Logo UHasselt



News & Calendar

Logo UHasselt Universiteit Hasselt - Knowledge in action


Human rights protect everyone    Jun 21, 2019

Human rights protect everyone
Jun 21, 2019


Prof. dr. Stijn SMET



During his Master after Master in Human Rights, he went to Sierra Leone to do research about female child soldiers. Afterwards, he worked on human rights in Belgium, Sudan, and Brazil, but eventually professor Stijn Smet chose an academic career within this field. Today we sit together with him to discover more about the journey that made him end up at our Law faculty.


“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity” – Nelson Mandela. 

In 2018, we celebrated the 70th birthday of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet, surveys have shown that a large part of the population is not able to name a single human right. “I was taken aback by it for a moment”, Stijn tells us. “But at the same time, you can interpret it as something positive. It means that a large part of society doesn’t need to worry about their human rights being violated. For them, these rights are obvious. I am convinced that when you would do such a survey among citizens in Yemen, the Rohingya-refugees in Myanmar, or migrants in Belgium, the results would be quite different. Minorities are more aware of the fact that some of their fundamental rights are being restricted.”

“Yet within this ignorance about human rights also lurks danger, a threat to our human rights. The majority of western society doesn’t realize that human rights apply to everyone, including them, and not only to minorities. This is something that can be easily exploited by authoritarian populists whose goal is to target minorities to gain a political advantage. Human rights not only protect the other. They protect everyone and are important for everyone. These are, by the way, not only human rights to free speech or religious manifestation but also socio-economic rights like the right to employment or health.”


The passion for human rights came into existence in the final years of Stijn’s law studies. “I wasn’t born as someone bent on improving this world (laughs). I wasn’t even sure that I had made the right decision in studying law until I encountered the course Human Rights, taught by professor Eva Brems. This left a huge impression on me. At that moment in time, I knew that I could become a lawyer and do something interesting at the same time (laughs)”.

“During my Ph.D., my research focused on situations where two human rights come into conflict with each other. Situations where the human right of one person can threaten that of another. For example, the right to free speech can be a threat to protection against discrimination. Where do you draw the line? It remains difficult to find a legal response to this type of situations. Often it depends on the context and country.”


Working in human rights is really interesting as things are constantly shifting and moving. When I observed this in person in Sudan, working for the European Commission, and in Brazil, working for and NGO, I got inspired but sometimes also frustrated. When working in academia, your direct impact isn’t always visible. But this is also the case when doing fieldwork where things like diplomacy and strategy come into play. Something that suits me less. This often makes you feel powerless.”

“It took me quite some time to discover my strengths, what I loved doing, and where my contribution could be the most significant. I believe my biggest strength lies in my capabilities when it comes to legal analysis. I like to make critical comments on a meta-level and conduct comparative research to show that multiple solutions to the same problem are possible. I think that within this role I can maximize my contribution and let my individual voice be heard. I also think it’s really great that I can do research at a civic university that takes up its responsibilities within society. Promoting human rights is definitely among them.”