02 January 2011

Obituary: Professor Kevin Boyle

Colchester Campus

Professor Kevin Boyle

Professor Kevin Boyle, an internationally respected human rights lawyer, activist and academic, died on Christmas Day, of cancer, aged 67. He had just become Emeritus Professor at the University of Essex after over two decades there as one of its leading human rights scholars; he remained engaged in human rights issues and the life of the University throughout his illness. 

Kevin Boyle was born in County Down in 1943, one of nine children of a Northern Irish Catholic taxi driver. His upbringing was traditional, strict Catholic: but when in 1961 he went to study law at Queen’s University, Belfast, the sectarian outlook gave place to broader humanitarianism. He obtained a diploma in criminology from Cambridge in 1966, before becoming a lecturer at Queen’s. By 1968 he was active in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. He was a spokesperson for the People’s Democracy group, and later centred his activities on the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

In 1972 Kevin went to Yale University, returning first to Queen’s and then in 1978 becoming the first full-time staff member of the law school of University College Galway (now the National University of Ireland, Galway). In 1976 he had married Joan Smyth, and both regarded their years in Galway, raising their two sons, as a magical time. Kevin founded there the Irish Centre for Human Rights. He also became active in international human rights work, going on several missions for Amnesty International, including a major two-year study of South Africa’s pass laws.

In 1986 Kevin was appointed founding Director of Article 19, the international non-governmental organization promoting freedom of expression. He initiated a high-profile campaign on behalf of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses provoked a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. This included developing a ‘World Statement’ in support of Rushdie with some 12,000 signatures, many of them famous names in world literature.

In 1989 Kevin became Professor of Law at the University of Essex. He was Director of the Human Rights Centre from 1990 to 2003, developing it into a multi-disciplinary powerhouse of international repute. At the same time, as a practising barrister (he was called to the Bars of Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and England and Wales and from 1992 was associated with Doughty Street Chambers in London), Kevin brought many human rights cases before the European Commission and Court of Human Rights. The numerous cases against Turkey that he and his Essex colleague Françoise Hampson took on behalf of the Kurdish Human Rights Project concerned the gravest violations of human rights: torture, murder and enforced disappearances. In recognition of this work the two colleagues were named Lawyers of the Year in 1998, an award made by Liberty and the Law Society Gazette.

In 2001 the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, asked Kevin to join her in Geneva as her senior advisor and speech-writer. His first day in office was 11 September, when, after consulting with colleagues around the world, he advised Mary Robinson to denounce the attacks on the World Trade Centre as a crime against humanity, rather than simply a violation of human rights. After his return to Essex, Kevin became Chair of Minority Rights Group International.

None of his high-profile activity on the international stage diminished Kevin’s commitment to his students, many of whom now work in institutions concerned with human rights throughout the world.

He is survived by Joan, and their sons Mark and Stephen.

Professor Sir Nigel Rodley, Chair of the Human Rights Centre

This is an edited version of an obituary written for The Guardian, the full version is published online at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/jan/02/kevin-boyle-obituary 

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