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Gay McDougall receives honorary degree from School of Advanced Study

Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and distinguished scholar in residence at the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham University School of Law, was awarded a Doctor of Laws honoris causa at the School of Advanced Study’s (SAS) graduation ceremony on 7 December.

Gay J McDougall 3
Gay J McDougall

The honour acknowledges her tireless championing of human rights for which she has received numerous accolades, including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (‘genius grant’) for her innovative and highly effective work on behalf of international human rights.

Ms McDougall, who has been a leader on human rights within the United Nations for more than three decades and was the first UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, said she was ‘thrilled to receive this honour’ from the School, a federation member of the University of London. In her acceptance speech she told the 78 graduating students that she can’t help feeling a little envious at what lies ahead for them.

'You are graduating from one of the finest institutions in the world. And this world you are inheriting is one of incomparable wealth, resources and technological know-how. That presents you with vast opportunities and, of course, also some challenges and responsibilities. These are difficult times for justice and human rights, with battles over natural and other resources, rising inequality, increasing movement of people within and across borders, ongoing crises and armed conflicts, and unlawful actions by governments in the name of preserving public order and national security. 
 

As graduates of one of the finest and most prestigious schools in the world, you can – in whatever profession you practice – play a pivotal role in reshaping the future into one in which hunger, extreme poverty and racism are distant memories. A future in which every person can fulfil their dreams and contribute to society on an equal basis. I want to challenge you to be that solution; to take responsibility for safeguarding the human rights that we must cherish. We are waiting for you. And, you are going to have a very exciting future.

She also remembered her own time at the university where she earned an LLM in public international law at the London School of Economics. Describing the experience as 'life-altering', Ms McDougall said it was 'an opportunity to spend meaningful time with, to study under and collaborate with professors, people in this exciting intellectual community who were on the front lines of struggling for the liberation of their countries in southern Africa; for self-determination; and for the end of colonialism. These were big ideas and at that time there was nothing more exciting to me than to be part of ideas that would change the world. Studying here at the University of London gave me that opportunity.'

For 14 years he was executive director of Global Rights, which helped human rights advocates in ten countries to develop their strategies for justice. Prior to that she played a special role in securing the release of thousands of political prisoners in South Africa and Namibia, and was appointed to the electoral commission that ran South Africa’s first democratic elections, which ended apartheid and installed Nelson Mandela as president. 

In 2015, the Government of South Africa recognised her extraordinary contributions to ending apartheid by awarding her the Order of the Companions of O.R.Tambo, its national medal of honour for non-citizens. These many remarkable achievements are celebrated in the University of London’s Leading Women campaign.

Watch Gay McDougall talk about the importance of studying human rights:  



Seventy eight School graduands were awarded postgraduate degrees in the humanities and social sciences at the ceremony in Senate House, of which 25 were awarded Doctor of Philosophy degrees.