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Use law career to serve others, says human rights attorney

by Michael Kirk - May 21, 2009

Cherie Blair is the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, but she is also an accomplished human rights attorney and advocate for women.

During a talk at the UConn School of Law on May 1, Blair discussed human rights, women’s issues, and the importance of attorneys using their careers to offer some benefit to society.

Born to a single mother in a modest home in Liverpool – “more Pittsburgh than Connecticut,” she said – Blair went on to graduate first in her class from the London School of Economics. She was later named Queen’s Counsel, a title of distinction in the British legal world.

“Between you and me,” she said of her university education, “I got much better marks than my husband.”

Blair said she was pleased to see that, in addition to reams of legal texts, the Reading Room in William F. Starr Hall was decorated with pictures of female jurists – many of whom earned their law degrees from UConn.

When she was in college in the 1970s, she said, “things were not quite as good for women in the law in the UK or the US. It was the culture at the time.”

She recalled a text book telling students that the law was a demanding task for a man – and even more difficult for a woman.

“These days there would be a lawsuit,” she said, noting that during the past three decades, attitudes have changed, in part because of the work of lawyers.

Although the profession may get its share of scorn from time to time, in the current economic climate, she joked, “we should actually just take comfort in the fact we’re not bankers.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of the law as an agent of change in our societies,” Blair said, urging members of the audience to put their law degrees to use in serving others.

Cherie Blair, human rights attorney and women’s advocate, delivers the 2009 Day Pitney Visiting Scholar Lecture at the Law School on May 1.
Cherie Blair, human rights attorney and women’s advocate, delivers the 2009 Day Pitney Visiting Scholar Lecture at the Law School on May 1. Photo by Spencer A. Sloan

“You will get more out of the law if you make it a worthwhile career in every sense.”

One noble pursuit would to be to help improve access to justice, she said.

“It is those who are most in need of legal advice who are least able to afford it. Access to justice is a fundamental human right.”

When it comes to human rights, she said, it is vital that societies raise their eyes beyond their national borders.

Blair recalled that she tried to persuade then-President George W. Bush not to abandon American commitment to an international agreement regarding human rights while she still lived at 10 Downing Street.

“He took it in good humor,” she recalled, but in the end, didn’t heed her advice.

Blair fielded several questions pertaining to human rights issues, including Islamic religious courts in Britain, human trafficking, honor killings, and wearing traditional religious garb in schools.

On the criminal indictment of Sudan’s president, she said the case presents practical difficulties, noting that the actions of the International Criminal Court sometimes hinder the regional settlement of conflict.

Blair said accusations of human rights abuses should be dealt with first and foremost by the societies themselves, adding, “the International Criminal Court is a court of last resort if that’s not possible.”

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