Monette Zard, MA, joined the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health last fall and is teaching “Protection of Human Rights in the Contemporary World” this semester. An expert in international human rights law, Monette provides strategic advice to foundations and to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). She also serves as a Senior Associate for the Human Rights Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonprofit policy research organization in Washington, DC. Monette previously worked as a program officer for the Ford Foundation and has also held posts at the International Council on Human Rights Policy in Geneva, the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University in England, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) in New York. Past clients have included Amnesty International, the Brookings Institution, Human Rights Watch, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Monette holds a law degree from Cambridge University and a master’s degree in international relations and Middle East studies from John Hopkins University.
How did you come to teach at the Mailman School?
I came to Columbia through [PopFam Interim Chair and Professor] Terry [McGovern]. She and I had worked together at the Ford Foundation, where we were both program officers. She covered the HIV work and I was the global human rights officer. She knew that I had done some teaching as a fellow at Oxford and they needed someone to teach a course on international human rights law.
Can you tell me about the class you developed and are teaching this spring?
It is an entirely new course. It is designed to provide an understanding of the basics of the international legal system, while also being tailored to address issues that our students are going to encounter in the field and how the law could be helpful to them. We are looking at issues related to humanitarianism and conflict, refugees and displacement, economic and social rights, including of course, the right to health. We are also touching on other issues that students might be interested in learning more about like the use of torture. So it is a very applied course that I hope students will find relevant to their future work.
Can you give me an example of how international law is used to address the issues you described?
In the context of displacement, for example, you have a situation in which countries have taken on obligations to provide protections to people who are fleeing persecution and conflict. These countries also face significant public policy implications related to the mass influxes of people and some genuine national security concerns. Our class is examining, in a very concrete way, how the law can help balance the rights and protections that refugees and asylum-seekers are entitled to with efforts to address the security concerns that states’ may have.
I understand you are currently consulting on human rights issues. Can you tell me about that work?
My work has had a significant focus on helping donors and NGOs help activists who are at risk because of their human rights work. Attacks on activists have become more and more marked in recent years. They range from physical attacks and harassment to legal harassment to cyber threats and are contributing to an incredibly high attrition rate among activists. This has also been an aspect of my work with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where I am working on the broader issue of the closing space for civil society work—so looking not just at the micro level experience of individual activists but at the broader enabling environment that is required for human rights work to happen.
Can you tell me more about the need to support that broader enabling environment?
In many countries governments are managing to delegitimize the work of human rights activists by effectively labeling them as “stooges” or “agents” of foreign powers, advancing a foreign agenda. They also use an array of laws and regulations—that are ostensibly “legal”—to impinge on the abilities of NGOs to register and operate legally. States are increasingly banning or imposing very low caps on the amount of foreign funding that domestic NGOs can legitimately access. This technique was used very effectively in Ethiopia a few years ago and within two or three years they basically obliterated their human rights sector.
You spent five years as the global human rights program officer at the Ford Foundation. What did that role entail?
I worked with a team of human rights officers around the world to support the global architecture that could help human rights activists do their work, whether by supporting the networks they developed to share experiences and coordinate strategies across regions—networks such as ESCR-Net—or by supporting the use of global mechanisms such as the treaty bodies of the United Nations or the International Criminal Court to help advance their work domestically. While my work was globally focused, I always saw my role as supporting the important human rights work that was underway at the national level because that is where change matters and where human rights work is critical. If the global human rights architecture cannot support and help bring about change domestically, then it has no purpose.
You have worked in a variety of roles promoting human rights. Has there been an overarching theme in your career or work?
I began my career focusing on issues of displacement and the human rights issues of refugeehood but at some point it struck me that we were doing a disservice to a very large group of migrants who were leaving their countries for reasons of economic deprivation that were not as extreme as those of refugees, but were significant push factors nevertheless. Governments were according fewer and fewer people the benefits of the refugee status they were entitled to, while at the same time treating all other migrants as if they had no rights. It felt at the time as if the focus of our refugee advocacy was having the unintended consequence of leaving migrants “out in the cold,” as it were. So I decided to broaden the focus of my work to look at human rights law more broadly and to use that as the foundation from which to discuss both refugee rights and the rights of migrants. This led to my work at both the Migration Policy Institute and the International Council on Human Rights Policy [ICHRP].
Can you tell me more about how you are advancing this broader perspective in your work?
At the ICHRP, for example, I began to look at the rights questions that were coming up in relation to the evolving transnational legal regime that was developing to deal with victims of trafficking, which drew a very stark distinction between trafficking victims who were deemed to be “deserving” of protection, and those who were smuggled, who were seen essentially as participants in a criminal enterprise and “deserving” of very little. Yet again, we seem to have boxed ourselves into a situation where we argue for the rights of the few over those of the many. And I find this troubling; the bigger picture has to be human rights law—the rights that we are all entitled to by virtue of our humanity. So while I think that specific movements and advocacy have been important to understanding the human rights issues of particular groups, I also think we need to step back and think about human rights as belonging to all of us. It is critical that we reclaim that narrative, particularly in light of current political circumstances, and hold governments accountable for respecting and protecting the human rights of us all.
How did you come to do the work you do?
I am of Lebanese origin but I was born and grew up in Nigeria. When I was born, Lebanon was descending into civil conflict and Nigeria was lurching from military coup to military coup. I grew up in a context where I had relatives who were constantly having to leave Lebanon and stay with us for long periods of time because of the civil war. This gave me a very personal understanding of the importance of keeping borders open and that people who leave their homes do so very reluctantly and are driven by the desire to be safe. All of this experience gave me an interest in refugee and displacement issues. The other formative thing for me was the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon. This was a massacre of Palestinian civilians that was perpetrated by a Christian militia at a time when Lebanon was under Israeli occupation. I am of Christian heritage and I just could not understand how people in the name of religion could say that the horrors that they perpetrated were somehow justified. I guess part of what has driven me in my work has been to try to stop things like that from ever happening again.
How did you decide to address human rights issue through the law?
I didn’t realize that law was a way to tackle these things. As a young woman, I was very interested in politics but my parents did not see politics as a worthwhile area of study. Happily, I managed to persuade them that the law was a very respectable degree. I was lucky that when I began my studies at Cambridge, it was only the second year that the University had offered an optional human rights seminar. Suddenly I found this thing called human rights law that could take into to account all of the things that I wanted to work on and had lived—this showed me a route through which change was possible.