Lawyer, human rights activist and prize-winning author Peter Harris has received an honorary doctorate from the University of Warwick to add to his Warwick LLM.
In the early 1980s, newly graduated from Rhodes University, Peter took a role at South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre, a campaigning organisation set up to improve access to justice for disadvantaged South Africans. He continued to specialise in human rights issues and became involved in the fight against apartheid, often acting for the defence in political trials. His first book, In a Different Time, tells the story of one of these trials – the Delmas Four, whom Peter represented.
After taking a key role in the delivery of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Peter became an international consultant for the United Nations, advising on elections and conflict resolution programmes in Mexico, Haiti and around the world.
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Peter, who is now a best-selling non-fiction and fiction author, was made Honorary Doctor of Laws at the first of Warwick’s summer degree ceremonies.
He said: “This award means a tremendous amount. Warwick University has always occupied a special place in my heart, because of the time I spent here.
“When I was here in the 1980s it was a tumultuous time in the history of my own country, South Africa. It was the height of apartheid oppression and in a sense, being her for that one year was a kind of sanctuary for me.
“So the recognition is humbling and deeply appreciated.”
Peter studied English and Law as an undergraduate but decided very early in his life that he wanted to use the law to campaign for change. He said: “I was involved in politics as a student activist in South Africa, and quite early on I decided that I would use the law as a mechanism, a vehicle to assist social change and to oppose the apartheid government, as it then was.
“It wasn’t a difficult choice, it was the obvious choice. It really arose out of my own student activism, and how I wanted to use the law.”
Although the fight against apartheid has been won, Peter believes there is still an important role for lawyers in society. He said: “There’s still very much a need, and there are various issues at the global level that require attention – whether it be human trafficking, or gender violence, or issues relating to narcotics – there remains very much a need for lawyers to use their skills to assist social justice. And that is a privilege.”
“One can play a variety of roles and one can still dedicate one’s legal career to the pursuit of social justice and social change, particularly in countries which need it. In South Africa in particular there is still far too much poverty and inequality, as there is in many societies around the world.”
Thinking about new lawyers graduating this summer, Peter encouraged them to devote some time to pro bono work as they develop their careers. He said: “I think it’s a wonderful thing to have a multi-disciplinary practice, so even if you want to focus on competition law, business law or on banking, ensuring that a part of your practice involves pro bono work to assist social change makes for a rounded practice and a rounded lawyer.”
Alongside his thriving career as an author, Peter continues to practice in South Africa, doing pro bono work and assisting human rights organisations. He is also a Trustee of the Friends of University of Warwick in South Africa Trust, supporting the work of Warwick in Africa in the country.
Peter Harris - Hon LLD (Honorary Doctor of Laws)
Peter Harris was born in Durban and practised law upon graduation from Rhodes University. In the early 1990s he was seconded to work on the South African National Peace Accord and was responsible for brokering a number of the agreements between the political parties in order to assist peace and stability in South Africa. After this he established and headed the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission (responsible for ensuring the freeness and fairness of South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994).
In 2008 he published a book entitled In a Different Time (retitled A Just Defiance in the UK). This looks at the case of four young black men in Pretoria who were arrested for a string of political murders in 1987. Peter was the lawyer called upon to defend them, and his work on this case and others laid the groundwork for the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In a Different Time was honoured with the Sunday Times’ Alan Paton Award and the South African Booksellers’ Choice Award.
His 2010 book, Birth, reflected on the challenges of staging the 1994 South African election, and was named one of the 'Best Reads' of 2010 by The Times (South Africa).
Following his work in South Africa he was appointed Director of Programmes at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm for two years. In this role, he was responsible for all electoral and conflict resolution programmes worldwide. He has also led a project team working on judicial reform in Sierra Leone.
In recent years he has returned to significant mediation roles in South Africa leading a team responsible for drafting the National Language Policy for South Africa and mediating in the 2013 disputes on wages and terms and conditions in the South African gold mining sector at a time when nearly two thirds of the sector’s workforce were involved in strike action. He is currently facilitating, at the request of the Minister of Communication, a way forward between the many parties in the challenging Digital Terrestrial Television migration process in South Africa.
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