HLSAE Featured Alumna - December 2022

Interview with Saadet Yüksel LL.M.’11:
"I encourage young lawyers to aim to give back
to the causes they hold dear"

Saadet YukselDear Alumni and Alumnae,

For this Year End Edition of our "Featured Alumnus/a" Newsletter, the HLSAE has the immense pleasure and honour to introduce the European Court of Human Rights judge Saadet Yüksel, LL.M.'11, who shares her lifelong passion for law and encourages young law school graduates to approach their career goals with courage, sustained work and appreciation for international experience. 




Interviewer: Could you briefly introduce yourself – where do you come from and how/why did you choose to become a lawyer?

Saadet Yüksel: I was born and raised in Istanbul, and completed my undergraduate education in Türkiye, before moving to the US for graduate and postgraduate studies. Prior to my election to the Court, I worked as a faculty member, and eventually as Chair of the Constitutional Law Department at Istanbul Law School. Currently, I am a judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

For me, it was not so much a choice to become a lawyer as a foregone conclusion. Ever since I was old enough to know myself, I have wanted to be a lawyer; no other profession felt like a better fit for who I am. In addition, I come from a family of lawyers, and, in fact, even my father’s nickname was ‘Father of Justice’. He was someone that people believed in his fairness and could reliably turn to for aid in resolving disputes. I have grown up with the idea of justice. As a value it was always a part of our family culture. This was the background to my childhood, and I suppose one of the key components of the reason I became a lawyer.

Interviewer: How did you decide to apply to Harvard Law School? Was that a longstanding dream of yours, or a spontaneous decision?

Saadet Yüksel: Given my strong childhood interest in the law, law school was always part of my plan. However, I can clearly pinpoint the moment I decided to apply to Harvard Law School specifically: I was ten years old at my brother’s commencement from HLS and was deeply inspired by the atmosphere of the moment, and the history and prestige of Harvard. I felt that it fit all my expectations of what a law school should be. From that day, HLS was not a dream but a goal, one that I strived towards throughout my education and one that I was proud to achieve.

Interviewer: What was your experience at HLS like? What would you say were your main takeaways from your studies in Cambridge, and how has it shaped your outlook on the law and your profession?

Saadet Yüksel: My time at Harvard was transformative, both personally and professionally. I embraced the Harvard vision whilst at HLS, truly taking it as an opportunity to gain an education that would enable me to strive towards a “more just, fair and promising world”. For me, my main takeaway from my time at Harvard was a sense of academic aspiration; the opportunity to be part of an international cohort of American and foreign students, learning from some of the greatest legal minds of all time, was both a challenge and an opportunity that I cherished deeply. I believe this experience has shaped me as a lawyer, in providing a highly valuable cross-jurisdictional perspective and in honing and sharpening my analytical skills; not only this, but I also made friends and mentors who will remain with me for life.

Interviewer: What were your post-Harvard career plans at the time of commencing your studies, and how did they turn out after your graduation?

Saadet Yüksel: I left Harvard with a strong desire to go into academia, a desire which I put into action, taking up a position as a faculty member in, and later as Chair of, the Constitutional Law Department. I have also been fortunate enough to return to HLS, as a visiting researcher. I have had the opportunity to teach and give lectures in different parts of the world, including the US, as well as to publish on topics of importance such as gender-based violence, free exercise of religion, and the right to privacy and its interaction with technology. This has been an excellent opportunity to continue my passion for the academic study and advancement of the law and has provided me with a new perspective on my academic work, born through my experience as a judge at the European Court of Human Rights.

Interviewer: As a person with a highly international background - born and raised in Turkey, law school in the US, judge in an international institution - do you think this exposure to different experiences has had an impact on your approach as a judge?

Saadet Yüksel: Absolutely. The Anglo-American and European legal traditions are often starkly different, and experiencing both first-hand has provided a deeply valuable opportunity to understand each perspective, and to bring elements from both into my own judicial approach. In my view, this is the particular advantage of international experience. Having a knowledge of different cultures and different legal approaches is invaluable in cultivating an understanding of the law, and in enriching your own analytical understanding. The ability to see an argument from different perspectives is crucial in my role as a judge, when faced with interpreting the Convention rights and upholding human rights standards, against the background of the competing views. I believe my international background has undoubtedly aided me in this mission.

Interviewer: You have been part of cases that have made an important contribution to the jurisprudence of the Convention system and have received much attention, such as Big Brother Watch v. the United Kingdom, and the recent Turkish case on sport arbitration bodies, Ali Riza v. Turkey. You were also part of a powerful dissent in Kurt v Austria, a case in which the Court found no violation of Article 2 regarding domestic abuse. While there has been much commentary on the significance of these cases, especially in the way they have dealt with contemporary challenges, for the Harvard audience, how do you think judgments of the Court contribute to the development of human rights beyond Europe? What should an American audience take from the judgments of the Court?

Saadet Yüksel: These cases, and the jurisprudence of the Court generally, are certainly useful for an American audience. These are cases touching on big issues, that are relevant across the world. For example, Big Brother Watch concerns a bulk surveillance regime in the UK. Data protection and data privacy rights are issues that are becoming increasingly important, and that are attracting more attention each day. Without a doubt, these are issues that courts across the world will have to consider. ECtHR jurisprudence provides an important example of how one court, tasked with consolidating the rule of law and democracy in Europe, has chosen to deal with these issues, and the manner in which they have undertaken the balancing exercise. Human rights lawyers and courts across the world can take these judgments and the reasoning contained within to apply within their own national order, drawing useful lessons from the experience of the Court. This is particularly so as these are not random judgments, but rather the product of a gradual evolution, building on key principles on the protection of human rights.

