Minah Ahn, a student on the understanding and securing human rights master’s course at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, reflects on a Geneva study tour, a highlight of the programme which is offered by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS).

Earlier this year, I had the privilege to take part in the first week of the 32nd Human Rights Council (HRC) session at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva. This unique opportunity allowed members of the course to gain an insight into the operations and activities of the HRC.

As well as attending the regular HRC panel discussions, we observed the Committee on Economic Social and Culture Rights review the UK’s implementation of the International Covenant on these rights in what was its 58th session. We also had briefings at the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and attended numerous side-events hosted by permanent missions, NGOs and other civil society groups.

Furthermore, through informal meetings and consultations, various individuals working in different sectors of human rights work (Minority Rights Group International, International Committee of the Red Cross, Ambassador of the Permanent Mission of Colombia, etc.) shared their experiences at the UN with our class.

Through ‘securing human rights, one of the core modules of the MA, we had dedicated intensive study to the UN human rights system. Grasping the core functions of the different components that make up the complex system, we consistently grappled with its successes and challenges, and heavily debated the topic. More specifically, we analysed the efficacy of the HRC, the core political body of the UN human rights system.

As the HRC, with its 47 member states, is unequivocally central to the human rights discipline, we questioned to what extent it was achieving its mandate to strengthen the implementation of human rights and address human rights violations globally. Thanks to the study tour, with its direct access to human rights advocates, I now have a better understanding of the mechanisms and capacities of the organisation. It also provided first-hand experience of the formal and informal relations and networks that exist between state and non-state human rights advocates.

The week’s activities also proved to be a valuable and moving experience that allowed for personal growth. Watching and listening to state delegates offer their statements on certain issues demonstrated the validity of some the theoretical understandings of the HRC we had discussed during the course. The 32nd HRC session marked the 10th anniversary of its creation, which was definitely an achievement to celebrate. There is no doubt the organisation serves an important purpose, bringing states together to constructively exchange ideas, address violations and create standards of human rights at the international level, but it was clear that it cannot be the sole means to ensuring human rights, everywhere and on every issue. Moreover, it was clear that state representatives, although fulfilling their duties at the HRC, were all doing it for their different reasons.

After networking with delegates from both states and civil society organisations, I couldn’t help but ask myself some of the most fundamental questions about human rights. What, to me, was the real meaning of human rights work? Why did human rights matter in the first place? Why should I, and did I care about it anyways? How was I going to take up my role in the human rights sector? As I move forward in my human rights career, what capacity would allow me to be the most effective in implementing my passions for refugee rights?

These questions remained in my thoughts throughout the week and made me realise that: human rights work was about the challenge of placing the issues at hand, the rights of people that are being impacted, first and foremost before anything else, including our own careers.

Whatever role I take in the human rights field, my goal is always put the issue of the rights that need to be implemented, first.  Over the years, the answers to the questions I asked myself at the UN may change and develop. But as my MA is near to completion and I begin a life-long journey of learning, contemplating and advocating human rights, I hope that I never lose my stamina and continue to remember what the true meaning of human rights work is about.

Minah Ahn is a 2015/16 MA candidate in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS). Her research interests intersect human rights politics, international law and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  She completed her MA dissertation on the role of Canadian NGO practice for the protection of Syrian refugees.