degree.

But, the old people who are doing human rights didn’t do it at university. I know of some bold people – it takes a bit of courage to do it – who have taken a different path. This was in the 90s, when the genocide in Rwanda was happening; I knew an American who said she’d always wanted to do human rights. So she cashed in a couple of savings bonds, got on a plane and went to Rwanda, and started looking for a job there. One thing led to another, and then she got a job with the UN, because she was out there, and they needed someone. So she got in. She left behind her, in the United States, a whole lot of people saying “Wow, I wish I could do that; how do you get into the UN?”  People say they’ll send in letters, and look on the website… but, you have to sort of push a bit more. And then, if you do the job properly…

We’re not looking for superstars, we’re just looking for people who show up reliably at 9 o’clock in the morning and do their job and don’t goof off too much. And if you do that, then you’ll find a career in it.

We’re not looking for superstars, we’re just looking for people who show up reliably at 9 o’clock in the morning.

RN: Well that’s good news! I’m wondering about the term “human rights” though – do you feel like it might become somewhat “washed out”? That “human rights” becomes a catch phrase, rather than having something substantial behind it? I ask because I am aware that you have an objection to the overuse of the word “genocide”. Do you see any parallels to the use of “human rights”?

No, I don’t think so. We have alternative words to “genocide” to describe things, that are probably more accurate. And it’s not good to overuse the word. But the thing about human rights is that it has become bigger, it covers more things because we have more rights. Things that we think are rights now didn’t even register earlier.

RN: And is that an undividedly good thing?

Yes, it’s a good thing. People are understanding more now, about notions like equality. I saw you still quarrel about same sex marriage here in Australia – well, in other parts of the world people got used to the idea and they accepted it. That’s a right that 20 years ago didn’t register anywhere, it was just a considered a strange idea, and now it’s accepted. There’s the rights of the disabled, things like that… rights are broadening now, 30 years ago no one talked about rights of children, now they do. I don’t think “human rights” is being diluted; it’s just covering more ground. There’s more under that canopy.

RN: Next week you’re holding a public lecture at the Castan Centre about Victor’s Justice. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I’m using the term “victor’s justice” mainly to talk about international tribunals, and the people they target. International tribunals, international criminal courts are targeting for example, attacks on civilians in Libya, but not attacks on civilians in Sri Lanka or in Gaza. Why? How do they make those decisions, and who makes them? There’s this idea that justice is being in some ways distorted because not everyone is being prosecuted, and it’s not consistent. It looks like there’s a double standard. The people who lose get tried and the people who win don’t. I’m using that as a theme to talk about why we prosecute some and not others.

One of the ways that victor’s justice gets presented is that you have to prosecute all sides in the conflict to avoid the stigma of victor’s justice. I’m not sure that that’s correct. Let’s say that at the end of WWII we’d decided to prosecute both sides evenly. We would have had a tribunal for the Americans, another one for the Chinese, the Australians, the Japanese… but criminal justice, especially at the international level, is about sending messages, and creating narratives about history. And what narrative would that send? If we had prosecuted the British and the Americans and the Nazis all equally, I’m not sure that would send a good message. Here in Melbourne, you have a prosecuting office responsible for prosecuting all serious violent crimes against a person. You don’t have a situation where someone from the south side comes to the police to say they were raped, and the police replies “oh, we’re not dealing with that part of town this year, we’re focusing on another part”. But that’s what you do at an international level.  Because you have to. You have to make decisions about where to target your resources, which means that you do have double standards. It’s inevitable, and I’m not sure it’s even undesirable.

You have to make decisions about where to target your resources, which means that you do have double standards.

On Wednesday 1 June, Professor Schabas will be holding a free public lecture at the Castan Centre, entitled “Victor’s Justice: Selecting the Targets of International Tribunals” from 6 pm until 7 pm. Come along to hear more about why the selectivity of international tribunals might not be such a bad thing.