Oxford's law faculty is opening a dedicated Institute for the study of human rights in the grounds of Mansfield. This initiative is being led by Mansfield’s Principal, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, and endowed by Yves Bonavero.

Yves in glasses. The man standing next to him is the principal of Harris Manchester, Revd Dr Ralph WallerYves Bonavero and his wife, Anne, founded the A B Charitable Trust to defend and promote the cause of human dignity

By Olivia Gordon

Yves Bonavero (Harris Manchester, 1996) is something of a renaissance man. Having studied at Oxford as a mature student, the successful French businessman-turned-novelist and keen sailor recently endowed a new Institute of Human Rights at Oxford University, which is due to start its work in the near future.

The Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, led by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, is based in the grounds of Mansfield College and forms part of the University’s Faculty of Law. Yves Bonavero, a father of four and grandfather of nine, returned to Oxford recently to celebrate this and also the publication of his second novel, historical thriller The Nuremberg Enigma.Yves Bonavero and his wife, Anne, founded the A B Charitable Trust to defend and promote the cause of human dignity The principal of Harris Manchester, the Revd Dr Ralph Waller, introducing Bonavero

Bonavero launched his book at his alma mater, Harris Manchester College, which exclusively educates mature students. Here, 20 years ago at the age of 43, Bonavero embarked on a degree in Philosophy and German. Unusually, his son Olly matriculated at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in the same year, to read French and German. ‘I only came here because of him,’ explains Bonavero. ‘He came back from school one day with lots of nice brochures about Oxford, which he was thinking of applying to. I had always been a bookworm and I decided this was the place for me. So we applied together and both got in. My poor son had to explain to his friends that the old man at the lectures was his dad. He was very sporting about it.’

The father and son studied together and made mutual friends. Attending Harris Manchester, where everyone is a mature student, made sense for Bonavero. ‘I didn’t want to be amongst 200 18-year-olds discovering booze and sex. I’d had enough of these youngsters at home with my own family!’ It was only at the end of his degree that Olly finally convinced him to go to an Oxford pub. At Harris Manchester, Bonavero was delighted to study alongside ‘all sorts of people, from manual workers who’d never had the chance to go to university to retired judges wanting to do a second degree; people from 25 to 72.’

Bonavero arrived at Oxford as a high-flying businessman. Having grown up in Paris and moved to the UK in the late 1970s after a degree in business studies, he worked in the city of London and became chief executive of Man Group PLC, a large financial conglomerate, as well as running several other businesses including a film production company, and charities, too.

Yves in glasses. The man standing next to him is the principal of Harris Manchester, Revd Dr Ralph WallerTurning from this to an Oxford degree seems an unlikely move, but, Bonavero explains, ‘I’d always wanted to study philosophy. I was allergic to continental philosophy and intrigued by the drier approach of Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy.’ He juggled his weekly essays with home life, returning to London to run his businesses, and be with his wife and student-age children, for half of the week.

After Oxford, he moved seamlessly back to running his businesses in London, but also took up a new life as a novelist, writing Something in the Sea, a disturbing nautical thriller inspired by his hobby of sailing. It was his essay-writing at Oxford that propelled him to become a novelist, he says: ‘If you write two essays a week, you’re writing 5000 words a week – every 15 weeks, you’ve effectively written a novel. I didn’t want to lose the habit of writing.’

The Institute for Human Rights came about when he had dinner with Helena Kennedy, a friend of a friend. ‘She mentioned she was trying to get [the Institute] off the ground but was finding it a bit difficult from the financial side. I’m delighted it’s proved possible.’ Bonavero says he has been passionate about human rights since his teens – ‘it’s something I never lost interest in. Abuses continue, progress is hard to discern and I still get upset.’

He hopes the Institute will be ‘the epicentre for all human rights work at the university’ and that it won’t become another ‘academic research centre in its ivory tower – we want to make a real difference.’

 Olivia Gordon is a regular contributor to Oxford Today

Images: Olivia Gordon