Interview with Sital Dhillon

The Sheffield Hallam professor and human rights barrister talks about growing up in an immigrant family, his work for Nelson Mandela and helping to thwart the impact of a terror attack

May 2, 2019
Sital Dhillon

Sital Dhillon is head of the department of law and criminology and co-founder of the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University. A barrister specialising in human rights, he previously served at the British Council, where his career included work on girls’ access to education in Afghanistan and helping Nelson Mandela to develop South Africa’s diplomatic service. In 2010, Professor Dhillon was awarded the Queen’s Civilian Service Medal for his work in helping to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack on the British Council offices in Kabul, and was appointed OBE in 2017.

When and where were you born? 
April 1959, London.

How has this shaped who you are?
I grew up in an immigrant family and it shaped my determination to succeed [and to] combat racism; and [it gave me] a sense of social justice and belief in human rights. During the 1970s and 1980s, I witnessed the rise of street fascism in London and was an active member of the Anti-Nazi League. I was also heavily influenced by the resistance to apartheid across the globe and went on to work on projects to support the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela, finally meeting him on his release from prison. The connection remains to this day with the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam hosting a forthcoming visit from Albie Sachs [the anti-apartheid activist who went on to become a constitutional court judge in South Africa].

What were you like as a student?
Raucous! I read history and politics at Loughborough University and absolutely loved it and threw myself into university life in the important ways: I saw Dexys Midnight Runners, The Specials, The Pretenders and The Undertones in one gig, and developed a lifelong passion for the works of Bruce Springsteen and Shelley. Having my parents come to my graduation was an everlasting memory. My father and mother had slogged in foundries and factories and been called every name under the sun for their troubles. I was the first to graduate in my extended family – it made them proud and left an indelible mark on my conscience on how education is a fundamental human right for all.

Tell us about your work for the ANC and Nelson Mandela. 
While head of human rights at the British Council in the months following the release of Nelson Mandela, it became clear that the post-apartheid government coalition in South Africa would have to move from being an external resistance force to becoming a government in waiting, pending the first democratic elections in South Africa’s history. I was contacted directly at the request of Nelson Mandela to design, monitor and implement the training to meet the needs of the new South African diplomatic corps. I designed and implemented a diplomacy training programme in partnership with the University of Birmingham. In doing so, I took the decision to include members of the serving apartheid regime to ensure there was a complete handover of power and information, which was in many cases sensitive. The programme proved to be an outstanding success. Its impact was significant and more than 100 diplomats were trained and took up postings around the world. At its conclusion, President Mandela visited the training programme and congratulated me on convincing the participants to include the apartheid diplomats. He identified it as a “brave and politically adept strategy” which ensured that parties that had rejected the abhorrent apartheid regime nevertheless benefited from working with it during the transition of power and the construction of the new South African constitution.

Can you explain the security measures you introduced at the British Council’s offices in Kabul and how they helped staff after a terror attack?
In general they involved ensuring that my Afghan colleagues and the Gurkhas [who guarded the compound] were offered the same levels of protection as the UK diplomatic staff; and a series of role-play exercises combined with technical and logistical drills in the event of a terrorist attack.

Are you hopeful about the future for female education in Afghanistan?
Through the “Connecting Classrooms” project we were able to virtually link girls in Afghanistan with schoolchildren in the UK. It opened eyes on both sides of the world to what can be achieved by ordinary people when they are given the chance. Afghanistan is a beautiful country; its women are its strongest card.

What attracted you to Sheffield Hallam?
Its applied nature and the socio-economic background of its students, many of whom are first generation at university; and the combination of criminology, law and criminal justice.

What are the common threads between your career advancing human rights and female education and your work at Sheffield Hallam? 
I have worked on a number of projects around the world aimed to combat gender violence and to promote the inclusion of girls in education (eg, in Afghanistan). Within the Helena Kennedy Centre we have developed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-funded “Justice for Human Rights” project in three states in India designed to combat gender violence.

What do you do for fun?
Be with my wife and eight-year-old, walking, classic and sports cars, and watching Chelsea FC.

If you were universities minister for a day, what one policy would you introduce (or abolish) in England?
I am an internationalist and a firm believer in free education. Hence, I would remove the draconian rules that prevent overseas students from studying in the UK and I would abolish student fees in almost all cases.

What keeps you awake at night?
The rise of populist nationalism across the world, climate change and our neurotic German shepherd.


Frances Corner has been appointed the next warden of Goldsmiths, University of London. Professor Corner will become the first woman to lead the college when she replaces Patrick Loughrey in August. She is currently head of the London College of Fashion, part of the University of the Arts London, where she has also served as pro vice-chancellor for digital. Professor Corner, a champion of ethical fashion, said that Goldsmiths was “an institution which can shape society through radical thinking underpinned by a clear sense of purpose”. “That distinctive ethos informs the college’s teaching and must also guide how we seek to meet students’ changing needs and expectations,” she said.

Brigid Heywood will be the next vice-chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales. Professor Heywood, who will replace Annabelle Duncan in July, is currently deputy vice-chancellor (research) at the University of Tasmania, and has also held leadership positions at Keele University and the Open University in the UK and Massey University in New Zealand. James Harris, UNE’s chancellor, said that Professor Heywood’s “experience in university leadership roles at regional and online universities, together with her success in driving academic excellence, research performance and engagement” made her “ideally placed” to lead the institution.

Carl Lygo has been appointed vice-chancellor of Arden University. The former vice-chancellor of BPP University and barrister will replace Philip Hallam, who helped the Coventry-based online learning specialist achieve university title in 2015.

Catherine Eagleton is the new director of museums at the University of St Andrews. She is currently associate director of curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in the US.

Stephanie Owens has been appointed head of school for arts and media at Plymouth College of Art. She is a former director of the Cornell Council for the Arts at Cornell University.

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