What would you do if, while driving through a council estate on the wrong side of town, you saw a man on the ground being beaten up by a lynch mob?
Some people, perhaps only a few, would drive on shaking their heads at how dangerous the streets are while reciting excuses as to why it would be mad to get involved. Many of us might stop at a safe distance, call the police on our mobiles and get on our way. Hardly anyone – man or woman – would get out of their car, stand over the victim and try to reason with the crowd.
But Geraldine Van Bueren did just that in an act that encapsulates her fervent commitment to the sanctity of human rights.
Looking back on this violent incident over green tea in her peaceful Highgate home (the birthplace of poet Sir John Betjeman, she informs me later), Van Bueren is surprised when I put it to her that her actions that day were out of the ordinary. “I thought he was in danger of haemorrhaging,” she shrugs, as if this makes the act any less extraordinary.
Violence is nothing new to Van Bueren. The holocaust casts a long shadow over her family history (her entire European family perished in the camps), and it seems to have left an indelible mark on the way she leads her life. “If people realise they can do something, they’re less likely just to watch – at least I hope so. People have watched too often; people watched when my family were sent to the death camps,” she says.
As well as the occasional practical administration of social justice in the streets, more than any other lawyer in the UK, Van Bueren is credited with helping to create the international laws aimed at improving children’s lives in industrialised and developing states.
It is for this reason that, late last year, Van Bueren, professor of law at Queen Mary University of London and tenant at Doughty Street Chambers, was awarded The Lawyer/ Unicef Child Rights Lawyer Award. The Award recognises the individual who has done the most to make one or more of the rights in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the convention) a reality for children.
Her achievements are manifold and too extensive to list (although when asked, she diplomatically cites her marriage as her greatest achievement). They range from editing magazines to advising governments on child rights, through to establishing a child rights post-graduate course. But the one achievement that deserves the most attention is that she is one of the original drafters of the UN convention. This much-feted convention is a set of minimum standards designed to protect children’s rights the world over, be they civil, political, economic, social or cultural.
Child rights, as a subject, is still a relative fledgling, says Van Bueren.
Unlike contract law, which has been set in stone for years, child rights gained prominence in the post-war years and, she says, only really blossomed in the 1970s and the 1980s. It was then that Van Bueren first became interested in child rights. “I loved all the cultural issues; I found it absolutely fascinating that it seemed to be possible for governments to accede to requests for children where they denied requests for adults,” she reveals.
Van Bueren also helped draft the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Guidelines on Refugee Children and the UN Programme of Action on Children in the Criminal Justice System.
But do these laws, guidelines and other pieces of paper actually make a difference to children at the sharp end, or are they no more than window dressing, allowing governments to pay lip service to the rights of the child while scoring positive PR points? After all, there are so many stories in the media indicating that in some parts of the world children are still abused and poorly treated on a major scale.
Although she concedes that there is still much to do, Van Bueren insists that the legislation she helped create has changed the lives of children. The good news, she says, is not reported.
She argues that children have become “more central and visible in society” in a number of countries since the convention began rolling out in the early 1990s (it is now recognised by 191 states). In countries such as Brazil and Nicaragua, children can vote from the age of 16. Iran is looking at the establishment of juvenile courts. She attributes international improvements in the child criminal justice system and child mortality rates to the added emphasis on the rights of the child.
She also cites a case in South Africa, which saw a group of economists challenge the government over an arms deal, arguing that if the government was to purchase these arms it would be unable to implement children’s educational and health rights. “That kind of action was inconceivable, but is now possible,” argues Van Bueren.
Spreading the word and increasing awareness of child rights also has the effect of moving general human rights issues further up states’ political agendas.
She admits, though, that the convention she helped draft is not without its shortcomings, and says that more prominence should have been given to HIV/Aids and street children. “Street children are still massively neglected around the world; they’re not included in idealised notions of childhood and so you have death campaigns in Columbia and Brazil,” she says.
Asked whether this occurred because the convention has a Western state bias, she rejects this, saying that all world views were accommodated, pointing to the inclusion of the Islamic approach to adoption in the convention.
In fact, Van Bueren expresses frustration that the UK seems reluctant to learn and be guided by anything other than European and US law. “In this country there’s been silence on the potential of law to combat poverty. We tend to look to Europe and the States for comparative law and we don’t look southwards.”
Although Van Bueren is tough talking (make no mention of university tuition fees, which she thinks are “outrageous”), her demeanour throughout the interview is calm, measured and controlled. This could be due to her de-stressing hobbies, including daily sessions of yoga, meditation and writing poetry (which she hopes one day to have published).
The influences for her poetry owe much to her line of work. “You see very powerful images that you don’t see in England,” she explains.
“When I was in Dakkah, I saw a woman completely naked carrying a baby without clothes. We forget about the dignity of those who are impoverished.”
Van Bueren decided as a self-confessed “precocious” 13-year-old that she wanted to be an international human rights lawyer, and she lives by this ethos today. “I saw human rights as being a way of changing and achieving equality and also preventing gross violations,” she states. “I think it’s important for people to see law as a means of peaceful social change, not just as a Mercedes-obtaining career.”
Geraldine Van Bueren