• Sun. Jun 16th, 2024

Meet Debora Kayembe: activist, human rights lawyer and Edinburgh University’s new Rector

ByMary Fraser

Feb 18, 2021

CW: anti-Blackness, racism

Last week the exciting appointment of Debora Kayembe as the 54th Rector of Edinburgh University was announced. The top Scottish human rights lawyer ran unopposed for the role and will assume her position on the 1st of March. With an impressive background in law and linguistics, she makes history as she becomes only the third woman, and the first person of colour to hold the position of Rector, who presides over the University Court, since its creation in 1858.

Kayembe was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo where she had first attended university in Kinshasa and was called to the Congolese Bar Association in 2000. She fled to the UK in 2005 after her investigation into a massacre of women and children put her life at risk. Since then she has become a powerful voice for victims of violence, abuse and racism as well as advocating on behalf of refugees and migrants. 

After making Scotland her home in 2011, she became a board member for the Scottish Refugee Council in 2013, on which she served for three years. On arriving in Scotland Ms Kayembe said, “When I reached the border, I read the welcome banner on the road stating:

Welcome to Scotland, the land of the brave. I said to myself: I am one of them, let’s go.” As a human rights lawyer she has devoted her life to bravely standing up for those whose voice is often ignored. 

Through this work she has become a member of the office of Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and a member of the International Criminal Court Bar Association. In 2019 she made history when she became the first African to have her portrait hung in the Royal Society of Edinburgh after joining the Young Academy, a deserving recognition of her achievements and contributions to Scotland.

As well as her impressive legal credits, Debora is also a talented linguist and is qualified in five of the seven languages she speaks: French, English, Swahili, Lingala and Kikongo. Soon after arriving in the UK, she joined the Institutes of Translation and Interpreting and in 2009 set up her own linguistics company, Diversity Translation Services. This company works for international organisations in the USA, UK and mainland Europe by supporting refugees and asylum seekers within various resettlement programmes and helping victims of war crimes.

However, life in Scotland has not always been easy for Ms Kayembe and as recently as 2020, she was the victim of violent racist abuse directed towards her and her children at their home in Bonnyrigg near Edinburgh. This has not dampened her resolve however and she recently launched the Freedom Walk campaign, a civil rights movement and lobbying group which aims to campaign on behalf of citizens to promote social reform, racial justice and community harmony. 

The killing of George Floyd last summer which galvanised the Black Lives Matter movement have shown that there continues to be a great need for this kind of work in our communities and Debora has tirelessly worked for racial equality within Scotland and the wider world. 

The position of Rector presides over the University Court, the powerful decision-making body of the University. They play a role in ensuring all voices are heard and that decisions made by the University are in the interests of its staff and students. Previous Rectors come from all areas of Scottish public life and include Gordon Brown and Winston Churchill. 

Discussing the new appointment, Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson said he looks forward to navigating the challenges facing the University with Ms Kayembe and hopes they can, “build a bright future for the entire university community”.

Aware of the importance of this position at such a challenging time, Kayembe aims to invoke the values of humanity and kindness that she has championed throughout her career and to, “play a role that gives a legacy of peace and justice and to value every individual, student and staff, who study and work in this university.” With Debora as Rector, we can look forward to a promising few years for Edinburgh University and its wider community.

Image: Dbfkayembe via Wikimedia Commons