Human rights are a universal language that everyone should understand

July 1st, 2024

Dr Eileen Carter is the Provincial Manager of the South African Human Rights Commission in the Eastern Cape.

In the July feature article we profile Dr Eileen Carter of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). She was born in Somerset West, grew up mostly in Kimberley, where her parents are still based. She pursued her tertiary education at Stellenbosch University, where she obtained an LLB. ‘I then completed my LLM with distinction from the North-West University/Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany. I am a practising attorney and I hold a Doctorate in Private Law (LLD) from the University of Pretoria, as well as several additional accreditations. Throughout my academic journey, I focused on human rights, particularly children’s rights, drawing specific inspiration from women, such as Professor Ann Skelton and Prof Sonia Human. My main focus and interest now is human rights and developing technologies,’ said Dr Carter.


Kgomotso Ramotsho (KR): Why did you choose to study law?

Dr Eileen Carter (EC): I chose to study law because I have always been passionate about justice and equality. Law provides a powerful tool to advocate for the rights of the marginalised and to influence policy changes. My interest in human rights and social justice issues drove me to pursue a career where I could make a tangible impact on society. I used to read all my mother’s John Grisham books and took a massive interest in public interest litigation after going to university and realising the privilege I had as a white South African, and the need for justice and redress to occur in order for South Africa to develop towards equality and unity. Ironically enough, it was an opportunity advertised in De Rebus around 2008 which made me commit to further my studies within the human rights discourse, so thank you for that!


KR: What is your role at the SAHRC?

EC: At the SAHRC, I serve as the Provincial Manager of the Eastern Cape. My job profile is basically captured in chapter 9 of our Constitution. I am tasked with assisting strategic decisions to impact human rights on the ground and bringing visibility to critical issues. I lead an excellent team dedicated to realising the objectives called upon us in the Bill of Rights. This includes developing strategic initiatives, leading and facilitating litigation, developing and strengthening key stakeholder relationships and advocating for the rights of communities across South Africa. Additionally, I oversee the creation of influential reports that address pressing human rights concerns, ensuring that our actions translate into tangible improvements in the lives of the marginalised.


KR: What makes you passionate about human rights?

EC: My passion for human rights stems from the belief that they are a universal language that everyone should understand. Human rights apply to everything, from ensuring a child has access to a meal, to the regulatory frameworks governing artificial intelligence (AI). They are omnipresent in our lives, influencing every aspect of our society. The ability to advocate for these rights means we can influence their trajectory to positively impact the lives of everyone. Human rights apply to the smallest communities in Lusikisiki, as well as in the biggest discussions hosted by the General Assembly at the United Nations, underscoring their fundamental importance at all levels.

As I always tell my boys: Mommy does not have to do this job, mommy gets to do this job! I really try and reinforce the passion for what I do within them, and also showcasing the need and role women can play on the domestic, as well as international human rights agenda.


KR: This year it is the 30-year review of South Africa’s democracy, what has been the role of the SAHRC in ensuring that the rights of citizens are being protected?

EC: Over the past 30 years, the SAHRC has played a pivotal role in safeguarding the rights of South African citizens, as outlined in chapter 9 of our Constitution. We have been instrumental in holding the government and private sector accountable for human rights violations and ensuring legislation and government undertakings align with international human rights standards. Despite being an organisation with a massive mandate and severely under-resourced, we have made significant strides. However, we still have a long way to go and need more feet on the ground to effectively hold those accountable in both the private and public sectors. Through our investigations, reports, and public awareness campaigns, we continue to work tirelessly to protect and promote human rights across the country.


KR: The SAHRC has partnered with the international NHRI Digital Rights Alliance to launch an e-elections statement developed by the NHRI Digital Rights Alliance. Can you please briefly tell us about that.

EC: I have a keen interest in developing technologies and their profound impact on human rights, particularly as these borderless tools reshape our global landscape. Recognising the significance of these technologies, the NHRI Digital Rights Alliance statement was crafted with acute awareness of the crucial global election cycle, where over 70 countries were headed to the polls. We needed to centre human rights in the discourse on technology, AI, and social media platforms.

Leading 31 countries in this initiative, we issued a statement calling on all nations, companies, and stakeholders to safeguard human rights amidst technological advancements and during elections. This statement emphasised the importance of transparency, accountability, and the protection of personal data, urging all parties to prioritise human rights in the digital age to ensure fair and just electoral processes.

The SAHRC is becoming a central voice globally in this discourse. We are building the capacity to speak authoritatively on these issues, both nationally and globally, solidifying our position as a key player in the international human rights arena.


KR: In April, SAHRC in your province released a report regarding the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy. Can you give us the main findings of that report and what are the measures that the SAHRC will make to ensure that children’s rights are protected. What is the role going forward to ensure that there are stricter rules on issuing of liquor licensing and trading?

EC: My first passion has always been children’s rights, a commitment deeply rooted both professionally and personally as a mother of two beautiful boys. The tragic death of 21 youths at Enyobeni Tavern profoundly struck me, resonating with our investigation into malnutrition in the country. Our in-depth investigation into the Enyobeni tragedy revealed several critical concerns, prompting us to call for a comprehensive reassessment of the liquor industry’s role in society and its impact on children’s lives.

The main findings of the report highlighted inadequate enforcement of liquor licensing laws and insufficient capabilities of those issuing the licences, to monitor compliance. We identified a pressing need for stricter regulations and better monitoring of alcohol distribution and consumption. We are currently awaiting the formal feedback of all stakeholders on the steps they will take to address our concerns, including placing a moratorium on the issuing of all on-site liquor licences until they have the capacity to monitor and enforce compliance. We are comfortable in doing our section 36 analyses that the rights of vulnerable communities supersede the need of industry to sell and distribute alcohol.


KR: What are some of the challenges that you as a commission encounter especially where you are based in the Eastern Cape?

EC: The Eastern Cape faces significant human rights challenges. High levels of poverty and unemployment are pervasive, exacerbating issues such as food insecurity and lack of access to clean water. Many communities struggle with inadequate infrastructure, including a massive demand for roads, which limits access to essential services and economic opportunities.

Additionally, the province suffers from under-resourced public services, including healthcare and education, which further marginalise vulnerable populations. Our commission is constantly working to address these issues by advocating for better resource allocation and policy changes, but the sheer scale of these challenges requires more comprehensive and sustained efforts.

Despite these hurdles, we remain committed to bringing visibility to these critical issues and advocating for the rights of all individuals in the Eastern Cape. We leverage partnerships and community engagement to push for systemic improvements, aiming to create a more equitable and just society for all residents.

Lastly, law is not just my profession; it is my playground where I get to challenge injustices and make a tangible difference. Fighting for human rights, is in a way like adding justice to the world’s balance sheet. With each case, my ideal aim is to tip the scales towards fairness and dignity for all, trying to ensure every voice is heard and respected.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2024 (July) DR 28.

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