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‘Due to Covid-19, I’ve not been able to come home since Christmas’

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Kirsten Roberts Lyer is a professor at the Central European University where she teaches human rights and the rule of law. She lives in Pilsen in the Czech Republic with her Czech husband Andy and their toddler daughter Lucie.

When did you leave Ireland and why?

I always knew I wanted to work in human rights, so I chose to do a law degree in UCD with the aim of going into that field. After I finished my degree, I volunteered at Amnesty International in Dublin for two-and-a-half years. After I finished my Master’s at Trinity College Dublin on Japanese war crimes, I wanted to get some international experience, so I first left Ireland in mid-2002 to do an internship at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France.

It is essential that universities are free to teach and research without government interference

While I was there, the Irish Diplomatic Mission to the Council of Europe was looking for someone to work with them during the Irish Presidency of the EU and I was lucky enough to work for a year with the team at the Irish Permanent Representation. After Strasbourg, I went to work at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and then I got my dream job at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague, where I spent two-and-a-half years working with the judges and other lawyers on war crimes trials relating to atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

I came back to Ireland in 2009, because I got the opportunity to work as a director at the (then) Irish Human Rights Commission. This was a fantastic chance to get to apply my knowledge and experience to human rights issues in Ireland, as well, of course, as being home with my family.

Leaving Ireland again in 2012, was a bit unexpected. My twin sister Jennifer tragically lost her fight with cancer in January of that year and it prompted me to think about my life and career. I got the chance to go to study as a visiting researcher to Harvard Law School in 2012. Being at Harvard inspired me to do my PhD and I got a scholarship to go to the Dickson Poon School of Law in King’s College London where I did my PhD on national human rights institutions. During that time, I also met – and married – my husband and began living in Pilsen in the Czech Republic.

Where do you work now?

When I finished my PhD in 2016, I got a job at the School of Public Policy at the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, where I’ve been working since. The CEU is focused on human rights and supports me in combining the practical and academic. We’re about to move to Vienna in Austria, so that will be the eighth country I will have lived in as an Irish expat. I have also travelled for work to more than 25 countries and I have continued to do work with the UN and other international organisations, so I am well used to being an Irish person abroad. Most recently, I have been doing some work for the UN Development Program in Turkmenistan and I thought that for once I might be the only Irish person in a country, but no, the head of the UN there was Irish!

The Central European University used to be in Budapest. Where is it now and what happened?

CEU has effectively been forced out of Hungary by the current government. It was established in 1991 as an American-Hungarian graduate university and its programmes were accredited in the US and Hungary. In 2017, the Hungarian government fast-tracked amendments to its higher education laws. Despite national and international support for the CEU, by 2019 CEU could no longer enrol new students in Budapest. The government’s move against the CEU is part of a wider crackdown on civil society, free media and academic freedom in Hungary. What I find sad and frustrating is that I believe very little has been done by the EU and its member states to push back against the increasing authoritarianism in Hungary.

Being in land-locked central Europe I miss the mountains and sea

Unfortunately, what we have seen happen to CEU is part of a larger global trend towards reducing the autonomy of universities: I co-authored a report last year that detailed repressive and restrictive state practices against universities in over 60 countries. University autonomy is closely related to the healthy functioning of democratic societies and it is essential that universities are free to teach and research without government interference. For a university to be effectively forced out of an EU member state in 2020 is part of a wider trend that should concern all of us.

CEU will retain a presence in Budapest, including in its award-winning, Irish-designed campus, but it took the decision last year to open a new campus in Vienna to secure its future. This academic year, which started in September 2020, is our first full year as a Vienna-based university. At the School of Public Policy, where I work, we are looking forward to engaging with the many international organisations based in Vienna. We are also looking forward to being in the city itself with its vibrant academic life.

Where do your students come from?

We have a hugely diverse student body. Our students come from more than 100 countries. This is fantastic in the classroom and for the energy of the university. We benefit from the different experiences and backgrounds of everyone. In human rights and rule of law, students bring their own experiences and have been exposed to the complexities and diversity of societies around the world. It is also important that we have a diverse faculty for this reason and diverse experience within our faculty. Seeing and experiencing human rights in different countries helps to formulate policies that have real-world application. This diversity makes CEU a great place to teach and to be a student. It is essential that universities are free to teach and research without government interference.

What is happening there due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

I was 30 minutes from teaching a class in Vienna when the university closed. I also heard at the same time that the Czech Republic would be closing the border, so I had to hurry home. In Vienna there is a phased reopening and we will be teaching in person with provision for online teaching for students who can’t make it in person.

What does your work involve?

CEU is a unique institution founded in 1991 to support democratic transitions. It has a mission to promote open societies and democracy through its research and teaching. I am a professor of practice, which means I can combine my professional and academic experience to assist students with their future work. Our two-year Master’s programme has a strong emphasis on practice with students working on a real-world issue for an external organisation. I’m also currently writing a book for Oxford University Press on human rights institutions and researching university autonomy and parliaments and human rights.

How will third-level study be different there?

It is going to be exciting to see CEU grow in its new home in Vienna. I think that the university will continue much as it has, but one immediate change will be that we will start to take on undergraduate students this academic year into two new interdisciplinary bachelor’s degrees. This will be great for the vibrancy of the campus and I’m looking forward to CEU becoming a graduate and undergraduate institution.

What is it like living in the Czech Republic at the moment?

The Czech Republic had quite a swift and stringent lockdown. I was really impressed with how it was handled here; masks were obligatory from very early on and community spread has been very low. It meant that we could get back to some sort of normal much before a lot of Europe did. Overall, the Czech Republic is a great place to live; it has lovely people, good healthcare, nice food and beautiful countryside.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland?

Lots! At the moment, my family is the main thing. Due to Covid-19, I’ve not been able to come home since Christmas. It has been very tough to be away from home this long and it is the longest period I have ever been away from home. We’ve had family illnesses and my aunt Sylvia sadly passed away a short time ago. It was very sad not to be there for the funeral. Other than that, being in land-locked central Europe I miss the mountains and sea. I’m originally from Wicklow and grew up walking the Wicklow mountains and going to the seaside on sunny (and not so sunny) days. And if anyone wants to start selling Irish butter and cheese in Pilsen, give me a call!

If you live abroad and would like to share your experience of your work, life and how Covid-19 is affecting you there, email Irish Times Abroad at abroad@irishtimes.com

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