What do umbrellas have to do with human rights lawyering?

I applied for the LLM Law in Development at Warwick in 1999-2000. I chose it because I wanted to do “something with human rights”. The truth: I had found law studies extremely dull and the environment in law departments anonymous, if not hostile, and my grades were far from confidence boosting. I was looking for an escape route or, in the language of an application letter:  “I was seeking to use my knowledge in law to do something meaningful and help build a better world”.  

The Masters’ year at Warwick was one of the best years of my life. Two things made it special: Inspiring teachers: the then programme director Prof Upendra Baxi (my favourite reading) was a postmodernist, who once spent a full lecture on the question who had invented the umbrella. He never gave answers. The feeling that this left us with, was his whole point, maybe. Secondly, the cafeterias, where my fellow-students and I spent more hours, than in the classroom. I was inspired by meeting lawyers from Hong Kong, England, India, Slovakia, Bangladesh, Brazil… – and to find that we had so much in common, across all these different cultures – most of all, we shared our confusion about our lectures and readings, which is why we needed so many hours in cafeterias! I also appreciated the common law education system, which focusses less on repetition and reproduction, like the continental one, and more on developing ideas and arguing for them. It is what I always do today, when I want to achieve anything.  

My studies had nurtured my interest in the international field. My first job – which I got after an internship – was in a Berlin law firm, where I specialised on immigration and asylum law – the topic of my master thesis. When the firm asked me to join them as a partner, this was my “now or never”-moment, deciding whether to settle or to search for an international career. It was a “now”. I temporarily left the legal field and went as a volunteer with Peace Brigades International (PBI) – an organisation which specialises in protective accompaniment – to Colombia, a country in armed conflict with high rates of violent persecution of social activists. Accompanying a threatened human rights defender 24 hours a day, you have a lot of time to observe. This is when you learn things about human rights, that you cannot see, when you are busy resolving problems and finishing tasks on time. What I learned was, that you don’t do human rights work to win the struggle, you do it knowing that it will take generations, with many setbacks and pains, and you can never win it alone. But you do it, because you want to.  

After four years with PBI, I had a period of unemployment.  Several former colleagues recommended that I meet Mr Kaleck, a German lawyer who was in the process of founding a new organisation, called ECCHR. We had a coffee and talked. The organisation had no money but a lot of ideas. What they needed was lawyers with hands-on experience in human rights – like me. So, I was in. Networking not only got me this job, but since then, it has been an essential part of my work. Initially I was timid and hated the idea of “networking”. Over time, I grew more open to the idea and found being in touch with interesting people rather helpful.  

At ECCHR, I was involved in developing the critical legal training programme – and learned that as lawyers, we should recognise our privileges: law is an instrument of power and we need to use it smartly, and usually countercurrent, to make it work for human rights. Which we do, at the business and human rights programme at ECCHR. I helped file a criminal complaint against TÜV SÜD in Germany, who presumably contributed to the dam break of Brumadinho in January 2019 that killed 272 people and polluted a river. This year, we filed – together with Mexican organisation Prodesc – a legal action under the new duty of vigilance law in France against the energy giant EDF in France for building windfarms in Oaxaca without respecting the consultation rights of indigenous communities.  

Over the years, I have also worked as a researcher and consultant for the Colombian human rights lawyers collective CCAJAR, as a translator for a university, as a German teacher with young professionals, as a theatre pedagogue with refugees, and currently as a supervisor at Amsterdam University law clinic. I guess there are many ways that we can make sense of the world and contribute in our own way to making it a better place and I am curious to see what comes next.  

Claudia Müller-Hoff, LLM, Senior Legal Consultant for Business and Human Rights at ECCHR 

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