Author Q&A: Professor Surya P. Subedi

We recently caught up with our author, and series editor Professor Surya P. Subedi, to discuss his forthcoming book, The Effectiveness of the UN Human Rights System, and his past experience and research that inspired him to write it.

Professor Surya P. Subedi, OBE, QC (Hon), DPhil (Oxon.) is Professor of International Law at the University of Leeds and barrister at Three Stone Chambers, Lincoln’s Inn, London.

He also served as the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia and has been credited for developing and successfully employing a constructive approach, i.e. offering suggestions to governments when criticising their record of human rights. Additionally he served as a member of a high-level Advisory Group on Human Rights to the then British Foreign Secretary Mr William Hague MP (now Lord Hague) between 2010 and 2015. Furthermore he was made an OBE for services to international law in 2004 and, more recently appointed a Queen’s Counsel (QC) honoris causa in 2017 in recognition of my contribution to the development of international law and to the advancement of human rights.

1. How did you get involved in international law, and what has you led to where you are now?

Prior to coming to the UK to study for an LLM in International Law, I was working as a law officer in the international law office of the Government of Nepal. I had to deal with some complex international law cases, but did not have a proper training or education for it. I realised that I needed to enhance my knowledge of international law to discharge my duties more effectively. I was successful in winning a British Council Scholarship (now known as Chevening Scholarship) to study for an LLM in International Law. I came to the University of Hull which had just introduced a new LLM programme in international law and I liked the modules that they offered.

After Oxford, I changed my course of action in life and decided to pursue an academic career as I wanted to publish in international law and human rights and have been doing so since then.

I have served as the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia and have been credited for developing and successfully employing a constructive approach, i.e. offering suggestions to governments when criticising their record of human rights. I also have served as a member of a high-level Advisory Group on Human Rights to the then British Foreign Secretary Mr William Hague MP (now Lord Hague) between 2010 and 2015. I was made an OBE for services to international law in 2004 and appointed a Queen’s Counsel (QC) honoris causa in 2017 in recognition of my contribution to the development of international law and to the advancement of human rights.

2. What inspired you to write about human rights and international law?

I was born into an academic family in Lamjung Khudi, a picturesque village in the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range of the Himalayas in Nepal. Inspired by the teachings of Hindu/Buddhist philosophy of peace, non-violence, equality, tolerance, and a sense of duty to others I took to law for my university education believing that it was a discipline in the service of others.

The first real encounter that I had with human rights was when I was a student leader in the late 1970s, fighting for democracy in my native country, Nepal. I was imprisoned twice for challenging effectively a one-party system of government known as the party-less panchayat system.

When I eventually was released from prison I resumed my studies and upon the completion of my law degree I began to practise law as an advocate. Again, I realised all the imperfections of the national and international legal system in protecting fundamental rights of my clients as individuals. When I embarked on my academic career in the UK, I continue to pursue these questions and I began to write in human rights law.

3. Are there any misconceptions about the effectiveness of the UN human right’s system that you would like to clear up?

Because of the promise made by the UN to promote and protect human rights, many people around the globe expect the UN to be robust in dealing with human rights violations. But people do not realise that the UN system of human rights is not well equipped to do so nor is it designed to do so. After spending many years in academia in the UK studying, researching and publishing in human rights, I was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights for Cambodia andhad to deal with the cases of everyday violations of human rights in the country, another least-developed and impoverished country, and the challenges it faced in realising human rights.

While the people of Cambodia had high expectations of me, I realised that in reality I had no real powers to protect people from the human rights violations they faced.

I also realised that I was not alone in this respect: the effectiveness of most of the UN human rights mechanisms was also based on the use of soft power and this power was not adequate to deal with the harsh realities of human rights violations of a contemporary world that is dominated by multi-polarism in international relations.

4. You have been involved in a number of publications with Routledge, most recently The Effectiveness of the UN Human Rights System: Reform and the Judicialisation of Human Rights. What has encouraged you to continue working with us?

It is the team within Routledge that I work with that inspires me and encourages to strive harder. They are very efficient, courteous and helpful group of people with an enviable amount of experience in publishing. It has been a real pleasure and an honour for me to work with them. Working together, we are making a meaningful contribution to the study of human rights and international law.

5. Your new book, The Effectiveness of the UN Human Rights System: Reform and the Judicialisation of Human Rights, argues that the UN appears impressive in terms of promoting human rights but fails to hold governments with human rights violations to account. Can you highlight one possible cause of this, and one potential solution?

The main cause of this is the lack of real or meaningful powers granted to UN human rights mechanisms, one potential solution is de-politicisation of the workings of various UN human rights mechanisms and judicialisation of international human rights in order to hold governments and individuals in positions of public authority to account for violations of human rights.

6. How has your research, specifically for this title, affected your views on the UN as a whole and its role within modern society?

The research that I conducted in writing this book has led me to believe that despite its imperfections, the UN is the only credible organisation that we have and our endeavour should be to reform it and perfect it rather than abandon it condemning it as an inefficient or ineffective bureaucratic organisation not fit for purpose, or an organisation designed to promote and sustain Western political agenda or an institution led by people not up to the challenges in hand. After all, the UN is a body where all States, regardless of what political system they adhere to, come together to debate and participate in its activities.

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This book examines the effectiveness of UN mechanisms and suggests measures to reform them in order to create a system that is robust and fit to serve the twenty-first century. This book casts a critical eye on the rationale and effectiveness of each of the major UN human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council, the human rights treaty bodies, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteurs and other Charter-based bodies.

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This series explores human right law's place within the international legal order, offering much-needed interdisciplinary and global perspectives on human rights' increasingly central role in the development and implementation of international law and policy.

Human Rights and International Law is committed to providing critical and contextual accounts of human rights' relationship with international law theory and practice. To achieve this, volumes in the series will focus on major debates in the field, looking at how human rights impacts on areas as diverse and divisive as security, terrorism, climate change, refugee law, migration, bioethics, natural resources and international trade.

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Human Rights and International Law Series