With Nandini Ramanujam, Executive Director of the Faculty of Law’s Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism

By Neale McDevitt When asked how she came to be the Executive Director of the Faculty of Law’s Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism, Nandini Ramanujam smiles. “I’m not sure – I’m the only one [in the three-person directorship] who isn’t a lawyer,” said the Oxford-trained economist.
Nandini Ramanujam on the Echenberg Conference series: “We pick real-life issues that will have policy-making implications at national and international levels.” / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

When asked how she came to be the Executive Director of the Faculty of Law’s Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism, Nandini Ramanujam smiles. “I’m not sure – I’m the only one [in the three-person directorship] who isn’t a lawyer,” said the Oxford-trained economist.

These days, Ramanujam is putting the final touches on the upcoming (Oct.7-9) Global Conference on Human Rights and Diverse Societies – the second installment of the tri-annual Echenberg Family Conferences.

Recently, Ramanujam sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk about the Centre, its mission, and the unique nature of the Echenberg Conferences.

Tell us about the Centre and the work being done here.

The Centre was created in 2005 under the auspices of the Faculty of Law.

At McGill and Montreal, we are a hub for individuals – both academics and non-academics – who are interested in human rights in Canada and around the world.

So this is not a purely Faculty of Law venture?

Not at all, although our objective to promote transdisciplinary collaboration on the complex social, ethical, political and philosophical dimensions of human rights certainly has as its starting point the Faculty of Law’s transsystemic program. But we have members from across the University, including people at the School of Social Work, the Faculties of Art, Science, Religious Studies and Education. We also have membership from Concordia, UdeM and the University of Ottawa.

What does the Centre do?

Apart from teaching and research, we have a large human rights internship program. We have the O’Brien Fellowship for students pursuing postgraduate studies in human-rights law that is truly international in scope. We have Fellows from Eritrea, Israel, China, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Panama, Canada and the U.S.

And of course, every three years we have the Echenberg Family Conference on Human Rights.

Tell us about the series.

This is a unique platform for the University to engage stakeholders from all walks of life on issues that are relevant to the global society.

The aim of the Conference on Human Rights and Diverse Societies is to challenge the mainstream narrative of human rights. Does the framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights actually work? And if it doesn’t work, what are the alternative frameworks?

We pick real-life issues that will have policy-making implications at national and global levels.

“Human rights” encompasses a huge array of issues.

It does, and it begs the question: what do you mean when you talk about the universality of human rights? That whole debate about the universality of women’s rights and children’s rights, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and freedom of education is important, but what about the most basic human dignity issues of food, water and shelter? These are the fundamental human-rights issues. But they seldom show up in political discourses.

All those other issues should be protected and pursued, but issues of hunger and basic economic rights are not addressed as frequently. People should allow space for that in a framework when these issues take priority over these other ones.

What are some of the specific issues to be explored at the Conference?

We’ll look at the role of education to both spur and combat hatred; how media shapes public opinion and public policy on human rights; religious diversity; the way in which real and perceived security threats have changed the global mindset; and the role of human-rights institutions.

Why “diverse societies?”

We toyed with the idea of doing multiculturalism instead, but the moment you say the word it becomes a Western policy discourse. Societies that are inherently diverse, like Indonesia and India for example, just don’t feel part of the conversation.

This way, we are able to involve speakers from New Zealand, South Africa, India, South America and the Middle East.

Tell us about some of the speakers.

We have Joris de Bres, New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner; Kenneth Deer, a member of the Bear Clan from the Mohawk community of Kahnawake and Secretary of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake; Tom Parfitt, a correspondent in the Moscow bureau of The Guardian; Malalai Joya, a Member of Parliament, in Afghanistan; and Gopal Subramanium, the Solicitor General of India, to name a few.

And then there’s the Forum for Young Leaders?

The Forum was born out of Penny Echenberg’s vision of involving youth in this Conference series. This wonderful, week-long event brings in brilliant young people with demonstrated commitment to human-rights issues. These young people are students, activists, community workers and professionals.

There will be workshops, roundtable discussions, and cultural events designed to create a real network of like-minded people. At the end of the Conference they become McGill/Echenberg Human Rights Fellows, which gives them access to a large network of human rights professionals.

This year we had 300 applicants for 25 spots, so it is very popular.

By the end of the fourth conference in this series there will be a network of more than 100 young leaders spread across the globe.

It sounds like organizing this event is a major undertaking.

I have 6-8 great students organizing the Conference with me and without them none of this would be possible. Their professionalism is incredible, and even though classes have started they are just as committed to the project. Quite frankly, most of the creative genius comes from the students.

It must be a great experience for the students as well.

It really is. It provides them with an opportunity to communicate with high-profile politicians and policy makers and a variety of leaders who are effectuating change around the world.

[Laughing] Recently, one of the students who helped organize the conference on the prevention of genocide in 2007 said to me, “One of the highlights of my life was getting a call from George Clooney’s agent saying he couldn’t attend.”

How does the Echenberg family’s involvement help shape the conference series?

Without the gift from the Echenberg Family Foundation, we would have to apply to funding agencies. This would mean submitting calls, abstracts, CVs, etc. And we’d end up having a more typical academics-only law or sociology conference.

The private funding lets us reach out to people from all walks of life – people who may not be known to most of us but who have a powerful voice. We bring together politicians, academics, policy makers, activists, and community members to talk about issues that are close to their hearts.

Is this vision shared by the Echenbergs?

Absolutely. Gordon Echenberg has no interest in hosting conferences which are highly theoretical and don’t have a real connection with what’s going on on the ground. He would use the word “pragmatic.”

We are not constrained by standard academic norms and that makes it interesting and topical for people who haven’t read a book on human-rights theory but who would still want to come and be represented.

It sounds like a dynamic relationship.

I think it is a wonderful example of public-private partnership and a great model for the University. The Echenberg Conferences standing alone wouldn’t be what they are, because McGill’s reputation on the world stage not only adds a certain prestige but also attracts top-notch speakers from across the world to the Conference. And McGill would not have been able to embark upon it without the generous financial and personal involvement of the Echenbergs. For the University, it is a great opportunity to expand its horizons with a creative program like this.

It is very energizing being involved in a project that is so creative. Just today I was considering inviting a very famous conductor to attend. What other human rights conference of this type would even think about inviting a conductor… or even George Clooney for that matter?