Montaigne Centre Blog


Association of Human Rights Institutes’ Conference on Human Rights and Universality

flag_map_of_serbia_with_kosovo-svgJulie Fraser

The Association of Human Rights Institutes (AHRI) held their 16th annual conference on 21-22 September 2015 in Serbia, hosted by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.  This blog gives a brief overview of my experiences at the conference. The theme of the conference was Human Rights and Universality, in acknowledgment of the new ways emerging to approach the universality of human rights. This theme reflected on discussions about what are common human values, and how human rights should be interpreted in the different cultural contexts.

A highlight of the conference was the keynote address delivered by the Hon. Lady Justice Prof. Dr. Lillian Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza of the Ugandan Constitutional Court. She spoke on the topic of Human Rights and Universality: A View from the Global South. She focused on the example of juvenile justice to highlight the importance of cultural sensitivity in practice and the need for flexible legal systems to be informed by local communities.


The conference hosted five panels related to the topic of human rights and universality. Pressing in any discussion on this topic is, of course, the issue of religious freedom. Dr. Sylvie Langlaude and Dr. Eva Maria Lassen chaired a panel entitled: Freedom of Religion or Belief: a Right Under Pressure? This panel addressed, inter alia, freedom of religion as a universal right, its relationship to secularism, and the role of the EU in promoting the right.  Another panel, organised by Prof. Jan Wouters, focused on Universality and the European Union: A Tale of Autonomy, Coherence, Good Intentions and Selectivity. Presenters addressed topics including EU-ILO cooperation on human rights; as well as comparative analysis of the EU and the UN Human Rights Council, and the EU compared to other regional human rights systems.

Given the contentious nature of women’s rights and universality, as well as their connection to culture, religion and tradition, this important topic was addressed in the panel entitled: Gender and the Right to Equality: How to Achieve Women’s Human Rights without Affecting a Group’s Cultural Identity. Chaired by Dr. Ingrid Westendorp and Dr. Katarzyna Sekowska-Kozlowska, this panel featured five speakers on a variety of women’s rights issues. For example, Prof Kees Flinterman reflected on his eight years as a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and Olga Pleshkova presented her PhD research into the gendered dimensions of Russian police recruits.

I also had the opportunity to present part of my doctoral research in a paper entitled: Culture and Women’s Rights: Building Bridges via Women’s Associations. This research looked at the way in which women’s rights in parts of Africa can be promoted via local social institutions – women’s associations. The central question addressed was to what extent such associations could be mobilised to further women’s human rights, and if they can do so in keeping with a community’s cultural identity? Dr. Alejandro Fuentes of Lund University, served as the erudite commentator. My paper was presented as part of a PhD panel also focusing on women’s rights under international law.

The final panel focused on asylum and refugee law. Entitled Protecting the Rights of Others: the Democratic Challenge of Securing Human Rights to Migrants, Refugees and Stateless Persons, this panel was chaired by Dr. Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen. As part of this discussion, Dr. Rebecca Stern of Uppsala University analysed the credibility assessments of asylum applications based on claims regarding religion and sexual orientation, and Emily Bates and Prof. Jennifer Bond discussed access to justice in Canada’s refugee system reform.

Belgrade Declaration on the refugees crisis in Europe

The AHRI conference is also an opportunity for members to gather to coordinate and plan their research through working group seminars and to discuss current issues. As such, a focus of the Belgrade AHRI conference was the current refugee crisis in Europe. The AHRI members drafted and adopted a declaration on this crisis directed towards European Union policy-makers. The AHRI Belgrade Declaration refers to a number of legal obligations applicable to the refugee situation in Europe, and advises that the EU adopt a fundamental rights-based framework in its response.

SIM will host the next annual AHRI conference on 2-3 September 2016.

Julie Fraser (BA, LLB, LLM) is a PhD Candidate at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) at Utrecht University, and member of the Montaigne Centre.