Interview with Prof. Manfred Nowak


If you have been even remotely interested in human rights, you will have heard the name of Prof. Manfred Nowak on a number of occasions and on a number of issues. He is one of the most prolific human rights academics and most engaged human rights defenders in the world. In his latest book he discusses Human Rights or Global Capitalism, but his expertise ranges from being a UN Expert on enforced disappearances to his role as international judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina; from his early articles on the right to education to his monitoring activities as UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Like very few others, he has a natural gift to combine the talent of academic substance with the practical skills of a committed field worker. I have first met him 18 years ago when I was a student and he a professor in the European Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation (EMA). From then onwards it has always been a special treat to talk and listen to him.

This time I meet him in his office in Venice where he is now working as Secretary General of the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation (EIUC), a position he took up in January 2016 after having served there for many years as EMA Director for Austria and between 2000 and 2007 as Chairperson of the EMA Council. He has just come back from a meeting on the recently launched UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty which he was appointed to lead. The interview is the occasion to talk about his many human rights achievements, his working plans for the next months and his thoughts about the future of human rights.

Our initial exchanges are precisely about the future of human rights in the face of rising populist forces and racist, xenophobic voices, somehow also amplified with Brexit and with the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA. I tease Prof. Nowak on the value of all the existing human rights documents, principles and actors: are they worth anything against such movements? He very directly and pointedly answers that

all the standards we have – including laws – do not count if you don’t take them seriously. In early human rights days it was unthinkable that the most fundamental rules would be broken. Now I see international organisations crumbling that for us were steadfast pillars, including the European Union. Within the nation state it is very difficult to build up a well-functioning democracy and it is very easy to destroy it from one day to the other. It’s the same to see the building of an organisation like the EU that took many decades and a lot of work and to see a few individuals like Orban, Kaczynski or Cameron and May now who can destroy it. So we are playing with fire, even undermining basic institutions on which we have been building our trust and hope that they would lead us to a better world. But I remain optimistic, even a naïve optimist. Brexit might not be irreversible. With Trump I am not so sure: can there be some positive elements? We will have to deal with all this and make the most of every positive opportunity.

Speaking of optimism, I ask him where he thinks we can find hope for that. Again, the answer is very poignant:

the development of human rights followed waves since 1945 and now we are in a deep crisis so the hope is that it won’t go much deeper. But I wonder: how deep should the suffering be so that people realise that this is not good anymore? I have hope in the Agenda 2030 and the SDGs. Everybody I speak with is referring to and using it. I see it really as a platform to use to adjust our approach.We know what is there; we just have to do it. It’s all possible. I believe in the rationality of human beings to survive in a world that is liveable for their children too.

As I continue with our own questionnaire on his ‘human rights journey’, I notice that optimism, hope, happiness and love come up again and again, almost like a red thread, into our conversation. We part ways with a smile. And I leave his office with the persuasion that such a positive outlook on life explains a lot of Prof. Nowak’s determination to tackle the worst human rights problems with no fear and plenty of empathy, realism and confidence that a better world is within our reach.

Manfred2Rights! Notebook ‘human rights journey’ profile

What are you most proud of in your human rights journey?

That I did not shy away from difficult human rights assignments. Disappearances and torture are among the worst crimes and I’m proud of having been able to work on those issues, more or less successfully, to make a small contribution to difficult human rights concerns.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

A film maker. When I was young I was mad about cinema and it was only by pure coincidence that I then became a lawyer. My father, a chemical engineer, at a certain point said that only technical studies would be good for his son, but I was not interested at all. So at the end he said: “ok, I will pay you the film academy if you also study something useful”. So then I thought the lowest common denominator was law, because that was supposed to be easy, and that’s how I started. I only got really interested in law towards the end; it was certainly not my initial choice.

When were you happiest?

I was a happy child. But for me happiness means love. For me that’s kind of synonymous: if you are in love then you are happy and you don’t want time to pass, you want to stay in that moment.

