“Choose your battles”

Journalist: Editorial team ceo magazine | Photographer: www.foto-shooting.ch | Magazine: Trust engenders courage – October 2022

Promoting human rights is more important today than ever before. Law professor Helen Keller has dedicated her professional career to this issue – out of conviction. With a lot of courage, a sense of proportion and a wealth of experience, she tries to make the world a bit more just.

In 1948, in the wake of the horrors of World War 2, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Dec­laration of Human Rights. Today, almost all countries have signed international human rights treaties or enshrined human rights in their constitutions. And yet it seems that the threat to these universal rights is currently increasing. This makes courageous people who stand up for their observance all the more important.

Following your inner voice

Helen has focused her career on the fields of international law and human rights. “It was clear to me very early on that I didn’t want to earn my living from tax optimisation. I found the interface between national and international law very exciting. And it’s in human rights that this interface is most present.” From 2008 to 2011, she was a member of the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva and New York, where she made a name for herself as a specialist in human rights issues. Then, in 2011, the Swiss Federal Council asked if she would be interested in filling the upcoming vacancy of Swiss Judge at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It says a lot about Helen that she mentions her prominent supporter: “That was probably largely due to the then Federal Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey, who gave me crucial support as a woman.”

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was established in Strasbourg in 1959 by the member states of the Council of Europe to ensure compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. Switzerland has been represented on the ECHR since it joined the Council of Europe in 1963.

Since 1998, the ECHR has been a permanently sitting court. Citizens can turn to it directly with appeals after they have exhausted the domestic judicial remedies.

A temporary farewell

Helen was elected and moved to Strasbourg. Her family stayed in Zurich, not least because of her two sons. Her family life was now limited to the weekends. When asked if this decision had been difficult for her, she answers with a question of her own: “Would you put the same question to a man?” But she asks it with a smile. To describe herself as courageous clashes with her modesty. Speaking frankly, she confesses: “My husband had a lot to deal with – that’s something we’d underestimated. After all, he also had his own career. So we needed the support of a childminder. I tried to work as hard as possible during the week so that I could have time for my family at the weekend.”

“You always make yourself unpopular when you question traditional understandings of roles.”

An exhausting task

The judges of the 47 member states at the European Court of Justice have to ensure that applicable national law is taken into account and implemented in cases against their own countries. They perform a kind of quality control, so to speak. They also sit in chambers in which cases involving other states are heard. In many cases, these have far-reaching consequences. “Making these judgements takes a lot of courage  –  and a lot of energy,” says Helen. “I had to learn to focus 95 percent of my energy on the Court, not least because you are constantly communicating in the two official languages, English and French. I was often quite exhausted by the evening.” You also have to deal with different mentalities and cultures, and that’s where social competence is needed. “You have to remain professional even when someone freaks out. “I respectfully disagree” is the most you can allow yourself to say in response, so that the other person doesn’t lose face.” A lot of the judges find it hard to handle cases against their own countries. “Many are critical of the human rights situation in their own countries,” says Helen. “I spent a lot of time in the chamber that dealt with Turkish cases, and this was something that was very noticeable. It was of course easier for those of us from Switzerland, Germany and Austria to do our work.”

The University of Zurich was founded in 1833 when the canton of Zurich merged its higher schools of theology, jurisprudence and medicine into the “Universitas Turicensis” and added a philosophy faculty to the three fields of study.

Today, the Faculty of Law at the University of Zurich is one of the largest law faculties in Europe with 55 full professors, 40 titular professors, 34 lecturers and more than 230 external teaching staff, as well as 327 assistants. It is one of the leading research institutions in Europe.


The challenge of settling disputes

A judgement is always the settlement of a dispute, but it is difficult to reach a consensus on many issues. This is often the case with issues that involve moral, ethical or religious beliefs.

“My husband had a lot to deal with – that’s something we’d underestimated. After all, he also had his own career.”

Helen recalls a particular case from Romania. “It involved a young man, a Roma, who was mentally impaired and HIV-positive. He was living in an orphanage. When the nuns at the orphanage found out that he was HIV-positive, they wanted to starve him to death for fear of infection. He would have had no chance if an NGO had not intervened on his behalf. Because he had no family  –  and no one to stand up for him.” Her account shows that the terrible scale of the cases that end up in Strasbourg can only be guessed at. That was something Helen had to face every day.

Prof. Dr Helen Keller (58) is Professor of Public, European and International Law at the University of Zurich.

She was full professor of public law at the University of Lucerne from 2002 to 2004. She then taught public law and European and international law at the University of Zurich until 2011. From 2008 to 2011, she was a member of the UN Human Rights Committee. From 2011, she was the first female Swiss judge at the European Court of Human Rights. When her term ended in 2020, she returned to the University of Zurich, where she holds a chair at the Institute for International and Foreign Constitutional Law. Since December 2020, she has also served as a judge at the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Helen Keller lives in Zurich and is married with two sons.

Returning to her roots

At the end of her tenure, Helen returned to the University of Zurich. She is very grateful for this: “I was in an absolutely privileged situation because the university kept this position free for me for nine years. Unlike many of my colleagues in Strasbourg, I had no worries about the future.” But her return was not without friction. “Some people were a bit intimidated at the start. They probably thought I was full of my own importance and they wanted to protect their own patches. But things quickly settled down.” Even during her time in Strasbourg, she held one human rights seminar per semester at the University of Zurich. “During the court holidays, I spent two days at the university and then I took the students to the grand chamber in Strasbourg to see an interesting case. I think that was exciting for everyone.” She enjoys supporting young, interested students and takes pride in their successes – and rightly so. “I support their applications for semester prizes for good papers so that they have something to show on their CVs. In the 30 or so seminars I’ve presented so far, there have been many papers that won awards.”

If you fight, you sometimes lose

More than half of the law students at the University of Zurich are women. Never­theless, female students still have to contend with prejudices today. Helen knows this all too well – and has developed her own strategy for dealing with it: “You always make yourself unpopular if you question traditional understandings of roles – colleagues don't really appreciate that. You have to weigh up when it’s worthwhile and when you can turn a blind eye.” But it’s always worth it, she says. You just have to know what's worth fighting for. “‘Choose your battles’ is my motto. And you have to be able to lose sometimes.” And then she has some advice: “I tell female students to specialise in tax law. There are far too few young women involved in the social aspects of tax law.” This is surprising, coming from a woman who “never wanted to earn her living from tax optimisation”. But Helen has always followed her calling. This makes her a role model for many young people – not only those who attend her lectures.

Helen Keller – In the spotlight

The first thing I think of when I hear the word “courage” is …
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Greta Thunberg.

For me, the colour of courage is …

When it comes to courage, my role model is …
see first question!

This animal embodies my personal courage the best …
the dolphin.

If you want to make courageous decisions, you have to …
be able to accept defeat.