Human Rights Defenders

Sir Nigel Rodley - A Pioneer in the Struggle for Human Rights

27 January 2017

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

When I started work at Amnesty International in 1999 (I worked there till 2005), my assignment was to help develop thinking, campaigning, and research on business and human rights. It was there that I first met Sir Nigel Rodley, a champion of the international human rights movement, who died on 25 January. He had been Amnesty’s legal adviser in the 1970s and 1980s, and had left a deep imprint on the organisation’s thinking, and took a keen interest in what we would do, even after he left Amnesty.

He didn’t want companies to have a safe passage. But he wanted us to think of creative ways to get companies to accept their responsibilities and be accountable, without forgetting that the primary obligation to protect, respect, and fulfill human rights rested with states.

Nigel was curious about the efforts being developed at the time to address business. He believed in holding states to account for human rights. By the late 1990s, human rights organisations had been focusing on companies as well. In 1998, Amnesty International had published Human Rights Principles for Companies; by 1999, the Global Compact was being formed at the United Nations; in 2000, the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom were bringing together companies and non-government organisations to develop the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights; the conflicts in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone and Liberia had prompted the diamond trade to work with non-government organisations and governments to regulate trade in conflict diamonds, leading to the Kimberley Process in 2001; and in 2002, Global Witness’s spirited campaign led to the Publish What You Pay campaign, make extractive industries reveal their tax and royalty payments to oil producing countries, which eventually led to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative.

Each of these initiatives became necessary because states weren’t playing by the rules and corporate impacts on human rights were not being addressed. During a meeting with Nigel, I remember him saying, "We haven’t fixed the governments yet; they continue to behave badly. Should Amnesty be using its limited resources in making companies accountable?"

Nigel’s question was rhetorical, of course. He didn’t want companies to have a safe passage. But he wanted us to think of creative ways to get companies to accept their responsibilities and be accountable, without forgetting that the primary obligation to protect, respect, and fulfill human rights rested with states. Companies were important entities, no doubt – but in pursuing business responsibility we should not give governments an easy ride. That was a salutary lesson. A decade later, when John Ruggie prepared the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, that message was reinforced – states have the obligation to protect and corporations have the duty to respect human rights; and where gaps exist, remedies are necessary.

A lawyer by training, Nigel Rodley was one of the early stalwarts whose intellectual prowess, foresight, and thought leadership gave organisations like Amnesty International the credibility to speak with authority before international fora, and hold states to account for failing to live up to their obligations.

Some activists and organisations which campaign for corporate accountability sometimes focus so hard on companies that they pay less attention to the state’s role. Governments love that. I remember a meeting I once had in the Niger Delta with a state governor while I was investigating human rights abuses in oilfields. When I raised the issue of lack of access to clean water in the oilfields, the governor waved his hand magisterially and said, “Ask the oil companies,” as though providing access to clean water was the responsibility of a company, and not the state. Sure, if the company had contaminated the water supply, it needed to remediate the fields, but government officials couldn’t wash their hands of the problem. In our efforts to draw public attention to corporate abuses, we were not to forget the duties of the state, Nigel reminded us.

A lawyer by training, Nigel Rodley was one of the early stalwarts whose intellectual prowess, foresight, and thought leadership gave organisations like Amnesty International the credibility to speak with authority before international fora, and hold states to account for failing to live up to their obligations. In fact, he was a visionary, a leader, and a compassionate man who never forgot the political prisoner for whose freedom he campaigned, nor lost sight of the women and girls who were tortured or raped in conflict and for whom he sought justice.

He joined Amnesty International as its legal adviser, and was among the pioneers in the international human rights movement to lead the global fight against torture. I was a student in the United States in the early 1980s, running the Amnesty group at our campus, and I remember receiving flawlessly-argued documents from Amnesty’s international secretariat, making the strong, bold case to outlaw torture. His efforts bore fruit. In 1984, the Convention Against Torture was drafted. A year later, it was signed. In 1987 it was ratified.  If governments today have to think of creative ways to justify torture, calling it “enhanced interrogation techniques” it is because torture is illegal; and it is illegal because of the Convention Against Torture and the Convention exists due to the efforts of people like Nigel Rodley. 

In 1993, Nigel became the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, a position he held for eight years. In 2001, he became a member of the UN Human Rights Committee, and chaired that important international treaty body from 2012 to 2014. Nigel also played an important role in making human rights law accessible at universities and wrote extensively  in addition to his work with academic institutions such as the University of Essex and organisations including the International Commission of Jurists.

Many former victims of human rights abuses may be unaware of Nigel Rodley's role in defending them, but given the kind of man he was, he would have liked it that way. He acted out of his conviction and belief in human dignity.

Nigel thought deeply about human rights, advanced new arguments, championed the cause of protection, and cast an unrelenting gaze on states and those with power. The struggle for human rights rests on defending those without power, and holding those with power accountable for actions which undermine protection of basic freedoms. That struggle depends on committed and conscientious individuals.

Many former victims of human rights abuses may be unaware of Nigel Rodley's role in defending them, but given the kind of man he was, he would have liked it that way. He acted out of his conviction and belief in human dignity. He will be sorely missed.

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