Durham’s International Human Rights Conference

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On the 25th January, internationally successful lawyers and human rights specialists attended a conference in Durham organised by student groups, with guests including Tessa Khan and the Director of JUSTICE UK, Andrea Coomber.

The conference was arranged by Nicole Lim, Human Rights Officer for the Law Society, which funded the event at Collingwood College, and all proceeds went to Amnesty International and JUSTICE UK. 

Tessa Khan, co-founder of the Climate Litigation Network, was sympathetic to the lure of corporate internships and career opportunities, but urged Durham students to choose carefully before accepting job offers with those industries which legitimise and facilitate the exploitation of the planet’s resources.

“I also went to a law school where [human rights and climate change] was a minority interest, and for the most part, law students were encouraged and inclined to work for big commercial law firms and not really think more about how their actions affect society more broadly and to work in the public interest” said Khan.

“We actually as lawyers and accountants and engineers have a responsibility to not be complicit in the fossil fuel industry– and lawyers I think in particular are often part of operations that legitimise and facilitate the exploitation of fossil fuels.”

Khan cited the recent example of Harvard Law students, who shut down a careers event organised by a firm associated with ExxonMobil. “That is a brave thing to do, and it will jeopardise your chances of getting a job at those law firms but that is the kind of moral question that we now face”, said Khan.

Leading oil and gas law firms hold regular campus events in Durham, such as Herbert Smith Freehills and Clifford Chance, which sponsors the Law Society, whilst BP offers up to ten scholarships to Durham students.

According to Khan, “actions and demonstrations are probably the most powerful lever for change that we have”.

Speaking later, leading human rights lawyer Andrea Coomber mentioned the disadvantages to an ethical legal career, claiming “I earn the same as a first-year trainee at Clifford Chance”. 

Amy Campbell, a second-year student at Hild Bede College, chaired one of the discussions. According to Campbell, “Durham University forces students on a conveyor belt of the corporate world. 

“Because of the way that Durham’s funding streams are structured, they get the richest consulting firms to speak to students, and meaningful careers in human rights and climate change aren’t advertised at all, so you have to actively seek them out to even realise they exist. It forces people to get into the type of law which damages the environment”.

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