Alumni Interview with Christine Ryan

This interview was conducted over email with Dr. Christine Ryan, Associate Director for Religion and Reproductive Rights at the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a fourth-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

What has been your path to your current position?

I studied law in Ireland (where law is an undergraduate degree) and then completed a LLM in Human Rights Law at University College London. My first full-time human rights job was working with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs as a human rights advisor during Ireland’s tenure on the United Nations Human Rights Council. From there, I made the journey to North Carolina to begin a doctorate in law (known as an SJD) at Duke as a Fulbright Scholar. My work at Duke focused on human rights and feminist approaches to abortion. Switching gears a little, as I was finishing my dissertation I began working with the (then) United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed. I was the legal advisor to the Special Rapporteur and led a team of six very committed human rights professionals. After an incredible three years with the mandate, I chose to return to my roots and work more directly on gender and human rights (though the mandate certainly applied a gender lens to all its work on freedom of religion or belief). I became Legal Director of the Global Justice Center, a feminist non-profit in New York dedicated to using international law to achieve gender equality. Following Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, I was recruited by Columbia’s Center on Gender and Sexuality Law to lead their research and advocacy on reproductive rights and religious liberty.


What has been your main strategy in the post-Dobbs era? How do you see the interaction of religious liberty and human rights continuing to affect abortion access and pregnancy criminalization?

At the Global Justice Center, I was focused on documenting the human rights violations engendered by Dobbs. I led a number of submissions to the UN reporting in-depth the impacts of the post-Dobbs legal landscape on pregnant people – the overlapping threats to women’s lives and health, the harms of pregnancy criminalization, and the disproportionate injustices faced by people already disadvantaged by race, disability, and socio-economic status.

Now at Columbia, my work is centered on developing legal theories to challenge anti-abortion laws using religious liberty law and contesting the misuse of religious liberty law to entrench reproductive injustice. Regarding the latter, and what I call our ‘defensive’ work, I research how anti-rights movements use religious liberty law to undermine reproductive rights and work with litigators and policymakers to counter these strategies. I also work on ‘affirmative’ strategies with advocates seeking to protect access to abortion and, contraception, and as a matter of religious liberty.


Could you elaborate on your experience as the Senior Legal Advisor to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief? What were some of the most significant human rights investigations you conducted, and what insights did you gain from leading a global study on anti-gender campaigns?

I do not wish to suggest that there is any hierarchy amongst human rights concerns but two experiences come to mind. In 2020/2021, we began a global study on Islamophobia. The findings will not surprise you: pervasive stigmatization of Muslim communities, violent attacks on Muslims (and those perceived to be Muslim accompanied by impunity for such attacks; industrial-scale internment designed to change beliefs coercively; disproportionate restrictions on the ability of Muslims to manifest their beliefs; limits on access to citizenship; and harrowing socio-economic exclusion. Though it was not my first time studying the securitization of Muslims, the levels of discrimination, hostility and violence against Muslim individuals and communities in Western States shocked me then and continues to. What is truly galling is that in the face of overwhelming evidence, Western States are unwilling to admit that their security and counter-terrorism policies are fundamentally Islamophobic. In equal measure, it is a tragedy that the processes of essentialization and racialization that propel this form of bias are salient in th current discourse on the Israel/Gaza war.

The second experience that continues to resonate: our study on the “anti-rights” or “anti-gender” push-back against gender equality and the misappropriation of the right to freedom of religion for such aims. This investigation was extensive involving cross-regional working groups, consultations and fact-finding in 8 countries, as well as extensive desk research. I really appreciated the opportunity to do such thorough work and to properly engage with affected communities. It is now well-known that a well-coordinated right-wing movement—intent on stripping marginalized communities, sexual orientation, and gender identity minorities and women of their rights—is exerting increasing influence in international spaces as well as domestic politics. Ours was the first UN report on the topic and authoritatively clarified that the right to freedom of religion or belief cannot justify violations of women’s rights or LGBT+ rights. I am proud to say that it has become an essential advocacy tool for human rights defenders and policymakers alike.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful relationships I established with my colleagues when working for the mandate. We worked seven days a week, at an intense pace, on challenging issues. This would not have been possible without the close bond we felt with each other.


What are some moments in your work that have given you hope?

Though I am clear-eyed about the challenges and costs of securing and defending human rights, thankfully, numerous experiences allow me to be steadfast in my belief that change is possible. I have studied several remarkable feminist movements for abortion rights—including in contexts where reform seemed unthinkable. Another inculcation in hope came from working with Impact Iran, a human rights coalition of diverse organizations focused on improving human rights in the country. Whenever I feel as though a problem I am working on is intractable, I think of my former colleagues. Most of the staff in the coalition’s secretariat consists of refugees from Iran. Many of the organizations in the coalition are led by human rights defenders who had been forced into exile. They carry out their work in the face of serious danger and profound personal cost. Some have been harassed, physically assaulted, incarcerated and lost loved ones in the course of their work. Not only do these advocates persevere, they achieve success. It may be incremental and varies in scale, but their achievements are unmistakable.


What advice do you have for undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?

I have four pieces of advice:

1. Go for it if you have a strong work ethic, the humility to continuously learn and question assumptions, and a commitment to human rights. Avoid comparing yourself to classmates or siblings and do your own thing.

2. Equip yourself with both knowledge and skills. Human Rights as a field is extremely broad, of course, and there is no set of skills that will apply across the board. Map out people in your chosen fields, query what exactly they do on a day-to-day basis, and ask people what skills are most important to succeeding at their job if you are still interested in what they describe.

3. Use all the resources that Duke provides. This university offers phenomenal opportunities. You can work with professors on exciting research, attend lunchtime lectures from experts, professionals, and activists, or secure funding for your own research. Seek our resources and support. You will not be disappointed and by engaging in those processes, you will gain useful skills.

4. Working in human rights is not an entitlement. You will be working in service of others. Your career goals are important but you should be committed to recalibrating power imbalances and be vigilant not to reproduce them.