Twenty-fifth anniversary of the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s University Belfast: Quo Vadis?

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Tom Hadden, Brice Dickson and Luke Moffett. The authors can be reached via

This year we are celebrating twenty-five years of the Human Rights Centre in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. The Centre has seen many students pass through its masters programme and counted many notable scholars who contributed to its research outputs.

This piece is not self-congratulatory, but rather a more critical introspection as to the value and work of human rights centres in general, and specifically about what we hope to contribute over the next few years.

History of the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s

Human rights over the past twenty-five years have become mainstreamed in Northern Ireland and so the existence of a research centre in the area would not be today out of place or controversial. This was not always the case with the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s, which has struggled to define its existence. The foundation of the Human Rights Centre in the School of Law at Queen’s in 1990 was closely associated with the development of the masters course in Human Rights, Discrimination and Emergency Law which was of course linked to the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. The idea of establishing a separate Human Rights Centre was initiated by Stephen Livingstone. But there was some resistance within the Faculty of Law, as it then was, to anything that would or might be seen to involve political action. So a compromise was eventually reached by calling it the Centre for International and Comparative Human Rights Law and so emphasising academic rather than activist work.

The Faculty did nonetheless allocate some funds to the new Centre to get it started. Unfortunately at that point Stephen Livingstone moved off to Detroit (later Nottingham), and Brice Dickson to Ulster. This left Tom Hadden and Simon Lee in temporary charge. Tom Hadden was the principal organiser of an initial conference on Emergency Law, which aimed to gain international support for his proposed Database on Emergency Law, eventually established with support from the Ford Foundation and the Airey Neave Trust. For his part Simon Lee (with the help of researcher Therese Murphy) organised a conference on religious freedom.

Under the successive Directors the Centre held conferences and some teaching courses for local and foreign practitioners. During the mid-1990s Stephen Livingstone worked with the British Council in promoting human rights, notably in Nigeria where we had detailed discussions on minority rights with a number of officials and local activists including Ken Saro Wiwa in 1994 just before he was arrested and eventually executed by the Nigerian authorities, not a particular encouraging result.

That was the general pattern of action during the 1990s and 2000s. Under the succeeding Directors the Centre held conferences and some teaching courses for local practitioners. It also published a number of Occasional Papers on topics such as Women’s Rights as Human Rights: A Practical Guide (1997), Kurdish Language Rights in Turkey (1997), Human Rights and South Africa: Lessons for Building Institutions (1998), The Effective Protection of Human Rights: An Introductory Handbook (1998), and a summary of a report for the Forum For Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. In association with Fortnight magazine some more politically focused reports were published on aspects of the Northern Ireland peace process: Equal but Not Separate: Communal Appraisal Policy (1998), Integration and Separation: Rights in Divided Societies (2001) and finally, under the newly renamed QUB Human Rights Centre, Equality, Good Relations and a Shared Future (2007).

Throughout this period the Centre deliberately adopted the approach of trying to do as much profile-raising as it could without being dependent on large sums of money. The School of Law did support the Centre providing administrative support staff and some funding to carry out conferences and guest speakers. In the late 1990s and 2000s the pressures of the Research Assessment Exercise/Research Excellence Framework took their toll as well, with staff feeling obliged to focus on internationally excellent publications rather than on training, knowledge transfer or activism. The greatest loss to the Centre and human rights more generally, was the death of Stephen Livingstone in 2004, whose vision and passion drove the Centre. Soon after the Centre set up the annual Stephen Livingstone Lecture to commemorate Stephen’s legacy within the School and wider community by continuing his passion in human rights with key speakers including Shami Chakrabarti, Michael O’Flaherty, and Conor Gearty.

For subsequent years the Centre was led by notable directors and assistant directors including Brice Dickson, Rachel Murray, Colin Harvey, Christine Bell, Rory O’Connell, Sylvie Langlaude, Jean Allain, Tom Obokata and Aoife Nolan. Yet in comparison with other university-based human rights centres, like those in Essex and Galway, it was very much an ad hoc name-tag for work by members of the Law School which was individually carried out, promoted and financed. That said the collective research conducted by members of the Centre enhanced the School of Law’s performance in the Research Assessment Exercise. As such, the Centre while based in common interest and teaching on human rights, has help to be a hub for leading human rights researchers to further the discussion on contemporary human rights issues, without substantial funding.

Looking to the future

In this year of the 25th anniversary of the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s efforts are being made to revive the initial spirit which led to its creation. Several events have been held to increase awareness of the Centre’s ideals, and the growing number of PhD and masters students working on human rights issues in the Law School are more involved in the Centre’s activities than ever before. We hope to play a role in re-instigating cooperation between the various university-based human rights centres in the UK and Ireland and also in the work of the Association of Human Rights Institutions.

In the face of limits to legal aid and cuts from foreign donors to civil society in Northern Ireland, who have substantively contributed to the development of human rights here, it is hoped that the Human Rights Centre at Queen’s can draw from its invaluable resource of staff and students’ passion to continue the pursuit of human rights and dissemination of technical legal issues in an accessible way to the wider public.

Although there are increasing pressures on research funding for academics, the growing focus on research impact or having a benefit for society can perhaps lend itself to human rights centres in universities becoming more supportive of local and international pursuits of human rights issues. In addition, in the 21st century with increasing connectivity and access to information, new ways can be found for human rights centres to engage a wide range of actors and communities on human rights issues.

At Queen’s we hope to continue our work in human rights with a new generation of students and staff through education, research and outreach. Already we have engaged with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on claims against Gaddafi and the Libyan government over weapons supplied to the IRA and we submitted, jointly with the Transitional Justice Institute, a brief to the International Criminal Court on reparations. We are currently working with a number of local and international organisations on bespoke human rights solutions to contemporary challenges. We also hope to build on collaborations with other research centres, institutes and civil society to further the pursuit of human rights. Twenty-five years on we hope the Human Rights Centre in the School of Law is viewed as added value to the wider university and society, highlighting the valuable research on human rights that has been historically conducted and advocated at Queen’s and will continue to do so in the future.