"Sometimes you have to pressure a state or a multinational company if you want them to comply with human rights"

Jeff Handmaker, a senior lecturer at Erasmus University Rotterdam, started his career as a human rights lawyer in South Africa in the early nineties. Since 2007 he has worked as a legal sociologist in the area of ‘Law, Human Rights and Development’ at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. "My current research theme is legal mobilisation. What is the relationship between the law and the political situation? What steps can you take to use certain rights to spark a social transformation?"

At the ISS, SDGs are frequently used as a frame of reference in all of its education and research activities. Handmaker explains: "Human rights is just one of the topics I’m researching. It’s about more than just the language of human rights conventions, it’s also about how - and if - these conventions can function in complex societies. In particular, I examine the influence politics has when it comes to complying with these conventions, both in local and global contexts."

Could you share an example from your research?
"Well, for example, I look at how international crimes are tackled. You can approach different institutions to tackle crime, one of them is the International Criminal Court. But who approaches the Court? It may also be possible for the offender to be brought to justice within his country of origin, the country where the victims come from, or the country the offender goes to, as well. What we’re actually doing is looking at how social justice can enhance the idea of justice.
In this regard, NGOs often play a key role in this process, international organisations such as Amnesty International and local organisations such as the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq."

But are crimes quite the same thing as human rights violations?
"Actually, it’s a specific, and very serious type of human rights violation. The vast majority of human rights concern the obligations of the state; what the state is supposed to do or supposed to avoid in order to protect citizens. Some obligations are clearer than others. The state is under no circumstances permitted to torture people. Compliance with other obligations occurs gradually, in line with economic development: the state must also ensure adequate education or access to water.

Crimes are about something that an individual has done, sometimes in an official capacity, often as a member of the military or as a civil servant. In other words, the state can still be indirectly responsible for a crime. This is complex in both a legal and political sense."

And what is your role in this?
"It’s important to understand the context in which human rights violations occur, as well as its function, how the law is enforced. This doesn’t always take place in a court of law. There may be formal or informal mechanisms for holding companies liable for crimes in the garment industry. And while these mechanisms are frequently invoked on the basis of human rights, they are not always legal “cases”, strictly speaking: they could be driven by NGO campaigns or by petitions. By the same token, if people want to launch a campaign because they don’t want to see avocados from Israel being sold in stores abroad due to Israel’s involvement in international crimes, that’s also an example of upholding human rights."

"In the end, we want to provide relevant information that can be used to counter human rights violations. This is primarily meant for lawyers, NGOs and other interest groups"

But in the end, we all want cheap t-shirts and avocados, don’t we?
"Yes, that’s what makes it difficult. There’s often only a relatively small group of people who care about this issue and act accordingly. It gets interesting if a government minister says: “This has to stop”, or “This violates international law”. Ultimately, it has to be resolved at that level, but it can all start with smaller, citizen-led initiatives."

How will your research prove beneficial for human rights?
"Professor Karin Arts and I edited the book Mobilising International Law for 'Global Justice' (2019, CUP). One of the objectives was to provide information to international lawyers and international organisations who are also active in this area, to give them a better understanding of how politics relates to and influences law and human rights. The book addresses different topics, such as about how efforts to challenge corruption through bribes paid in other countries is being waged in where the companies are based, and the battle against child abduction. It also gives a few examples of how some cities enforce human rights in cases where enforcement isn’t successful at the national level.

The big question is: what are the law-based options out there for addressing issues like this? It’s difficult to hold a state or a multinational company liable for human rights violations, but it has happened in the past, through, for example, boycotts, divestment and sanctions or other campaigns and petitions. Another good example is the work of the Dutch organisation Urgenda. The 2015 Urgenda Climate Case against the Dutch Government was the first in the world in which citizens established that their government has a legal duty to prevent the harms caused by climate change. The options are there, and law often plays a pivotal role: that’s what we focus on. Lawyers have a tendency to cite the law repeatedly in the hopes that it will be respected in the end. But sometimes, putting pressure on a state, multinational company or institution is what’s needed to get justice."

Doesn’t this sound like activism?
"Activism is considered by some to be a bit of a dirty word in academia, but yes, what I’m describing shares some common ground with activism. As an academic I feel it’s important to ensure my research is defensible and relevant. It’s hard to say whether I’m more influential through my participation in international conferences and academic publications, or through the press with an article in Metro News, NOS or Al Jazeera; so I do both.
In the end, we want to provide relevant information that can be used to counter human rights violations. This is primarily meant for lawyers, NGOs and other interest groups. But at the same time, we feel it’s important to maintain a dialogue with policymakers, judges, the political establishment, and, in a certain sense, with the general public."

Assistant professor
Faculty
International Institute of Social Studies