Interviewer: To flip the question around – what would you say are the biggest challenges the Court has faced in recent times? Do you think these challenges have changed since the time of your election?

Saadet Yüksel: There are many new challenges facing the court, but I think one of the current biggest is the COVID-19 pandemic. This has of course affected the Court, as it has others worldwide, in the need to adapt quickly to a new style of working, and a new reality.

However, the other effect of the pandemic can be seen in the cases brought before the Court, as more and more people begin to challenge restrictions put in place as part of the COVID-19 response. These cases raise important questions concerning the use and limitations of emergency responses by member states, and the relationship of emergency measures with the fundamental rights protected by the Convention; particularly, these cases raise questions as to the appropriate judicial response, questions that are relevant not only in the context of pandemic, but in human rights protection more generally.

Interviewer: From a broader perspective, what do you think are the main challenges as regards the protection of human rights in today’s world? Are there ways in which you think these relate to the challenges facing the Court?

Saadet Yüksel: In my view, one key challenge for human rights defenders in the coming years will be the advent of new technologies. Human rights instruments are often not prepared to handle the rapid technological changes that have occurred over the last decades. For example, if one considers the field of gender equality, two particular challenges that have arisen, that simply could not have been imagined at the time of adoption of the Convention, are cyberviolence and digital discrimination. Cyberviolence poses a particular challenge for human rights in its extraterritorial reach- how best should the ECtHR deal with abuse that may be coming from anonymous sources in anonymous countries? Similarly, with regards to digital discrimination, many human rights instruments are not adapted to consider situations where the discrimination emanates from no clear source, but rather an opaque and intangible algorithm. Whilst I have no doubt as to the capacity of the Court and other human rights bodies to rise to this challenge, as they have risen to many new challenges before this, the advent of new technologies certainly presents an area where the protection of human rights potentially requires a new approach and an ability to adapt.

In a very similar vein, the environment and the climate crisis will also be a key issue facing human rights bodies.

Interviewer: As the youngest judge in the ECtHR, do you think this achievement brings with it certain advantages and disadvantages? What aspirations do you still have for the future?

Saadet Yüksel I am not sure this question is best answered in terms of advantages and disadvantages. In my view, being the youngest judge brings with it opportunities. I believe my age allows me to have a certain energy and vision that I try to imbue in my work. However, I would not wish to attribute this solely to age- I have many colleagues who easily match up in terms of energy and vision. In addition, perhaps my age allows me to feel more keenly my responsibilities and the weight of my work. Whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage, I am not sure; certainly, it inspires and motivates me to give my all to my role and to my duty to uphold Convention rights, both now and in the future.

Interviewer: As a role model for women lawyers, not only in Turkey, but throughout Europe and beyond, can you tell us more about your experience, challenges faced and advice you would give to students, lawyers, and women professionals in general?

Saadet YükselI think for me my biggest challenge has been navigating the legal field as a young female legal scholar and the attendant perceptions that come with this status; as I move through my career, whilst the specific contours of this challenge evolve, the core issue remains the same. This is an experience that I am sure has been shared by many women. Indeed, upon my election to the Court, I received many messages, emails, and even letters from students and young women professionals, stating that it had given them motivation and encouragement to persevere in the profession. A common theme in these messages was a sense of solidarity, and a recognition that, I, as a woman, had gone through challenges they were also facing, challenges that would no doubt continue but did not have to be obstacles. The opportunity to see someone like themselves was for them a reason for excitement. I was deeply humbled and touched by this response.

As to advice, I think this can best be answered through the advice of Justice Ginsburg, who has been a role model to female lawyers everywhere. I was lucky enough to hear her speak at my Harvard commencement and her words have stuck with me. She stated that she had tremendous satisfaction from the work she had done in law, and that we could too if we turned our time and our talent to make things a little better for our communities. This is particularly relevant for female lawyers in my opinion; one way in which you can make things better for your community is by supporting other women in the law, helping them as you rise. Certainly, this is advice that I have tried to abide by throughout my career. However, this is of course advice that applies to everyone, and I encourage young lawyers to aim to give back to the causes they hold dear.

Interviewer: What advice would you share with young law school graduates who see your career as something to aspire to?

Saadet Yüksel: I think the most important thing for any young law school graduate is to set out to create a career that you can be proud of throughout your life. To that end, I can humbly advise three things. My first would be courage. Courage is crucial at the outset of your career, particularly the courage to seek out opportunities wherever they are available and to create opportunities where they are not. Second, and relatedly, I would recommend sustained effort. The early years of your career are your years for hard work and drive; it is important to have a goal, and then to strive for that goal- do not give up when the going gets tough. Finally, on a more specific note, I cannot state enough the value of an international experience. If you get an opportunity to study or work abroad, I advise you take it: it will change how you see and evaluate issues and will give you unforgettable experiences for life. I remain truly grateful for my time at HLS.

This interview was conducted by: 

Bogdan Gecić LL.M. '11
Founding Partner

Gecić Law
Belgrade, Serbia

Bogdan Gecic