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Combating Torture: A Q&A with the Law School’s Debra Long

Press release issued: 11 November 2016

Today the Law School's Human Rights Implementation Centre, in partnership with Amnesty International, is launching 'Combating torture and other ill-treatment: a manual for action.’ In this Q&A we find out more about Debra Long, the principle drafter of the manual, and how she has carved out a career helping organisations put an end to torture.

"You have to have faith that what you’re doing will have an impact, maybe not immediately but in the long term and that’s the goal of Human Rights… Being able to connect with people who have the same focus as you in different countries grounds what you’re doing, especially when you’re trying to change policy, laws or practice. You’re not working at the high level; you’re on the ground day to day. This is what inspires me …"

What first interested you in a career in law?

I did my first degree in history and then trained in law, qualified and worked as a solicitor. I was always interested in civil liberties and conservation and had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to work in Human Rights or conservation law but finding opportunities before the Human Rights Act was very difficult.

When did you specialise in Human Rights?

I was working as a solicitor doing personal injury law and wasn’t really enjoying what I was doing and then saw an MA in Human Rights law advertised. It was interesting because it wasn’t a pure law course, it also looked at Human Rights application and practice, and they had links to a number of organisations that offered internships.

I really enjoyed the course and realised what I wanted to do in the Human Rights field. As part of the course all students had to undertake an internship with an organisation as a means to gain experience of working in the human rights field in practice. I applied to do an internship with an organisation called REDRESS; they help survivors of torture seek justice and reparation. Because of my personal injury background they accepted me and that was a real turning point.  The organisation was small but high profile and was set up by survivor of torture, who was very passionate about giving torture survivors a voice.

I’ve been lucky in a way that I’ve been able to maintain a focus around torture prevention since.

What, in your early career, was most significant in shaping how your career has developed?

After my internship with Redress I finished my course and was looking for a job – so I applied for an internship with The Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT), an international NGO based in Geneva and I moved over there for six months. My previous work experience, the MA and the internship all helped me secure that opportunity and I had a great experience.

Again, it was a small NGO so you had to do everything from putting letters in envelopes and then going to treaty body meetings. After my internship finished in 2001 they offered me a job as UN Programme Assistant and within a year I was UN Programme Officer. 

They sent me down to review and sit in on negotiations on the Optional Protocol, which is where I first met Professor Malcolm Evans, as he was a board member of the APT. The negotiations had been going on for nine or ten years with very entrenched views and there didn’t seem to be any movement.

The year I joined the negotiations someone suggested a change to the draft and the process came back to life. I was then following the treaty negotiations with a view of getting it adopted by the UN and within another year I was in charge of the UN Programme, pushing the process and working with a whole range of NGOs in Geneva and New York.

I think I was incredibly fortunate to be there at the right time. I was a good match for the organisation and it became a huge early career highlight. It has also taught me that the real work of Human Rights is getting these protocols implemented on the ground.

I’ve remained very passionate about the Optional Protocol and it’s something I’ve maintained a focus on, which is what eventually brought me to Bristol.

What did you go onto next?

I came back to the UK in 2004 and moved to Amnesty International as I felt I needed to get a bit more experience on other issues. I was initially The Legal Adviser for The Asia Programme and then subsequently I was Policy Advisor when they were dealing with the various abuses as a result of the so called ‘war on terror’.

I worked with researchers and campaigners when they were writing reports to ensure that they understood the legal standards and that they were applying them. I also checked to make sure everything was in line with Amnesty’s point of view for consistency across the whole of Amnesty’s network.  I was there until 2008.

What did you enjoy the most about your role at Amnesty?

One of the things I enjoyed was the immediacy. As in you’d see something on the news and you knew you’d have to be involved in a press release on it the same day. There were also challenges and constraints, such as working on the death penalty and getting calls to say someone you were fighting for had died.  

I wanted to maintain looking at the prohibition of torture so there was an element of that to my work. It’s interesting that ultimately I’ve realised that I like having a main focus on torture prevention, but my time at Amnesty was great as it expanded my issue base to poverty prevention, for example.

As a Legal / Policy advisor you don’t often get the chance to go in country, however I did get to go on a trip to the Maldives where there were huge problems with torture and deaths in custody due to people protesting against the president and then being detained, tortured and one person had died.

I went to speak to the prisoners to help raise awareness of their situation, check they were ok and to get their stories. Meeting the prisoners was an interesting process. Those who were political activists weren’t scared of the guards and really wanted to talk to us, however one was a former Attorney General and he wasn’t doing very well. He didn’t know why he was there. The political climate had changed and the wheel of fortune hadn’t favoured him.

