Aftermath of Armed Conflicts for Civilians: a Human Rights Perspective

Maria Sole Continiello Neri, Research Fellow at the Centre of Comparative Law, Faculty of Law, shared how her academic work is related to current challenges in human rights protection, and how close collaboration with colleagues on teaching helps to build research connections.

As a lawyer why did you choose an academic career?

I specialise in Public International Law, specifically in human rights law and international humanitarian law. During my bachelor degree, I focused on constitutional law in Italy, while I obtained my master in Public International Law, and my Ph.D. was about human rights during military occupation and armed conflict. Jointly with the academic career, I developed my professional skills practicing as a lawyer, international consultant and doing fieldwork. I worked for the Red Cross in Italy, at a center which works with refugee-seekers, and also for the Directorate General for Development and Cooperation of the European Commission. My research is aimed at analysing the emerging challenges to international law and I am honored to contribute as an academic to the ongoing debate about human rights not only in the academic but also in the professional community.

What are your research interests?

In March 2018, I published my first book which analyses the participation of Italian Armed forces in peacekeeping operations. It’s been an important milestone for me. Currently, I am working on three main topics.  My first project is focused on how socio-economic rights of the population are affected during military occupation. Through my research I would like to assess the adequacy of the classic military occupation regime regarding the challenges posed by securing the first, second and third generation of human rights during such a particular context.  My second project is about the Russian Refugee Law and the principle of non-refoulement that forbids a country to return asylum-seekers to a country where they would be in danger of prosecution based on belonging to a social of political group. Analysing and comparing the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights on the issue I assessed how the principle of non-refoulement is adhered to in Russia. I chose specific groups of refugees affected by military conflict, namely Syrian, Afghani and Yemeni refugees. This project is the one that I devote most time and effort at the moment. I gave one plenary lecture on this topic at a conference in Nizhniy Novgorod, and I published two articles which are due to appear in print in 2019.

The third research issue has been my dream project since I started my PhD, and it’s about the use of autonomous weapons during armed conflict. These types of weapons, once activated, can select and attack targets without human intervention, and there are many legal implications of that (e.g. potential conflict with the right to life). Even if these projects might seem unrelated at first sight, there’s an underlying red thread that ties all the subjects: how human rights are affected by the armed conflict. To sum up, all of my research projects relate to a broader issue of the consequences of war for civilians in the conflict’s aftermath and during military occupation.

How does your stay at HSE help to develop your research?

I have met a lot of colleagues who are both outstanding researchers and teachers, like Vladislav Starzhenetsky, who is the first vice-dean of the HSE Faculty of Law and professor of International Economic Law and Intellectual Property Law. He has been of incredible support and help, both in academic and administrative matters. Professors Vera Rusinova, Anita Soboleva, Daria Boklan which are leading experts in Public International Law and Human Rights Law.  They supported me with academic advice and tips to improve my teaching and researching activities. Overall, the environment at HSE is really kind and supportive. Regarding university resources, I really like the workshops organized by the Academic Writing Centre. I regularly attend the seminars at the Faculty of Law and at the HSE Social Sciences Faculty, particularly related to migration issues, and also visit events outside HSE, for example, at Sakharov Centre.

Do you work with human rights NGOs in Russia a lot on your topic?

Civic Assistance Committee is the primary one for me regarding the topic of refugees, and I use a lot of their documents. However, the main problem is my basic knowledge of Russian, so I cannot volunteer for them as I would love to.  Nevertheless, my first article to be published here, as a follow-up to the conference in Nizhniy Novgorod, will be in Russian. It addresses the issues relevant to the country’s legal and human rights professional communities, and it feels right to publish it in the language which would make it more accessible to the wider audience here.

It’s your second year at HSE, have you had a chance to teach yet?

Last year I had a great opportunity to teach one course on human rights together with Anita Soboleva, and two seminars of 36 hours each on international law.  The department announced the opportunity to take a research seminar in international public law in English - and to our great surprise over 150 students signed up. We ended up doing a pre-selection so that students could not only attend the class but participate proactively. At the end, there were 90 students, and since it’s a seminar, we had split them into two groups, and overall it’s been a challenging but very rewarding experience.

Do you have any favourite places in Moscow?

My husband is also a researcher at HSE, and he first visited Moscow in 2012, so by the time I arrived I already had plenty of recommendations to explore. My favourite museum is Multimedia Art Museum, there are several restaurants that I like - of course, while internet reviews are of great help, it is very useful to rely on a spouse’s or friend’s knowledge of the city so as not to get lost, because Moscow is vast and has a lot to offer.  This year I’ve met a lot of new postdocs at the social events at the beginning of the year, and we have a group of about 20 people who meet regularly.

Read more in the full December 2018 issue of The HSE Look