James Douglas, Executive Director, Irish Rule of Law International

As you may have already heard, James Douglas recently became our new Executive Director. With us since 2020 as Director of Programmes, James has already made significant contributions to our work and brings with him eight years of previous experience working on different human rights issues for civil society and the United Nations. Following his appointment, he kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us.

First off, maybe you can introduce yourself and tell us a little about your law career so far.

My name is James Douglas, and I am a lawyer from Dublin, where I was born and bred, and where I am currently based. However, my return home is very recent. I spent the best part of the last decade in Southeast Asia: six years in Cambodia, two in Thailand, with a brief stint in South Korea in between. I started my career with an internship at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal where I spent almost five years working as a lawyer and an investigator. I fell in love with Cambodia, but after five years working at the tribunal, I wanted to work on something more contemporary and local. I joined an organisation called Equitable Cambodia, a land rights organisation, with a heavy focus on community engagement. I loved this job because it involved engaging directly with human rights defenders and communities and facilitating ways for them to conduct advocacy and strategic litigation.

I then spent a brief period working with the UN office of the high commissioner of human rights in South Korea – which enabled me to put into practice the skills I had learned at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal – documenting historical and ongoing crimes against humanity being committed in the DPRK. After that, I started my work with Victim Advocates International, which enabled me to merge these two interests: community engagement, and international criminal law. I mainly worked – and still work with Rohingya survivors of the 2017 clearance operations – to assist them with devising advocacy and legal strategies.

I joined IRLI during Covid in October 2020. My background in criminal justice, coupled with my experience working for the NGOS, made this a perfect fit. While IRLI’s projects are varied, there is a strong focus on access to justice for both people in conflict with the law and those who are victims. My work at IRLI has also enabled me to work in Ukraine, as part of the Ukraine Ireland Legal Alliance, and Afghanistan, and we are currently starting a new programme on transitional justice in Somalia, something I am very excited about.


What inspired you to pursue a career in law? 

Since I was a teenager, I was always interested in international justice. My first recollection of this was the Iraq War, and the public reaction to it where opposition was couched in terms of “illegality”. This evolved and I quickly became heavily interested in Palestinian solidarity – seeing the colonisation of Palestinian lands through the construction of settlements that were deemed “illegal”. It fascinated me then that there was this notion of an international legal order that could be used to hold the powerful to account – even if there were weak enforcement mechanisms behind it. At this stage of my life, I was very much interested in social movements, and movement lawyering – that is how social movements used the law to bring about meaningful societal change. There has been a lot of change for the better in Ireland over the past twenty years due to sustained and tireless campaigns led by activists in which lawyers played a pivotal role.


James with IRLI colleagues Susie Kiely and Martha Pigott attending DPP training, Malawi, 2022


What drives you in your work?

I’ve always considered myself to perform more of a supportive role, fully realising that real change is brought about by grassroots organisations and human rights defenders in countries where we operate. Over the past ten years, with the outbreak of wars and the increasing threat that the far right presents in many countries, you would easily get the impression that the edifice of international human rights – that we fought so hard for – is being quickly eroded. As long as I see that there are people mobilised to resist that – and to continue to advocate for justice and equality – that is enough to drive me to continue to do my work. I am continuously inspired by the work that is being done by grassroots organisations, and human rights defenders in the countries in which we operate.


Are there any grassroots organisations or human rights defenders whose work you would like to platform here?

That would be hard, and I am definitely going to miss out on some. The easiest thing would be for me to give a special mention to some of those I have had the pleasure of working with directly.

I would definitely like to give a special shout-out to some of the Rohingya groups with whom I work, who inspire me continuously. Arakan Rohingya Society for Peace and Human Rights (ARSPH), are doing amazing work advocating for justice for the Rohingya, as well as documenting what happened in 2017,  I had the privilege of working with them when Mohib Ullah was their Executive Director, right before he was murdered. He was a man of immense vision. The Rohingya Student Network are another amazing grassroots organisation, advocating for change and justice in immensely difficult circumstances.

I am very fond of the organisation Al Qaws, a Palestinian civil society group that works to build LGBTQ+ networks, while at the same time challenging racist and colonial assumptions about Palestinian culture and identities, and firmly opposing Israeli occupation. They manage to do with such humour as well, as this shows. Another great organisation is the Rainbow Community of Kampuchea Organisation (RCOK) – an organisation doing amazing work on advancing equality for LBGT+ people in Cambodia.

When it comes to community engagement, I also must give my former organisation Equitable Cambodia, a special shout-out.

Our partners in Malawi obviously deserve a shout-out too: The Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (CHREAA), the Paralegal Advisory Service Institute (PASI), and the Gender Justice Unit.

That and some of the bigger networks: Black Lives Matter, as well as some historical movements and organisations, like the Anti-Apartheid movement that brought down Apartheid in South Africa (despite the pushback from many Western states), and the Gay Liberation Front, formed in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots. I guess what’s special about all of these is the international reach that they had in solidarity building – that global movements were created, that brought about meaningful change despite resistance from the most powerful actors. For me, the best movements have always recognised the intersectional nature of oppression (even before the term intersectionality gained popularity).


James and Evelyn McClafferty taking part in a Legal clinic hosted by IRLI partner the Gender Justice Unit, 2022
James and Evelyn McClafferty at a legal clinic hosted by the Gender Justice Unit, Malawi 2022


You’ve worked in a lot of challenging environments, for example as a lawyer and investigator for the UN Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. How do you deal with working in these sorts of contexts?

I do a lot of yoga, and I try to meditate as often as possible. I am a big fan of nature, so you’ll often find me on weekends by the sea or hiking. Music is a very important outlet for me as well. I used to play guitar and sing, but that has fallen by the wayside lately. Although I have to say that I am presently channelling my creativity through cooking.


What in your view are the main challenges in this field at the current moment?  

I think there has been a failure in the field to address some of the root causes of human rights violations and the enduring legacies of colonialism. The simple fact of the matter is that poverty breeds human rights abuses. We at IRLI are always careful in how we frame the issues surrounding rights abuses, recognising that resource restraints – especially when it comes to criminal justice – are the single biggest impediment to sustainable and systemic change. I think there has been some improvement in the discourse as of late, but not enough has happened to actually bring about material change.

Also, when you follow international affairs, you would easily get the impression that respect for the rule of law is in decline in many places, and this is true of the international community. In the 90s and 00s – the world saw the establishment of the ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and the International Criminal Court – there was great promise for international justice. I do think that’s in decline, although talks of accountability have resurfaced in light of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked aggression on Ukraine, which is great. It would be great if this enthusiasm translated to other contexts.

If you focus solely on the negatives, you would get the impression that we are fighting a losing battle, which can be disheartening.


What are you looking forward to in your new role? 

I am looking forward to leading IRLI at a time of unparalleled growth, in particular leading my amazing team of five in Dublin, and eight in our Malawi field office as we expand our work both thematically and geographically. I am especially looking forward to building this team so as to maximise IRLI’s potential.

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