Anna Jonsson Cornell: Legal education entails a social responsibility


13 January 2020

Anna Jonsson Cornell and four students.

Anna Jonsson Cornell, professor of comparative constitutional law

At a time when illiberal forces are challenging the rule of law and more and more people have no one to safeguard their individual freedoms and rights, the role of law as a standard-bearer of democratic values is more relevant than ever. At the Human Rights Clinic, Anna Jonsson Cornell, a professor of comparative constitutional law, gives Uppsala’s law students the knowledge they need to meet the challenges facing society.

“Today we see how the rule of law is being challenged in a number of countries. From a democratic perspective, this is very ominous, especially in former Eastern Europe countries, where the progress of the last decades is at risk. We now need to critically examine the forces driving the course of events,” says Anna Jonsson Cornell, a professor of comparative constitutional law at Uppsala University.

At the time of our meeting, the British Broadcasting Corporation had just reported concerns that Poland may be forced to leave the European Union as a result of a proposed reform of the country’s judicial system. Behind the proposal is Law and Justice (PiS), Poland’s national conservative party, which, among other things, wants to be able to dismiss judges who question the government’s decisions. According to Poland’s highest court, this risks obstructing the principle that European Union law supersedes national law, and Brussels has criticised Law and Justice for trying to politicise the Polish judicial system since the party came to power in 2015.

“I am currently involved in a research project on the rule of law, jurisprudence and politics,” notes Jonsson Cornell. “Our focus is on the dynamics between international, regional and national levels, and we identify connections between the advancement of right-wing forces, illiberal currents and differing interpretations among UN member states in their views on the importance of national sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law, which contrasts sharply with the years that followed the fall of the Wall.”

This development is by no means limited to the former Eastern Bloc. In the United States, traditionally regarded as a champion of democracy, a politically polarised concept of the judicial process is unfolding against the country’s president, Donald Trump. Republicans stand in one corner and Democrats in the other. Both sides voice accusations that the opponent’s side is undermining the U.S. Constitution and depriving voters of their civil rights. The prosecution divides both Congress and the population, and more than in any previous legal proceeding, sympathies follow party lines.

“We do not need to cross the Atlantic to find relevant cases. The decision by the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court to reopen the English Parliament after the government closed it during the ongoing Brexit deliberations is a good example of the importance of law for the democratic system. In the judgment, the court accentuates the meaning of parliamentary sovereignty, which clearly reinforces the crucial importance of law. I perceive the same decisiveness in points made by the EU Court of Justice in its judgements against the governments attempting to politically dismantle the rule of law.”

Anna Jonsson Cornell often returns to the responsibility of the legal system as a standard-bearer of democratic values and constitutional law. Her passion for academic research was sparked during her year as a doctoral student in Uppsala and has been reinforced by an increasingly active role in training the next generation of legal experts. Today she meets every new crop of students with a challenge to understand their importance in the future in ensuring states are led by the rule of law, emphasising that the knowledge they gain from their education also entails a social responsibility.

“As a board member of Civil Rights Defenders, I see firsthand the need to defend every person’s civil and political rights, and in 2016 I initiated the Human Rights Clinic at Uppsala University. Simply put, it is a Swedish version of an American Legal Clinic, where law students assist organisations that provide legal protection to vulnerable groups in society. We have extremely talented and motivated students, and here they gain important practical experience in real cases while at the same time making a very relevant contribution to society,” says Jonsson Cornell.

The Human Rights Clinic focuses on both systematic and individual legal deficiencies. On several occasions the students’ work has been crucial. One of their more noted efforts took place in the wake of the illegal registration of Romanies by the police. The decision by the Office of the Chancellor of Justice to award lower damages to the persons concerned was appealed, and with the support of the law students in the legal analysis and argumentation, the compensation was revised upwards for all those subjected to the registration.

“We have a major and important educational mission. With the Human Rights Clinic, which today has been integrated into an elective part of an advanced course, we offer to an even greater extent the knowledge students need to contribute to a well-functioning democracy and preservation of the rule of law.”

Anna Jonsson Cornell & The Human Rights Clinic

Anna Jonsson Cornell

  • Occupation Professor of comparative constitutional law at Uppsala University.
  • Residence Alsike, two miles south of Uppsala.
  • On the bedside table Ett jävla solsken, a fascinating biographical portrait of the exceptional Ester Blenda Nordström.
  • I appreciate People who offer humour, reliability and intelligence.
  • A famous person I met Benny Andersson. Even though I was starstruck and tongue-tied, but he offered up some wise insights.
  • As soon as I get a day off My family and I head out to the archipelago or Skåne to enjoy the outdoors.

The Human Rights Clinic

  • The Human Rights Clinic enables students in the Law Programme to work on concrete cases and legal investigations.
  • The students work under the guidance of researchers and teachers at the Department of Law.
  • The Human Rights Clinic is operated in collaboration with Civil Rights Defenders.
  • In 2019 a Migration Law Clinic was also initiated, a pilot project in collaboration with the Swedish Refugee Law Center.

Last modified: 2021-02-14