Agnès Callamard

Dr. Agnès Callamard is the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and Director of Columbia University's Global Freedom of Expression Project. She has a distinguished career in human rights and humanitarian work, and has conducted human rights investigations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She was previously Executive Director for ARTICLE 19, the international human rights organization working globally for freedom of expression and before that, Chef de Cabinet for the Secretary General of Amnesty International and Amnesty’s Research Policy Coordinator, leading work on women’s human rights. She founded and led HAP International (the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership) where she oversaw field trials in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone, and worked extensively in the field of international refugee movements with the Center for Refugee Studies in Toronto. Agnès holds a PhD in political science from the New School for Social Research in New York, a master's degree from Başkent University in Turkey and an undergraduate degree from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Grenoble. Follow her @AgnesCallamard


 What motivated you to embark on a career in this field and what were your first steps?

Thank you so much for making me a part of this wonderful ATLAS community! 

As a child, I was always concerned with issues of social justice. My mother was a schoolteacher, who was full of compassion and empathy, so I was raised to be concerned with fellow human beings and to have a social consciousness. When I studied human rights and international relations, I always included a field element in my learning. I conducted my PhD research in two refugee camps in Malawi. I also took the bold personal step to study in the largest and oldest African-American University in the United States, Howard University. There were very few white students at the time, and it was the most important and enriching personal experience. I became far more aware of racism and racial dis-privilege and privilege. Before becoming a professional, I personally made a commitment to try to live out the justice that I was looking to establish. At the end of my PhD as I was considering what to do with my career, there was an opening at Amnesty International and I never regretted becoming a so-called human rights expert and activist after that. 

What were some high or turning points in your career thus far? 

Turning points for me are always interpersonal and relational; relationships have impacted me much more deeply than academic studies. I do love to sit at my desk to write and not be bothered by anyone, which is why I am not so happy at the moment! [Gestures to the crowded Serpentine café in the Palais des Nations, laughs.] But these are not the turning points for me. The turning points are moments when you encounter someone or something that give you a new outlook, a new perspective. Starting with my work at Amnesty I had the chance to meet the most incredible human beings. Some of them still stand out today. One of my first missions was to Pakistan and I remember a father handing me the photograph of his 10-year-old boy who had disappeared, horribly killed by some of the groups fighting over control of the city. I will never forget his face handing over his photo. I remember a mother from Burundi who spoke to me during a visit to Tanzania, telling me about her two sons who had disappeared. Her pain and courage stayed with me as did her complete determination never to stop looking for her sons. Still looking, looking, looking—the complete determination of these people that they will never give up. 

My personal family relationships also shaped me. My grandfather, who I never met, had joined the resistance in France against the Nazis. He was arrested as one of the resistance leaders in the area, and he was executed on the last day of the war. When I was a child, we would go once a year to the place where he had been executed and that was a part of my personal journey. All of those moments and many more, made me who I am. 

I am committed to very systematic, almost traditional academic work; I only engage in advocacy which is based on very principled, systematic, structured, rigorous human rights research and human rights analysis, legal analysis as well as fact finding. I am absolutely intolerant to fact finding that lacks in rigor, and legal analysis of violations that lack in understanding, for myself at least. I aspire to a complete commitment to the rigor that human rights has to offer as a framework to understand, to name, to analyze, to attribute. However, I am also committed to human rights as a framework that is always in need of interpretation, and these encounters which I have mentioned are the key to that interpretation. I love the text, but I do not believe that the texts are set in stone. I believe that textual analysis should be derived from and developed by the experience of the world. Human rights is always evolving because we need to be relevant to the people’s experience.


What are some of the challenges that you have faced in this journey?

I don’t feel that my challenges have been very much different from professional women in other fields. We live in a world that is incredibly gendered and misogynistic, even though chauvinism is being denounced, even though there is a far greater awareness and a determination to fight it. Mine is a very masculine, male mandate, so it is up to me to engender it. I wrote my first report on a gender sensitive approach to extra-judicial executions, because I felt there was a need to show that the terms of my mandate were relevant to women and to sexual minorities.

When I started in human rights, I was working on women’s rights and it was very difficult to convince the human rights establishment to consider rape as a form of torture. Now it is completely accepted that sexual violence is a form of torture, at least by state agents. At the time we were only arguing that sexual violence by state agents should be considered torture and it was a hell of a fight! I encountered a lot of pushback when I advocated for gender sensitive language in French and Spanish, because ‘droit de l’homme’ to me was extremely problematic. We produced a report on the topic, and there were very strong negative reactions, including from human rights NGOs. I am deeply aware, based on my experience, that sexism is ingrained even in our academic human rights establishment. It is absolutely moving forward in the right direction, but there is a lot more that can be done. At the normative level as well in terms of my personal journey, sexism is always there and is something that we need to be prepared to fight against and to denounce.


What is your advice for people - especially women - who are seeking to work in international law?

The first advice I will give is—know your own country well. Know your own domestic legal system well. Be prepared to fight for rights there.  Simply because it will give you the force, the network and the tools to be a better international lawyer. I see the world as very much intertwined and I still truly believe that change is ultimately driven by people on the ground. We can help at the international level, we can push, we can give tools, we can denounce, we can do a lot of things, but ultimately the people on the ground are going to be the masters of their own future and lawyers in those settings have a tremendous role to play. 

My next piece of advice—be bold. Due to the way that lawyers are taught and trained, sometimes we may not be bold enough for the environment that we are confronting. Women’s human rights were not given to us by the text. Women’s human rights were not given at all. We had to interpret, we had to push, we had to say due diligence means this and that for women. We had to say that women’s rights are human rights, because this is what the text should say. It says, “he”, but that is not what it should really mean. Many women before me, and alongside me, were very bold in their interpretation of the text, in a way that we don’t even realize now. The pushback is there now because we have advanced our understanding so much about what human rights means for women. In this difficult environment, our instinct may be to resist, but we cannot just resist. We must go on the offensive. People will say it’s not the right time, it’s not tactical. Yes, maybe. On the other hand, I don’t think that we can afford not to continue our fight for the most determined, progressive interpretation of human rights law so that the law is made relevant to the people. 

The world is changing. Artificial intelligence, non-state actors, outer space, climate change-- those are challenges to the international legal framework. How do we engage with non-state actors? How do we engage with gendered issues in a way that reflects transgender and other people who are challenging the gender binary? All of those things are not in the text right now, so we must be bold in interpreting them, so that international law is made responsive and responsible to the world we inhabit.  International lawyers, young women, must take this as a call to them to interpret these texts, the beautiful or not so beautiful texts, so that they are made relevant. We need the tools to fight repression, to fight oppression, to fight against climate change, increased privatization of the public space. The world is not going to fit what was drafted in 1945. So let’s do it! Let’s be bold in our personal lives, but also in the way that we approach international law, policy and institutions.


Dr. Callamard was profiled for ATLAS by Kathryn Hampton, a human rights activist currently based in New York, engaged in research and advocacy on US asylum issues with Physicians for Human Rights. She previously worked for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine, Iraq and Turkey. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, a Master’s of Studies degree (MSt.) with distinction in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford and is pursuing a Master’s in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies from the University of London. Follow her @kejtito as she tweets about human rights protection for asylum seekers and migrants at the U.S. border.

Sareta Ashraph