“I Really Enjoy Differences and Unchartered Territories”


Ilhami Alkan Olsson is the Chief Advisor for the RWI Office in Istanbul. We sat down with him recently to learn more about who he is and the work he does.

Where are you from?

I’m from a small town called Aydın in Turkey, which is near Greece.

What specific tasks do you have at RWI in Istanbul?

I’m the chief advisor for the office since last April. I’m relatively new.

Why did you choose to work at RWI?

I think for two reasons. One is more personal than political. I was working for Istanbul University and was teaching International Law. But the events following the military coup attempt in 2016 in Turkey, created a not very attractive working environment for academics; Even though I liked my job there I felt like I was not any longer able to do my job properly. I therefore thought it might be a good idea to move somewhere else to do something more meaningful.

At the same time, I knew Morten, the director of RWI, because we had met a few times prior and discussed possible cooperation when I was teaching as a guest lecturer for Lund University. Morten’s ideas about RWI and organizational transformation of it as well as his ideas concerning research were interesting. Therefore when there was a position available at the institute, I thought it might be a good idea to work with him, so I decided to apply for the job. After a long selection period, I was selected.

Why did you pursue a career in the human rights and law field in the first place?

I studied at Ankara Law Faculty and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue as a lawyer. I felt it could be a good idea to try and do something meaningful here other than becoming a commercial lawyer and moved to Brussels to pursue my master study, where I met my wife, Johanna, and after a few years we moved to Sweden due to my wife’s’ PhD position in Sweden.

International law and international human rights law were two options and I decided for the latter one. I started my international human rights law master programme at Lund Law Faculty. I did my PhD at Kent Law Faculty, but wanted to discover new terrains and decided to pursue the human rights aspects of international economic law. My post-doctoral study was on international climate change regime in London and I profited widely from this when I later on worked with environment and human rights linkages.

Why did you decide to pursue so many degrees in different countries?

I think it comes from my curiosity. I really enjoy differences, uncharted terrains and things that are different from me. I rarely experienced differences as a problem since I’m married with someone for 24 years that is completely from another culture.

I learned a lot of things from her and I think I have become a better person by experiencing different cultures and meeting people from other cultures. We are not really Turkish or Swedish, we enjoy being part of the world culture.

What’s your take on where human rights are heading right now?

This is a difficult question to answer since it has different meanings. I think there is a general negative tendency, some people don’t believe any longer in democracy and human rights is losing its ground because of different reasons in many parts of the world. This is partly due to dominant human rights narrative, since many people understand human rights in a very narrow sense, like its just political and civil rights while not considering economic rights, for example. Poor people being disregarded; while sexual orientation and freedom of expression are always brought up as examples of human rights. There are though other types of international human rights issues which we aren’t really concerned about.

I think poor people are, in many cases, losers of globalization.

Their primary issue is having food and good health, not really freedom of expression or certain political rights. The increasing gap between rich and poor people is something I think the human rights narrative missed a bit to detect. We need to see the interlinkages between all sort of human rights and remember the indivisibility of different human rights from that angle too.

What do you want to get out of the experience of working at RWI?

Turkey is a very big country and being there forces you to see things in a different perspective.

You understand the value of compromising and you aren’t allowed to stay who you are, meaning you have to go out from yourself to reach other people that think and do differently.

I also think I’m much more interested in understanding how RWI works globally. Turkey is Turkey and I have a good idea of it, but considering that RWI is a global institution, I think it would be very satisfying to contribute to RWI’s activities on a global level. I think I could complete my understanding in a good way by covering larger scale areas.

What are some of the project in Turkey that you are most excited about working on?

Many of them actually. Just to mention a few, human rights cities that focus on the rights of persons with disabilities, older people, refugees, women and children in a city context. We are able to touch the lives of people in a quite concrete way. Another project we are currently initiating is ICT and human rights. Our different support programmes for younger academics also excite me a lot. I will of course not forget our efforts to incorporate gender perspective into all of our programmes.

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