Rebecca Stern

Rebecca Stern: Human Rights Are For Humans, Not Citizens

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law recently sat down with Rebecca Stern, a member of our board, to discuss her interest in human rights. As well as being a member of RWI’s board, Stern is a lawyer with a doctoral degree in International Law from Uppsala University. She wrote her doctoral thesis about Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. She has been employed at the University of Uppsala at the faculty of law, since 2011, where she is a Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor of International Law. Stern has previously worked at the Alliance Appeals Board, the Swedish Red cross, Swedish Refugee Advice Centre and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law from 2009 to 2011.  

What triggered your interest in human rights and how did you come to work with them?

That’s actually a difficult question! The simple answer is that when I was a law student, human rights and international law were some of the few things that I really found interesting. In truth, my interest was piqued because human rights and international law are about so many more things that just legal norms. They’re about ethics, morality and how we relate to one another as human beings. I find the relationship between those issues and the law, the “black letter law,” really interesting. It’s also something that feels real in a way, it relates to things that happen in the world, more than tax law does for example!

Why are you particularly interested in the human rights of children, asylum law and migration law?

I wrote my master’s thesis on the Convention of the Rights of the Child and that’s where the interest began. These two research fields sometimes connect, I’ve been writing a bit about asylum seeking children for example, but it’s not an overlap all of the time. The rights of child are an interesting part of human rights law because the rights of the child are sometimes perceived as something slightly different than human rights in general. We speak of children’s rights, we don’t really speak about the human rights of children. So there’s this distinction: a sort of “othering” to children as being something different to mainstream human rights law. The same distinction is made for asylum seekers. We see them more as migrants than as human beings who are moving from one country to another. There are a lot of different interests involved who are set at play within these two categories. That’s why I find it interesting.

What about the intersection between international and national law interests you?

The national level, or domestic level, is where international law really becomes reality, especially in the field of human rights and international refugee law. Despite norms on both global and regional levels, it is states who have the real responsibility, they are the main actors. So, it’s interesting to see how international norms are interpreted and implemented on the national level and how international law can affect national law. This is also the case when looking at things from the other way around, seeing how national law has an influence on international norms. That’s the dialogue that I’m interested in. It doesn’t matter how good the convention you write is until you can actually implement it in practice.

What do you find most rewarding about being on RWI’s board?

The institute has such diverse activities, from research to the very nitty gritty Programme department, and works in all parts of the world. It’s really interesting to see how the aims and purposes of the institute are implemented in these different fields and different parts of the world. I find that really rewarding to be a part of. And of course, it’s also very nice to be on a board of an institute where you’ve actually worked yourself and get that perspective.

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

It’s hard to find a positive answer to this question! I think that these are difficult times because national interests and individual interests overshadow the idea that we have common goals, common interests and a responsibility towards your fellow human being. From this perspective, it has become more important than ever to work for the benefit of human rights and to emphasis that rights are not connected to your legal status, you have them because you are a person, not because you are a citizen.

What do you find challenging about the work that you do?

It’s getting these ideas across and arguing that this matters. The board works together with the management at the Institute to try and find ways for the Institute to be as effective as possible in trying to implement the aims and purposes.

What advice would you give a student studying human rights?

I would say: try and answer the question “why do you find this interesting? Why is this something that you would like to work with?” there are a number of ways to answer. Find the particular area within this relatively broad field, that you really care about and focus on that. Try to make a difference. You can work with human rights in so many places, you don’t have to be a lecturer at university or work for a government authority. You can work in the private sector and deal with human rights. Last but not least, do something that you enjoy, otherwise you won’t be any good at it.


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