Lawyer Madeleine Rees on how law can be used for good

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Friday, May 1, 2015 - 10:57

Madeleine Rees began life as a lawyer, specialising in discrimination law. Later, she worked for the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she now heads the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

“Essentially justice is about ensuring that the rights that were enshrined in the Universal Declaration are realised. That’s very lawyerly and boring. I think it’s more to do with the subjective feeling of you know when wrongs are done, and you know what is needed to redress those wrongs. And that’s why we have human rights and the human rights framework.

“That will only work when the human rights framework accurately reflects the experience of those people who feel that they have those injustices. That’s why I think that the legal framework that is born of experiences of people, and it has a huge gender analysis because it’s now entirely run – as we know – from a patriarchal system in its essence. That’s why we have to make sure that that system is changed and that it’s reflective. And that we absolutely stop the discriminations we see.


“I’ve been very fortunate in as much as I have managed to get through my life despite being an out lesbian, despite being a tom boy, without actually having had to experience injustice personally.

“What I have seen has made me furious. The good thing about furious is that you are able to change things, which is how I got involved in different ways in which we could do it. One of them was through feminism as a movement. The other one is through law as also a social movement for change, and especially when it comes to human rights law and how we can use that again for interpreting experiences so that the system itself gives the ability to have real change for real discrimination and real inequalities.

Becoming a lawyer

“When I was in Nicaragua, I met some women who were redrafting the constitution. They were amazing, brilliant women, and they had a vision. They wanted to make sure that all the experiences from women worldwide in conflict were actually translated into national law by feminist lawyers. And so, they said to me ‘why aren’t you a lawyer?’ It wasn’t actually a bad idea. So nearly immediately, I went off and requalified as a lawyer and the rest, as they say, is history. And that’s why I got so involved in using law as a mechanism for change, using law as a mechanism for real justice.

“I got involved in discrimination law because I’m a feminist. It’s so easy to get dragged into doing all other areas of law, but the first area of law I got into was employment law. Most of the cases I had were embedded in some form of discrimination. Because I had been involved and engaged in rape crisis centres before I became a lawyer, because of the sort of work I was doing in terms of human rights before becoming a lawyer, it became very obvious that working with discrimination as a way to getting in to identifying how the system works was a good way forward.


“In the early 90s, I started doing more work for transsexuals. There was one outstanding case, the P v. S and Cornwall County Council, in the European Court of Justice, which still stands out for me. It was the case of a transsexual who was transiting from being male to female. She was dismissed from her position in an educational establishment, and we used the equal treatment directive to show that in fact a transsexual could not be discriminated against. And we won. And the good thing about winning was that it was then binding on all the European states. So all the European states had to change their laws. I felt quite proud of that actually. It was extraordinarily educative for me.

Renewing the faith

“The job I have now at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom is also an amazing job because the mandate that was given to us by the founding mothers a hundred years ago is quite inspirational because it’s law, but it’s more than law. It’s about how law should be used intelligently to inform policy, and how policy must be reflective of those needs, requirements, rights that we must demand as citizens.

“Right now, we do a lot of work in conflict zones and in every single conflict zone, it’s been the same story: I have met magnificent women who consider themselves as ordinary but who are doing extraordinary things to bring about peace. And that renews your faith in human nature when it seems that it is hopeless.

“I think there are occasions when justice is meted out. For example, if you look at the case history of the ICTY on sexualized violence in armed conflict, there’s fabulous jurisprudence. We’ve got rape as a war crime, torture. But what hell those women had to go through in order to get that established as law. Was that justice? 

“And now we see that the war criminals are in The Hague. They get fed. They get their teeth looked after. All their medical requirements are met. They have televisions. And yet, those who survived their criminal acts are now impoverished in Bosnia or elsewhere. They do not have access to proper psycho-social health care. You wonder is that justice? And of course it is not.”

Lead image: Madeleine Rees (Photo: The Hague Talks)

My Justice highlights the stories of individuals who work in the field of international justice or who have been affected by it and asks what does justice mean to them. 


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