London Connection Q&A: the School of Advanced Study's Dr Corinne Lennox

The MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights by distance learning explores a rich mix of issues ranging from the contemporary to the age-old
Dr Damien Short and Dr Corinne Lennox
Dr Damien Short and Dr Corinne Lennox from the University of London's School of Advanced Study
All the faculty are doing research-led teaching, so we take what we're doing in our professional lives and try to bring that into the classroom

Dr Corinne Lennox is Associate Director of the Human Rights Consortium. She is a Senior Lecturer in Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and convenes the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights.

Her research focuses on issues of minority and indigenous rights protection, civil society mobilisation for human rights, and human rights and development. She has worked for many years as a human rights consultant and trainer, including at Minority Rights Group International, the UNDP and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

She talks to London Connection about the new distance learning version of the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights which starts in September 2017.

The MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights has quite a pedigree doesn't it?
The on-campus MA programme started in 1995. It was the first interdisciplinary master's programme in human rights in the UK, which means that it wasn't like any other contemporary programmes at the time - it wasn't only embedded in a Law department, it was drawing on experiences of politics, sociology, law and philosophy to shape the programme. It was also built from the ground up, rather than drawing from different departments across the University and their existing courses. 

And then the other key difference was the emphasis on practice. Among the early collaborators were staff from Amnesty International, who had input into designing the curriculum and also in delivering particularly the Securing Human Rights module which focuses on the practice dimensions of human rights work.

Staff at Amnesty were also very helpful in securing internships for students, so that was also a key feature of the programme - taking advantage of the location of London and the plethora of human rights organisations here. That gave students an opportunity to do critical studies of human rights, but also to look at what's happening in the field directly, and getting that practical experience.

"We felt that our unique emphasis on practice would be extremely attractive to people who were balancing their professional work in their home countries with further study in human rights."

School of Advanced StudyWhat prompted the decision to offer the MA via distance learning?
Human rights are a global issue and there's capacity need in every country, particularly in the Global South. There are challenges for studying in the UK or London in terms of financial and personal reasons. We thought a distance learning model would enable us to reach out to a much wider cohort of students.

We felt that our unique emphasis on practice would be extremely attractive to people who were balancing their professional work in their home countries with further study in human rights. And we had the excellent example of the MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies by distance learning. We've learnt a lot from that and adapted it for our provision. 

In what way does the MA relate to contemporary issues, and emerging issues?
All the faculty are doing research-led teaching, so we take what we're doing in our professional lives and try to bring that into the classroom. That makes things very current. We have some work on what I would say are emerging issues and some issues which are age-old and still need a deep amount of attention.

On the emerging issue area, my colleague Damien Short is particularly known for his work on environment in human rights, especially extractive industries, what's called extreme energy extraction - so things like fracking - the ecological crisis and the emerging crime of ecocide, green criminology. For many students, human rights and the environment is becoming a leading interest for them as the discourse on climate change becomes more and more central and prevalent in our lives. The human rights discourse brings something new to that.

Of the age-old areas, I would say we have strength on accommodating diversity: how do states deal with diversity? Countries are becoming more, not less, diverse, and the human rights framework offers some guidance about how to deal with that diversity in a way that leads to reductions in inequality and the creation of peaceful societies, social cohesion, acceptance of pluralism and these kinds of issues.

So we have a module on minority and indigenous people’s human rights which helps students to look at the legal framework that can guide us, things like the right to participate in decision making for communities, but also looking at different policy responses that states have used to accommodate diversity in constructive ways. 

I've been working on a project with the Global Centre for Pluralism, which was founded by the Canadian government and the Aga Khan Foundation. I've been an adviser for them on how the concept of human rights intersects with pluralism. For them, the pluralism idea is an ethic of living together peacefully and valuing diversity. It's philosophical on the one hand and extremely practical on the other. 

Would it be possible to talk about one or two of the case studies?
In my work, I look at caste-based discrimination and how groups affected by that form of discrimination, especially in South Asia, have mobilised internationally and have established new norms around prohibition of caste based discrimination in human rights law.

Similarly, people of African descent have been pursuing through the 2001 World Conference against Racism important international recognition of their rights. We have a UN Decade for People of African Descent right now, and that's launched a number of initiatives in countries and at the UN level, to give more attention to racism, particularly against people of African descent. 

Then my colleague Damien Short looks especially at contemporary forms of genocide, and how that's understood in contemporary life. So, for example, the case of aboriginals in Australia. They're interested to seek recognition of their sovereignty and that the experience of genocide continues for those communities.