The highlight was going to see the political prisoners. In the Maldives they have prison islands, which we were granted access to. One day as we were waiting at the dock to go back to the prison island  we heard people calling our names and shouting because some of the women we’d seen the previous day had been released. For me it demonstrated that the presence of Amnesty had encouraged the government to do something as a gesture of good will. It doesn’t always happen but Amnesty tries to shine a light to create transparency around practices that are abusive to shame or encourage governments to do something about it.

What has been your most significant achievement to date?

I’m still thrilled by the fact that I was involved in the adoption of the Optional Protocol. It was exciting but it was hard and the fact that we got it adopted, despite strong opposition from some states, was a good example of working together with NGOs and states and building the trust and relationship between the two. It was a hard won battle, so I guess I feel an emotional attachment to that process and the people involved in it.

Now seeing that the treaty body has been established and working at the international level, it’s great to have that continuity to get it implemented on the ground. I was in Rwanda last week and was asked why a section was worded a certain way, and because I was there I can explain. I can relate it back to discussions and real life. It’s not without its imperfections, but it’s interesting because its focus is on an international level and I’m pleased I’m still able to work on it.

On a personal level it was an emotional thing to see people in prison one day and free the next, however you have to be prepared for the fact that you don’t always have a good ending, like when I was working at Amnesty to try and prevent someone from getting executed and would get a phone call to say it had happened. It was distressing but you have to reflect in order to do your work better.

What’s your next major project?

I’m involved in a Human Rights law implementation project, working in partnership with other universities and picking up on work that Professor Rachel Murray, the Director of the Human Rights Implementation Centre, and I have been doing with other bodies specifically looking at complaints.

We’re looking at getting a better understanding of how complaints can get implemented and whether the body that’s making a decision on a complaint can improve their processes. It’s a three-year project. We are looking at decisions on complaints handed made by the main human rights bodies in Europe, the Americas and Africa, as well as the UN. We’re going to be tracking a number of completed cases in nine States across these regions and talking to the victims, lawyers and organisations involved in bringing the cases to the human rights bodies, as well as government officials and the members of the human rights bodies themselves to find out what actually has happened and analyse any blockages hindering implementation of the decision to ascertain if they can be removed and how the process can improve.

I’ll also be continuing to work with the Article 5 initiative to help the African Commission on torture prevention and implement the Optional Protocol. The Article 5 initiative draws its name from Article 5 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and of the African Charter both prohibit torture and ill treatment.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

It’s a difficult one in this particular field because there isn’t an obvious career path. It’s not like working in a law firm where you’d aim to be a partner.

For me it’s about continuing to develop a body of work that I’m committed to. I hope I’ll still feel committed to torture prevention and I hope, by then, the discussions around that will have changed, because that will mean we’ve made progress.

Further information

Questions from students:

How can students benefit from the Human Rights Implementation Centre?

For students there are a number of opportunities. They can assist with research so they can get involved quite directly. Because we rely on students to help us with our work, they can then see their research used in reports or advice to governments.

We have links with a number of organisations who come to us with research requests or with thematic issues for reports they’re writing and we have groups of students who are working on specific areas, for example one is working on an anti-torture legislation project in Nigeria looking at how we can input into that process and how we can ensure that their Human Rights are met.

For me, if I was a student, that would be something I’d find incredibly attractive. I chose the course I did because of its connection with other organisations and internship opportunities.

How would you advise a student wanting to work for Amnesty?

Amnesty was an incredibly hard interview process, which took several months. One thing I say to students is to not necessarily think of Amnesty first as an entry point as they have their own internal job market, they have a lot of volunteers and it can be difficult to get paid work. Students should consider smaller NGOs where you may be able to create more opportunities for yourself.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to pursue a career in human rights law?

Within the Human Rights field there is scope to move around – you have to be a bit creative and flexible as there isn’t one career path, but the beauty of it is that you can come in from different angles.

Before working in academia I always thought of Human Rights and NGOs, whereas there are other ways of doing it and law is a fantastic entry path to specialising at a later date.

Sometimes this convoluted career path can confuse students, however both Rachel and I have different stories in terms of how we got into Human Rights. A good piece of advice is to follow your passion and look for diverse opportunities within your area of study.

It’s worth doing an internship because there are a lot of people interested in working in human rights. There are quite a few jobs out there but it’s difficult to get your foot in the door. This is also where it’s important to think about the organisation you want to intern for. I’d recommend looking for a smaller NGO and then perhaps going to an organisation like Amnesty later on down the line.

The Human Rights world tends to be quite small, so people will help you. However you mustn’t burn any bridges and treat everything and everyone with professionalism.

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