HRI Deputy Director Michelle Liu Gives Keynote Address at 2024 Human Rights Summit

March 18, 2024

On March 15, the Human Rights Institute and Hoyas for Human Rights, an undergraduate student club on the Hilltop Campus, co-hosted the 2024 Human Rights Summit. This year's Summit theme was "Working Towards Justice: Human Rights in the 21st Century."

The event featured a keynote by HRI Deputy Director Michelle Liu, followed by panel discussions with Michelle Liu, Racial Justice Institute Executive Director Diann Rust-Tierney, Center for Innovations in Community Safety Executive Director Tahir Duckett, and Institute for the Study of International Migration Director Elizabeth Ferris. Afterwards, students shared their takeaways and had an opportunity to chat with panelists over a reception.

Sharing a bit about her personal journey to a human rights career and advice for students in her keynote, Michelle Liu stated that “human rights work is difficult, time-consuming, and prone to set-backs—and that’s in the best of times. Passion is the fuel that keeps you going.”

Read her full keynote address below.

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Keynote address by HRI Deputy Director Michelle Liu

“Working Towards Justice: Human Rights in the 21st Century”

Good evening, and thank you so much for having me. Thank you to Roma Jha, Rebecca Cohn, and to Hoyas for Human Rights at Georgetown University for hosting this annual summit, and for bringing together so many students and my co-panelists for an important conversation on working towards justice in the 21st century.

It is an honor to be here with you all today. And I am so delighted to be sharing space and ideas with so many bright young people here on a Friday evening. It almost makes me feel like I’m cool and exciting.

If you had asked me when I was in college what I wanted to be after graduation, an international human rights lawyer and law professor would not have been on my list of life goals. Growing up in a hardworking but under-resourced immigrant family from China, the idea of using the law to uphold the rights of others as a way to make a living would probably have elicited a mild shock, mocking laughter, and downright concern from my parents.

Indeed, I started my career working in business, finance, and corporate law, and my own journey to becoming an international human rights lawyer and teacher took many twists and turns and faced challenges and setback. Along the way, this journey yielded meaningful lessons on keeping an optimistic and open mind, following one’s passions wherever they may lead, and finding bright spots in times of darkness.

I hope you’ll allow me to share a bit about my career path and these insights with you all today.

Students are often surprised to learn that there is no set path to a human rights career. I started out after college as an accountant and a business manager, and then served in the Peace Corps as a small business development volunteer. From there, I went to law school. And when I graduated I became a corporate lawyer in London working on mergers & acquisition deals. Eventually, I found my way back to the classroom to teach international law and to work with students to challenge sex discriminatory laws against women around the world. Now, I teach students how to be effective human rights advocates.

Far from being unusual, my career path is emblematic both of the grit and determination, as well as the role of serendipity and happenstance, that is characteristic of so many lawyers and advocates who find themselves in the field of human rights.

The realization that there is no set path to a human rights career can be frustrating, daunting, or liberating—and sometimes all of these things at once. Veteran human rights advocates like HRI’s Elisa Massimino, my boss, likes to advise that students should focus less on getting the “right” kind of job opportunity and more on getting the most out of any opportunity.

I agree that it is equally important to both plan your career and to be open to unexpected opportunity. And you have a tremendous opportunity here and now as students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

I also went to school in D.C., although I went to the school down the hill from here. I lived a few steps away from the U.S. Department of State and the White House, but you all have better shopping and restaurants. I can tell you now that the internships that I had in college and my first jobs out of college have nothing to do with the work that I do these days and yet they are every bit as critical to my being where I am now as anything else that I’ve done in this field.

“How can that be?” you ask. Well, you would be surprised to hear how much learning the law can be like learning a new language, or how much I rely on my financial skills to run the Human Rights Institute, or how much I draw on my corporate due diligence skills to dig deep into a human rights project.

You may be wondering if you are in the right major or the right internship for putting you on the path to a human rights career. I am here to tell you that that’s the wrong question. The right question is “are you learning a skill that you didn’t have before?” The right question is “are you finding out something about yourself that you didn’t know before?” Each experience that you have can be valuable and bring you one step closer to your calling, if you are open to the lessons that it whispers to you.

I found myself as a women’s rights advocate—or should I say, I found the women’s rights advocate in me—both gradually and all of a sudden. In my last year of law school, I took a clinical course on international women’s human rights. For those who don’t know, a clinical course is a way to get hands on experience under the supervision of an attorney. My project in the clinic was to conduct a fact-finding investigation in Tanzania on how women and girls lacked legal protection against child marriage, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and equal property rights, among many other issues. And with this information, my team and I were to propose a constitutional provision – in accordance with international human rights law – to protect women and girls from discrimination and inequality under the law.

This was hard work! And it was not an academic exercise by any measure—in fact, Tanzania at the time was undergoing a constitutional review process whereby civil society members were submitting amendment proposals for review by the Constitutional Review Commission. And our partners on the ground were relying on us—mere law students—to come up with the best legal and factual arguments to support this constitutional amendment.

In the end, what do you think happened? Nothing! …yet. The review process stalled after three years. And nearly 15 years on, the current government says that the constitution won’t be revisited until 2027.

This brings me to my next lesson which is that human rights work is difficult, time-consuming, and prone to set-backs—and that’s in the best of times. Passion is the fuel that keeps you going.

I could have taken this one experience and just filed it away in the recesses of my brain, but I didn’t. It brought out something in me that I hadn’t paid attention to before. It made me realize that I really give a damn about women’s rights.

Since then, I have had the privilege of working on many human rights projects and campaigns, and I have learned that change takes a long time. And that’s OK. Human rights work is a relay race. We each have an obligation and an opportunity to carry the torch forward in the long race towards justice and equality. The work that we have the privilege of doing now would not be possible but for the work of so many who came before us, and we as individuals should recognize that our contribution is a significant but incomplete part of a bigger whole. In our personal and collective race towards making the world a better place, don’t let the road ahead keep you from celebrating small wins along the way.

In a world often fraught with challenges and turmoil, it can be tempting to lose hope, to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before us. Yet, it is precisely in these moments of darkness that our commitment to justice and human rights becomes most crucial.

History has shown us time and again that change is possible, even in the most dire of circumstances. After all, the modern day international human rights system emerged out of the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust. It is in the face of adversity that individuals and communities have come together to fight for what is right.

So, it’s ok to be realistic or even discouraged by the challenges that lie ahead, but don’t cower to hardship. Find inspiration and hope in small ways and in the everyday, and, if you so choose, seek out the intellectual foundation, the real world experience, and the practical skills you will need to be human rights changemakers in the 21st century.

Thank you.