On Thursday, March 31, Staff Writer Simon Panfilio attended an early afternoon chat with Assistant Adjunct Professor Christian De Vos about his experiences working with human rights law.

This Thursday afternoon at 1 pm (a sneakily liminal time, particularly for me because I don’t have classes on Friday—is it the week? Is it the weekend?), I found myself trudging up to the eighth floor of the International Affairs Building, where I was greeted by a veritable cornucopia of generic, individually-boxed personal pizzas. The advertising for this 1 pm Thursday event heavily emphasizes the presence of this pizza—in fact, its webpage on the Columbia Events website describes it in terms of this greasy snack (“Pizza with Professor Christian De Vos”) and then mentions pizza twice more in the first two sentences (“Pizza will be served. Join us for an afternoon of good pizza and great conversation!)” What the website failed to note was that they provided one pizza for every event guest. The pizza certainly was a meal, and I wouldn’t call it terrible by any means, but I am not surprised that the mysterious, enigmatic suppliers of this pizza chose to remain anonymous and leave their names off the nondescript cardboard boxes. (There were several dozen personal pizzas left over after we finished up— the classroom could probably only hold thirty people at best, so how many people could they have been expecting anyway? But I digress.)

What the pizza-related proclamations on the event website for some reason did not include in their first three sentences of description was the topic and significance of the event itself. This Thursday, the Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights hosted Adjunct Assistant Professor of Political Science Christian De Vos, who discussed his time working with various institutions in the field of human rights.

Professor De Vos’s track record of involvement with human rights is a long and well-rounded one: He has spent his career working with organizations like Amnesty International, the US Institute of Peace, and the War Crimes Research Office, in addition to clerking for the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals and serving as a senior advocacy office with Open Society Foundations. Having joined ISHR this year, Professor De Vos currently teaches international human rights law, and he currently serves as the Director of Research and Investigations at a non-profit NGO based in New York City, Physicians for Human Rights, which focuses on mass human rights atrocities.

Professor De Vos began by speaking about the era in which he began working in the human rights field. “I came into the human rights space at a time when human rights was evolving,” De Vos said, painting a picture of a political landscape dominated by atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, a time when criminal accountability on an international scale was beginning to regain some of its dynamism that was lost in the years after the Nuremberg Trials. This criminal accountability captured De Vos’s attention, he said. He went on to study in South Africa, which was still grappling with the immediate aftermath of the Apartheid years; he was particularly struck by Nelson Mandela’s creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the decision to favor restorative justice over other tribunal practices.

While studying for his PhD in the Netherlands, De Vos became interested in studying international law from an external perspective. He spoke at length about the benefits and pitfalls of law with respect to human rights, noting that it can be easy for lawyers to be caught up in abstract legalese to such an extent that they lose sight of what’s happening in a specific situation. “The more lawyers who enter a space—and I say that as a lawyer—the larger the gap is between Geneva, New York, and DC and the spaces on the ground,” De Vos commented. He pointed out a few questions regarding the role of lawyers in real-life applications of human rights law: “How do we think of law as both opening up and closing spaces? How do we think of this strategically and prudently?”

Building off these observations, Professor De Vos emphasized the importance of spending time in the field to build up one’s perspective on human rights. Firstly, he stressed the importance of varied education, telling us that his perspective expanded simply from studying in Europe in addition to America: “It’s one thing to learn international law at a US law school, and another thing to do so elsewhere.” Having grown up under “US exceptionalism,” through his time at Wesleyan University, Professor De Vos described his time as a student in London and near the Hague in the Netherlands as “a second education.”

However, Professor De Vos made sure to convey clearly that it’s not enough to simply move from one Western political hub to the next, and spoke about how his field research in Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo played a significant role in how he came to perceive the flaws in the approach of the International Criminal Court and its proponents. De Vos did not criticize the ICC or its work outright, but he did remark on the danger of many of its advocates’ cookie-cutter interpretation of the Rome Statute, its guiding and establishing document. After seeing firsthand the effects of resource constraints and the aftereffects of colonialism in these African countries, De Vos was “troubled” by advocates’ push to legislate carbon copies of the Rome Statute, rather than nudging each country to “make it their own” in an effective way. “My field research dispelled the notion of the ICC as a white knight,” De Vos said. “We get so focused on the ICC that we don’t creatively pursue other avenues of corporate liability,” he added, on the subject of holding corporations accountable for human rights abuses. “The ICC is suited for going after people, not organizations… it’s not just about copying the Rome Statute.”

Of course, it was impossible to have a discussion of international affairs and human rights abuses without the mention of the current war in Ukraine. “We can’t talk about a ‘post-Cold War’ world anymore,” Professor De Vos reflected, drawing parallels to the current state of affairs—namely the paralysis in the United Nations Security Council and the inability to imagine any semblance of multilateral cooperation. “Democracy, rather than being ascendant, is under threat.” He also spoke on the importance of the “science and medicine” angle to international justice—an angle particularly relevant to his current position with Physicians for Human Rights—with respect to the current crisis in Ukraine. He pointed to the medical field’s ability to help prosecute grave war crimes and provide support in an active conflict, and noted the difficulty of providing assistance via an NGO into a situation with such “cultural differences.”

The event ended in a question-and-answer session, and Professor De Vos received multiple questions about how to deal with a lack of funded positions available to those looking to get into the human rights field. De Vos’s advice was for prospective workers to “know your worth, even when in a field of smart people who have passion,” warning of employers exploiting the passion of this audience to get away with less funding and less pay. “It does a disservice to the human rights community when those with resources are not on equal footing,” he said.

The event lasted about an hour, at which point the students in attendance began to shuffle out to make it to their next classes on time (for the best, because the piles of uneaten pizza were beginning to fester in the stuffy, vaguely humid classroom). “I always tried to work on the inside of institutions,” Professor De Vos told us in summary; he said that he now thinks of himself as “a scholar pressuring governments to do better,” as an advocate on the outside (“I was glad to be on the outside between 2016 and 2020,” he added, half-jokingly), making noise about the rule of law. De Vos’s valuable insight helped the many other impressionable undergrads and already-world-weary grad students in attendance visualize the complexities and variety of a life studying international human rights law. Plus—as the event advertising would never have me forget—we got a free meal out of it.

Photo via Bwog Archives