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BLOG: Andrea Coomber, JUSTICE - CGHR Practitioner Series 2018

last modified Mar 12, 2018 01:22 PM
Deepa Iyer, MPhil in Development Studies, member of CGHR's Student Group wrote about the second talk of this year's Practitioner Series with Andrea Comber, JUSTICE.

Strengthening the Justice System 

On 14 February 2018, Cambridge’s Centre of Governance & Human Rights hosted Andrea Coomber, Director of JUSTICE, the UK section of International Commission of Jurists, to discuss her foray into law, litigation and human rights. Andrea’s journey began in rural Western Australia, where she grew up in a community rife with racism and a developed a sense of injustice. In grade 6, whose parents had not gone to university, Andrea’s teacher encouraged her to pursue further education. Her core value was ‘to do some good’ in the world. She began studying an Arts degree before pursuing a combined Arts/Law at the University of Western Australia. Here, Andrea became intensely involved in debating, student politics and other extra-curricular activities.

Upon graduation, Andrea then began working at a law firm in Perth. Her first case involved representing a town council against an AIDS support group, which were claiming discriminatory policies on behalf of her clients. Andrea remembers that she spent several ‘sleepless nights’ thinking about the plight of the litigants. By the time they won, all of the litigants had passed away. While great legal training, she was distressed by the impact of the case and she was looking forward to do something different. She took an opportunity to work with the celebrated Indian human rights lawyer Ravi Nair in New Delhi on grassroots human rights work involving refugees, victims of torture and the families of people who had been summarily executed. While she loved the work and directly assisting victims of violations, the sensitive nature of the organisation’s work, meant she found herself interrogated by Indian Special Branch. After a few years of grassroots human rights work, she moved to the International Centre for Human Rights in Geneva. In comparison to the eventful nature of grassroots work in India, Andrea found the desk-work and UN diplomacy quite sterile and removed from the realities on the ground. She witnessed negotiations around human rights violations being dealt with on a transactional basis, used by states as part of diplomatic relations between countries. While understanding that this is the nature of international relations, Andrea didn’t enjoy the work and wanted to return to using law a tool for human rights advocacy. 

She completed an LLM in Public International Law at the London School of Economics, and for a year worked in Egypt doing consultancy work for the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

In 2002, Andrea joined The International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights (Interights) in London, first as an equality lawyer and latterly as the Legal Director. Working closely with local partners during this period, she took up tests cases on domestic violence, race discrimination and disability rights. She observed that ‘strategic litigation’ requires conceiving of and arguing an individual case to resonate beyond the immediate circumstances of the applicants, and to change the law for a broader class of people.

Andrea reflected that when she started focusing on gender issues – rape, domestic violence, trafficking cases – it was broadly considered that these were ‘soft’ issues.  Indeed, coming from a background of dealing with civil and political rights abuses in India, Andrea took a while to identify herself as a women’s rights lawyer.  But she took on more of these cases and developed an expertise, enjoying a good deal of success in convincing regional human rights courts that violence against women is a public concern and a form of discrimination.  She gave an example of the Opuz v Turkey case, explaining the background to the litigation and the approach to argument which led to a ground-breaking judgment on domestic violence.

Andrea concluded her presentation by discussing her views on the common assumptions held about a career in human rights law. While perceived to be glamorous, she remarked that human rights work often demanded long hours of work in unfamiliar and lonely situations, usually without acknowledgement, recognition or high pay. She suggested that the skill sets required included a degree of perseverance and a creative intellect, to imagine how the work might work differently. On the second assumption which attributes ‘goodness’ of an individual with the work they do, Andrea remarked that the ‘messiah complex’ was not uncommon in human rights world and that the sector had its fair share of unpleasant people and poor practices.   Andrea commented that the best human rights activists she knew were people who were curious and interested in others, resilient and yet kind. Drawing on a Harry Potter analogy, she concluded that what really mattered in the field of human rights litigation was having a mixture of ‘Gryffindor courage and Hufflepuff kindness’.