"Education is a human right"

  • Date

    Thu 16 Feb 17

We’ve just launched our Women of the Future Scholarships for women across the world who want to make a difference. To celebrate we wanted to catch-up with some of our amazing Essex graduates.

Our first is Ellen Colthoff who completed a Master of Laws (LLM) in International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex in 2000-2001 as a mature student. Since completing her studies she has taken on a whole series of challenging human rights and humanitarian roles with the United Nations in many countries around the world including Colombia, Sudan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

What impact do you think our new Women of the Future Scholarships will have?

"Education is a human right and has always been very close to my heart. At the beginning of my career I worked with NGOs working in early childhood and primary school education. In the course of 25 odd years in the field I have come across amazing women who play a crucial role in their families, communities and at the local and national level. Many of these women did not have the opportunity or the means to pursue academic studies.

"I would point to the women in Colombia who have been instrumental in the peace negotiations between the Government and the FARC-EP. Now they face an even more difficult and daunting role in contributing to the implementation of the peace accords and leading their communities in the process of forgiving their perpetrators. Many of them would both benefit from a scholarship to further study or research for example conflict resolution or the role of National Human Rights Institutions in providing access to justice, while at the same time also enriching the discussion with fellow students and academic staff."

How important to you was your time at the University of Essex?

"When I embarked on my one-year LLM International Human Rights Law at Essex in 2000, I was a mature student with working experience in the humanitarian and human rights field with NGOs and the United Nations, mainly in emergency situations. At that point it was important for me to take a sabbatical to expand my theoretical knowledge and reflect on my experiences – which included witnessing the start of the genocide in Rwanda - and “recharge my batteries”.

"I felt the need to marry practice and theory. It was a very pleasant surprise that my fellow students came from many different countries and that the majority also had diverse working experience. In addition, many of the teaching staff had responsibilities other than their academic ones, like the late Professor Sir Nigel Rodley who was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. This made for enriching and interesting debates and discussion and sharing of experiences in addition to the academic curriculum."

How has it helped your work?

"Before the LLM I often found myself in situations where I knew “this is not right” but lacked the wording to express my point of view. The LLM taught me to put violations of human rights and breaches of international humanitarian in the context of international law.

"As an exercise, at Essex I based the majority of my essays on situations I had lived in the field, for example, the rights of squatters in Khartoum, Sudan, and the legal framework of the United Nations Peacekeeping mission in Angola.

"I could give many example of when I was back in the field and dealing with local and national authorities such as military and police commanders or mayors and used this experience. I could argue my point far more powerfully and remind them of their obligations under national and international law.

"When I had final responsibility for the drafting of project proposals for donors I could also ensure they were informed by this human rights based approach, which nowadays rightfully is a donor requirement."