If you had a magic wand, how would you use it?

I’d use it to be as happy as I was in the happy moments of my life.

Who are your human rights heroes/heroines?

Most of them are dead, I’m afraid, but for sure Martin Ennals is one. He was an early Secretary General of Amnesty International and a good friend. When he knew that he had not much longer to live, he invited some of his best friends, all from the human rights crowd in Geneva, for dinner and while we were all devastated by the realisation that it would be the last time we’d see him, he encouraged us to enjoy, to make the most of the evening and have a beautiful funny night together. And it became one of the most memorable evenings in my life; it was really beautiful, we were laughing a lot and that’s what he wanted and really how I remember him. Another person whom I really admire is Theo Van Boven, one of the Directors of the Human Rights Division which later became the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who did a lot in the beginning of the 80s and still does a lot. I’m still sitting with him in the Advisory Board for the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights and we often travel and work together. My appreciation for him started with one of his first publications entitled “People matter”. Another hero is Louis Henkin, who taught me at Columbia University and was the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve always tried to copy him, though I will never be half as good as he was. He had this charisma of interactive teaching that really fascinated everybody. And he was such a beautiful human being. I have not mentioned any woman, but I admire the work of Mary Robinson. She is a good friend and she is still doing a lot of important things and I’m proud that she is the Honorary President of EIUC. And let’s not forget Nelson Mandela: he is also one of my heroes.

If you had to flee your home suddenly due to war or extreme poverty, what would you take with you into a new life?

My family, my kids, my diaries (I’ve been writing diaries since I was a child) and photos.

What is your favourite word?


How do you cope with stress?

I don’t know myself how I cope. Many people say that I’m workaholic, but I’m not. I enjoy life very much. I certainly work too much, that’s true, but I have learned to live with stress and stress is also making me better organised and more productive. So for instance, if you are on a difficult human rights fact-finding mission for two or three weeks, you are all the time under extreme stress because you are not allowed to make any major mistakes, you are always in a situation where people distrust you and they try to make you fail, they don’t want you to find something. But I am a team player, so I very much rely on very good teams. I’ve always been lucky to have excellent people, top class: the forensic experts, the UN staff, the people from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in Vienna and I knew I could totally rely on them. And what helped was also to have every evening a debriefing session where everybody talked about the most difficult situation of the day, the issues where we had different opinions, or also wrong decisions made. It was a moment where we would relax and then also take decisions. For me it was very helpful to get that feedback and so to rely on a team is a way to cope with stress.

What is the screensaver on your work computer?


What advice do you have for the next generation of human rights defenders?

We live in very difficult times. Human Rights are very much on the defensive. We were used for so many years to a situation where there was progress and everybody thought that they were good. This is long over now. We have to be more skilful, proactive and aggressive towards those forces that are anti-human rights, anti-democratic. It is not enough to remain with an open mouth disbelieving that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States of America. The unthinkable becomes everyday reality. We are living in a post-rational society where prejudices and lies are becoming truths and are repeated over and over and we do not have the tools to fight this. We have to develop new skills. Human rights are a hard business: we have to be more self-confident, skilful and proactive to defend them in times of ‘evil forces’. It will require a lot of courage, strength and self-confidence, and that’s not easy.

Where do you see the world in 5 years’ time?

We have reached the lowest point. The time is right for a major change. We must go back to the most important root causes: the world economic order is undermining democracy; growing economic inequality undermines the social fabric, so we need to find a new approach to globalisation. Something is wrong, the narrative is wrong, so we need to find the key to a new world order based on human rights and democracy. The SDGs are a very important framework for this. It’s all possible. We simply have to do it.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

I’d like to work a little bit less, though I am very happy that I have been able to do what I’ve done so far. I’d probably be still with EIUC, who knows…but certainly human rights will still be part of my life.

All of the above views should be attributed to Professor Manfred Nowak speaking in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any organisation or network.

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