‘International Law in Practice’ at the University of Groningen

May 1, 2018

From February until April 2018, I was involved in the course ‘International Law in Practice’ at the University of Groningen. This course was organized by the Department of Public International Law as part of the LLM Master programme Public International Law, a top rated programme in the Netherlands. A couple of months before the start of the course, I received an e-mail with an invitation from Marlies Hesselman and prof. dr. Marcel Brus, the Academic Director of the LLM programme, to participate in this course. Of course I said “yes” to the question whether I would be willing to give students the chance to work with real-life clients and with real-life problems.

The course Public International Law in Practice

The objective of the course is to train students in the following:

  • the ability to work in a small team to answer broad questions on international law that will help a client to formulate its policies
  • the ability to write a concise report on a complex legal matter that is accessible to non-lawyers and that leads to policy- relevant recommendations
  • the ability to present a complex legal analysis in a brief oral presentation
  • the ability to effectively answer questions and discuss and defend the recommendations
  • the ability to critically engage in peer review

I was asked to provide a practical research question and a ‘request for advice’. I decided that this assignment would focus on the similarities and differences between Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), cosmetic genital surgery (labiaplasty) without medical purposes and genital piercings. The reason that I choose this topic is that I recently came across a study of the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in the United Kingdom on this topic, where the following was concluded: Despite the Government’s assurances that there is no ambiguity in the law relating to female genital cosmetic surgery, our evidence demonstrates that the police, midwives and campaigners would all like to see greater clarity on this point. We cannot tell communities in Sierra Leone and Somalia to stop a practice which is freely permitted in Harley Street. We recommend that the Government amend the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 in order to make it very clear that female genital cosmetic surgery would be a criminal offence.” This interesting report is available here.

More specifically, I wrote the following ‘request for advice’:

  1. Background information concerning my request: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” FGM/C is a harmful practice that has been recognized by the United Nations as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of girls and women. The practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and is a form of discrimination against women and girls. Given its harmful impacts, FGM/C violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health. It also violates girls’ and women’s rights to physical integrity. When carried out on minors, it constitutes a violation of the rights of a child. The practice also violates the right to be free from torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. When the practice results in death, it violates the right to life. FGM/C is classified into 4 major types, of which the 4th type includes “all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.” Strictly speaking, cosmetic genital surgery (labiaplasty) without medical purposes and genital piercings can fall under this definition. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of women electing to undergo cosmetic surgery on their genitals in order to appear younger or more beautiful in Western cultures. A such, Governments are increasingly faced with the following question: should they also outlaw female cosmetic surgery and piercing?
  2. The research question: At first glance, FGM/C, genital surgery carried out for cosmetic purposes, and genital piercings might seem intrinsically different. However, they are similar in many ways. From an international human rights law perspective, what would you advise to the Dutch (or more broadly European or Western) government(s) in relation to legal measures towards FGM/C, cosmetic genital surgery and genital piercings? Do we need to protect girls/women from FGM/C, piercing and cosmetic surgery and reform legislation (or for example regulate the piercing industry)? Or can the differential legal treatment between those practices be justified?
  3. Any other relevant consideration: As explained above, FGM/C has been recognized by the UN as a form of Violence Against Women (VAW) and thus falling under the scope of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), as a matter of women’s rights. However, cosmetic surgery is also performed on male genitalia. In case cosmetic general surgery on female genitalia is regulated, should these practices also be regulated for male genitalia? From a perspective of human rights law, is it appropriate to make a distinction?

After selection, students have been given the task to act as an external advisor and to provide professional advice on the above. Students worked in a team of 3 students and they performed like this was a paid assignment for them, which was really a lot of fun.

Meeting at my office in Maarssen

The 5th of March, the students visited my office. While enjoying a cup of tea and chocolate, we discussed the object and purpose of the assignment. I also gave a presentation on the topic, I shared with them some documents and reports that were relevant for their research and I explained what exactly is expected. In addition, I gave more background information about my company and my past and current assignments.

Presentation of analytical report 

The following weeks I supervised the students with their research and the writing of their analytical report. They submitted several draft versions and I provided them with my feedback. The 13th of April I went to Groningen for the presentation of the final report in the beautiful Harmonie Building (see picture above). The final report was entitled: ‘Double standards? Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Female Genital Cosmetic Surgeries & Genital Piercings in the context of International Human Rights Law.’ The report started off with an introduction to the three practices, including definitions. In the second chapter, the students focused on the similarities and differences between the practices and assessed the possible justifications for a differential legal treatment. In the next chapter, they analyzed the human rights that are possibly being violated and the possible double standards in Europe. The final chapter included specific recommendations for the Dutch government. I was very proud, because they have put a lot of effort in this assignment and did very well. At the end of their presentation we had time for discussion. Fellow students asked very nice questions, like: “Do you think that there are women who freely choose for FGM/C?” and “Should there be a ban on all genital surgery?” A discussion followed on the role of the Government, the type of actions that could be taken to discourage certain practices but at the same time people’s own right to choose what to do with their own body. In addition, a link was made to breast surgery and we discussed the similarities/differences between the genitalia and other body parts (both of males and females).

One student also asked: “Did your opinions change in the course of the research?” The students explained that they had very divergent opinions in the beginning, but through the research they have conducted they came to this report and common conclusions and recommendations.

All in all, I absolutely enjoyed supervising the students over the course of the past weeks. One of the students wrote the following reference for me:

“Together with two fellow students, I had the opportunity to work on a report for Middelburg Human Rights Law Consultancy entitled: “Double standards? Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Female Genital Cosmetic Surgeries & Genital Piercings in the context of International Human Rights Law.” Writing on the subject of the permissibility of female genital cosmetic surgeries and genital piercings in relation to the prohibition of female genital mutilation was a challenging task, as  it constitutes a policy problem, a legal issue, but also a moral dilemma. However, all throughout the preparation of this report Dr. Middelburg offered her guidance and support. Given the difficulty of the subject, we have written a few outlines and a few drafts, on each of which we received an extensive and timely feedback with very useful suggestions. Dr. Middelburg also offered us guidance and suggestions on the research material. 

In spite of the sensitive character of the issue we were asked to write about and which warrants very strong opinions from the stakeholders involved, Dr. Middelburg invited us to freely express our personal (but well-founded in research) opinions on the subject. Considering that the issue was not only a legal, but also a social and moral problem, the full freedom to argue our personal opinion made the writing of this report,  in many ways, an exercise in self-development as well. 

Besides the active collaboration with Dr. Middelburg, she also kindly welcomed us in her office in Maarssen, where we had the occasion to find out more about her work. She shared her experience in finding her career path and her experience with working on the protection of human rights and writing her PhD. Both my fellow students and I found her work very inspiring and the personal, emotional investment in the work she does – an example of a successful and meaningful career.”