Student Gijs van Selm makes special contribution to UN report
In retrospect, going off the beaten track sometimes turns out to be your best option. Gijs van Selm studied Global Project and Change Management, part of Windesheim's Honours College, and with his final project research he made an exceptional and valuable contribution to a UN report on human rights.
The 'standard' route would probably not have given him the opportunity to do his final project research(opens in new tab) for an official UN report. By making good use of his social contacts and his proactive attitude, Gijs went off the beaten track, as he says himself, to reach his goal of contributing to a UN report with his final project research. The results of his research have been included in an official UN report on human rights violations in very specific situations where people in conflict or disaster areas are forced to move.
Can you tell us a bit about the path to your final project?
‘I first studied for a year at Saxion in the International Business and Management programme and that actually went quite well, but I gradually realized that a future in which I would be doing my job behind a desk making a profit for a company would not give me enough satisfaction. I decided that my work should be my passion. That’s why I went looking for something that would match my interest in international developments and inequality in the world. My mother told me about Windesheim's Honours College, which is conveniently close to home in Wapenveld and when I went there to have a look, I really liked it. At first, it took a lot of getting used to. Coming from a business background with a realistic and practical view of the world, I suddenly found myself among students who were focused on ideals and much less on the practical feasibility of their ideas. The programme offered a good middle course and I learned to combine my ideals with practical implementation. This is how I got the opportunity to do research for the UN.’
How special is it for you to do this research as a higher professional education student?
That is indeed pretty special, because normally you have to have at least a master's degree to qualify for an internship at the UN. And then you are not necessarily going to produce something of value. As a bachelor’s student, I was fortunate that one of my lecturers at Windesheim put me in direct contact with a 'special rapporteur', an independent expert in the field of human rights who works for the UN for a specific period of time. In November last year, I had a first meeting with her about the possibilities of a research project. During this meeting, I had an opportunity to show that I had already done a lot of preliminary research and that I am proactive. Once I was under way, I mentioned several times that I was a higher professional education student after being introduced as a master's student. This made no difference to her, and I think rightly so. It's a pity that there is usually such a strict dividing line between students of higher professional education and university students. I think that as a student you should have the opportunity to prove yourself. As a higher professional education student I was able to make a valuable contribution to a UN report and I wouldn't have been able to do that if I had taken the standard route.
What issues are we talking about?
‘Every year, the Special Rapporteur presents a report on human rights violations in situations of war and violence or areas of natural disasters where people are forcibly displaced. During such actions, often carried out by the military and sometimes involving entire populations, all kinds of human rights are violated. We call this form of violation arbitrary displacement. This often happens several times to the same groups of people. The UN tries to do something about this and has a Special Rapporteur for these issues, someone with an independent position who advises the UN Council on this. I did my research on her behalf.’
What was your contribution to the UN report?
‘The UN would like to see a much clearer definition of international rules and standards, how people should be treated beforehand and when these situations occur. It is now very difficult for the UN and the countries involved to hold those responsible for arbitrary displacement accountable. It is also difficult to promote specific actions or prevent future arbitrary displacement. There is no agreement on what exactly the prevention of arbitrary displacement entails. In short, there is a knowledge gap. The UN wants clarification on what governments should and can do to prevent arbitrary displacement. A first requirement is to get more clarity on the concept. My task was to get a better grasp of the concept of prevention in relation to arbitrary displacement. Which displacements in which situations are we talking about exactly? What's the policy? What can countries do? How did they deal with it in the past? How can you prevent it from happening in the first place? I mainly studied the policy, while Pro Bono of Oxford University's law faculty focused primarily on relevant legislation on the subject.’
Are you satisfied with the result?
‘Yes, it was very hard work and I had to find out a lot myself. Of course, corona made that even more difficult. Under normal circumstances, I could have worked in Geneva for a while, but now everything had to be done online, even the supervision. My internship supervisor lives in the Philippines and because of the time difference we could occasionally meet briefly at six in the morning. But data collection was also sometimes chaotic. For example, the internet connection permitting, I would phone someone in a town hall in a small town in Nigeria and I would hear all these people cackling because they were all in one big room. But in the end, it all worked out and I learned a lot. I was working on it 24/7 and gradually the research took shape and I am now very satisfied with it.’
What was your degree programme’s contribution?
‘A great deal. I benefited a lot from another project in which we practised interviews with victims. I also remember a module in which everything was unclear and where the lecturer said: ‘Everything is unclear because I want you to struggle and learn to deal with uncertainties.’ That module was called Value Creators, and you were given the assignment: do something that creates value and report on this four times. I found those assignments fun and instructive; I like the idea of working from ambiguity towards something concrete. The skills I learned there were invaluable for my final project research.’
‘After graduating, I wanted to study in England for the experience and to be able to skip a one-year pre-master's programme, which I did. I am now following a twelve-month Master's programme in International Development at the University of Manchester and I like it. The main focus I am working on is: what do we do about reconstruction in conflict areas? I would like to do the final project research for my master's programme for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I find the link between short-term humanitarian aid and long-term reconstruction very interesting, and the Netherlands is leading the way in this respect. I don't want to do research that will end up on a stray stack of papers somewhere. That's why I started calling people and I managed to make an appointment next week with someone at the ministry who is leading an evaluation study into the humanitarian policy of the Netherlands. I hope they have a very specific question that I can answer in my next final project research project. So I'm really curious!’