Paying a tribute to Professor Sir Nigel Rodley

It has now been a year since Professor Sir Nigel Rodley passed away. A great number of tributes have been shared by friends, colleagues, past students and collaborators. What has been made abundantly clear through these tributes is that Nigel has had a deep impact on many, both professionally and personally.

Tributes have come in various forms, and continue to be developed. Examples include two memorial conferences which were held in September and October of 2017, one organised by the Human Rights Centre and the School of Law at the University of Essex, and the other hosted by The Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights at the University of Cincinnati College of Law; a memorial plaque produced by the Bahrain Human Rights Society in recognition of Nigel’s efforts in advancing human rights in Bahrain; and a documentary on the life and legacy of Nigel is currently being produced by Human Rights in the Picture.

One anecdote shared during the Essex memorial conference stood out for reflecting Nigel’s deep commitment to human rights. During a country mission in his capacity as Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Nigel was aware that there had been allegations made that shackling was being used on prisoners as a form of punishment. Nigel visited a prison and spoke to the prison governor and tried to put him at ease. He asked about the custody records, and subsequently asked for the medical records and responded positively to the state of the records. Nigel then explained that he understood that prisons may have challenges, particularly those that are overcrowded, and stated that the prison administration must face problems relating to discipline. The governor said yes and felt increasingly relaxed, at which point Nigel asked very matter-of-factly whether he could see the shackle book. The prison governor agreed to this, before realising what he had just revealed. It was noted that Nigel’s actions were always deliberate and reflected his true passion for the advancement of human rights, as well as his sheer intellect.

Great concern for the future of human rights is being raised with increased urgency and frequency, with some in search of new answers to global issues. It is in this context that many miss the vision and leadership that Nigel brought. We are fortunate, however, that Nigel left us a strong set of arguments, ideas, memories and wisdom with which to interpret and challenge the problems facing the world today.

As the global pushback against human rights continues and intensifies, it is important to recall Nigel’s sense of optimism and the need to move forward in a spirit of hope, determined to give effect to the promise of human rights. In 2008, Nigel wrote the following in the Essex Human Rights Review:

First, governments will all too readily abandon the principles they claim to defend in the interests of being seen to respond to public demands for greater security. Second, human rights achievements are only as secure as the determination of civil society to defend them is maintained or recovered.

Yet, at the risk of appearing hopelessly naïve, I would venture that the norms that have been challenged will, if anything, emerge strengthened, precisely by virtue of their having been so vigorously defended. After all, the development of the whole human rights regime was itself wholly ‘unrealistic’. Governments agreed, first, to the norms, then to the machinery to hold them to the norms. They built and then sat in the stocks. So, I am prepared to predict that, despite attempts to escape, they will be forced to stay there. This too is a lesson from experience.

Nigel remains alive in each of his colleagues and friends at the University of Essex. He is also incredibly present in the many people he taught, worked with and helped during his life. His legacy and commitment to human rights will continue to endure in the years to come.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone



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