Jeff Handmaker joined the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam in February 2007. He has also held an honorary appointment in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand since January 2007 as well as other academic appointments, including (since 2013) as editor of the South African Journal on Human Rights.
He studied law in England (1992: LLB, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and 1994: LLM, with Merit, School of Oriental and African Studies, London) and was called to the English bar in 1995, but did not practice law in the UK. After fifteen years as a human rights practitioner in South Africa and The Netherlands, in 2009 he obtained a PhD in the sociology of law at Utrecht University with a thesis on "Advocating for Accountability: Civic-State Interactions to Protect Refugees in South Africa", published by Intersentia (Antwerp).
From the early 1990s, off and on until early 2000, which included short stints as assistant to a British Member of Parliament and as legal advisor for the Dutch Refugee Council, he held various positions for the South African organisation Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR). For seven years following his time with LHR he completed numerous assignments as a freelance consultant, trainer and researcher, based in The Hague. He trained government officials, police officers, military personnel, lawyers, NGOs and journalists and advised governments, the United Nations and civil society organisations in the development sector, developing particular experience in Southern Africa and Palestine.
Since 1999, he has published scholarly work, in academic and other journals, as well as four books and one special issue of a journal.
Handmaker’s academic research has been in three, overlapping areas, all concerning the potential for legal mobilisation to lead to progressive structural change.
The first, long-standing area of research has theorized and evaluated the structural opportunities and constraints of civic-state interactions in the context of human rights advocacy and in particular public interest litigation, with a particular focus on refugees and migrants (1999, 2001, 2007, 2009, 2011c). While this area of research has focused primarily on South Africa, he has also written on legal mobilization in Latin America (2014b), Palestine (2011a, 2013) and the Netherlands (2003, 2010). This area of reseach has also critiqued the deleterious effects of evaluating legal doctrine without critically taking into account the social, historical and political context (2011a, 2015).
A second, related area of research has been to critically evaluate the content and implementation of laws and policies and the roles of civic actors in the framing and enforcement of these policies. In this area, I have focussed primarily on refugee laws and policies in South Africa (2001, 2008), but I have also been examining the negative consequences of the social reproduction by migration experts of concepts such as ‘irregular migration’ (2014a), and the uncritical application of legal-doctrinal concepts in legal-political analyses of armed conflict and international criminal justice (2011a, 2011c, 2013 and 2015).
A third research area has critically evaluated efforts by civic actors, states and international institutions, to enforce international criminal law, both through international tribunals and in national legal systems (2005, 2011a, 2013).
In 2005 Handmaker received a WOTRO award to support his field research in South Africa from the Dutch National Science Foundation (NWO). Since working at ISS, he has participated in various, funded research projects, including a two-year programme funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). At the end of 2014, together with colleagues from the Erasmus School of Law he was awarded a five-year matching grant from EUR, amounting to a combined institutional commitment of 1.6 million Euros.