He has also researched the way that ecocide and environmental destruction can be used as a form of genocide for populations, such as the Tar Sands case in Alberta, where you have the mass destruction of the environment affecting both the physical and the cultural life of indigenous communities. It actually relates quite closely to the current advocacy around the Dakota Access Pipeline, that's another example of a case that we cover. It touches on the extractive industries, the impact on traditional land rights, the cultural life of communities and basic human rights like health. 

Watch an overview of the MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights (please note that this clip is about the on-campus MA programme)

Which academics and practitioners are involved in the programme?
We're particularly pleased to be partnering with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, for the Human Rights and Development module. They're one of the world's leading National Human Rights Institutions, and they have scholars there who have been leading on human rights and development research for the last two decades. And they work especially with practitioners on the ground, with people in other national human rights institutions, in governments, and business. They've pioneered, for example, human rights impact assessments for businesses.

We're partnering with them because of their expertise and the outreach that they have with practitioners. We're really excited about how they'll develop the Human Rights and Development component of the programme.

Will there also be a programme of guest speakers?
That's one of the aspects of the campus model that we most wanted to replicate: student engagement with practitioners. The way we're doing this in the online programme is we're having short video interviews with guest practitioners, and those will be accessible for students. And then we're also going to have programmed Q&A sessions with practitioners so that students can ask questions with the guests and they'll have responses to them over the period of a week. So they will have that direct engagement with the people who are doing this work on a daily basis. 

Could you outline some of the practical skills that students will gain?
The students will get the critical evaluation skills that come with doing a master's programme. But we've integrated a number of assessments that build skills in other areas. For example, students will need to design a human rights project and prepare a funding proposal for that project.

In other modules, students will have to prepare shadow reports, or alternative reports, to UN Human Rights Monitoring Mechanisms. That gives the skill of reporting on human rights violations. Another assignment they might do is writing a policy report on a human rights topic which builds skills for a type of writing that's much more common in human rights work. They would also be developing policy recommendations that come from this analysis.

Students will also gain legal writing and analysis skills – they will learn how to examine a scenario and identify the legal implications of that scenario in terms of human rights law. 

In terms of comparing human rights practice across different cultures and regions of the world, could the MA by distance learning potentially be richer than the on-campus model?
We're hoping that we'll have a more global student group. We always like to take advantage of the experience and interests of our students in the classroom. So we get to know the students, and we want to have their experience to be part of that.

There are many platforms within the distance learning model for students to exchange their views and experiences, and we're very flexible in encouraging students to explore their areas of interest. So a lot of the assignments enable students to explore something that they're passionate about. For example, one of the assignments they have to do is analyse a human rights campaign. That can be on any aspect of human rights. It gives them a chance to really dig down and see what was successful, what was failing in that campaign, and it could be on a campaign that they might be familiar with or have been involved in directly.

So students can tailor some of the MA content to their own interests?
Yes, exactly. For example, we had one student whose absolute interest was HIV and human rights, and so she tailored many of her assignments to explore that issue. Equally, there are students who don't have any particular issue that they really want to focus on, so they can explore a variety of things throughout the year and, at the end, maybe find a new passion that they didn't know they had at the beginning.

"Another interesting anecdote is that every single year, for the fundraising proposal, there's always at least one student who actually gets funding, because they've worked with an NGO."

Does the MA enable students to develop actual policy recommendations?
Yes, there are a few ways that this can happen. The first is that in some of the assignments we encourage students, where possible, to work with NGOs perhaps where they're based. So, for example, when they draft the policy paper they do so as an NGO. There's nothing to stop that NGO from then taking up that report and using it in their actual practice. Similarly with the shadow reports - those can be submitted by NGOs.

Another interesting anecdote is that every single year, for the fundraising proposal, there's always at least one student who actually gets funding, because they've worked with an NGO. The other thing on policy is that we try to integrate a lot of policy texts into the core readings so that students are aware of these macro policy frameworks, like the Sustainable Development Goals, and are engaging with examples of reports that develop policy recommendations to fulfil these major commitments that have been made.

They get a familiarity with the discourse of policy and the type of recommendations that are actionable. That is a really strong emphasis that we put, on translating broad policy goals and human rights standards into activities that are actionable and achievable.

What are some of the potential career paths?
The majority of the campus-based students go on to international and national NGOs. Some have also founded their own NGOs. And some are now at a senior level - at OXFAM or ICRC, for example. Recently, a lot of students have been going into the business and human rights area, which is interesting. That seems to be a rapidly expanding area of human rights work. Then we have several who go on to research careers in NGOs or academia, and some who go on to work in government in key policy areas like development. 

Can students participate in internships with human rights organisations based in London? 
They will get access to internship support, which will include Q&A sessions with myself, as Programme Director, to review career goals and CVs. We're going to have videos with alumni talking about their experiences of internships and finding jobs. Those will be posted online. We will also share with students any internship or work opportunities that we are aware of.

Watch a clip about internships and employment