Careers in Human Rights
Human Rights Career Panel
March 28th, 2006
Jehannne has been involved in overseas work since undergraduate days at Columbia College (CC ’93, Philosophy), when she spent summers in Latin America with Amigos de las Americas. Following graduation, she lived in Egypt for two years, working at the American University in Cairo and writing about development issues for a monthly magazine. Upon return to the U.S. she continued to work in journalism and attended law school at the University of Texas School of Law, where she was active in the public interest law association and spent summers working against the death penalty and at the ACLU. Also while in law school, she was an editor of the Texas International Law Journal and was selected to spend 6 months assisting the prosecutors office at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Holland. She clerked for a federal judge in New York and gained admission to the New York Bar before going overseas again to work for the American Refugee Committee in Kosovo, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, and for USAID in Cambodia.
Skills to develop throughout undergraduate and graduate school:
• Writing skills
• People skills
• Management skills
• Law is a great degree, but NOT imperative – you can focus on health issues or public policy issues or more
• Journalism is another great idea – strong writing, reporting and interviewing skills
Strengths to develop:
• Language proficiency
• Subject matter niche (and make sure this IS what you want to do for some years!)
• Regional expertise
*HR has local and international scope.
Want to work overseas?
• You must BE in that country, understand it, immerse yourself in the culture.
• Go overseas as soon as you can! You can do that through a university, the Peace Corps or an NGO – the latter might be the most insightful as it is NOT attached to any government, and might be the most specialized group in the area.
• The longer you stay in a region, the better!
What is your goal, working in a particular region?
• Pick the country you want to work in, understand its situation (post conflict; developing; health-related, etc) and start contacting organizations already working in those countries. Look up internships, fellowships, volunteer organizations. Demonstrate your volatility and innovativeness.
• Post conflict regions will have more NGOs, than more stable developing countries that have more general volunteers.
• Do you want to work for the beneficiary?
• Do you want to work for the donors – ie, in a cushy office in the capital city, away from the villagers who need a well to be built in their community?
2. Priya Lakhi
Priya is currently a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of New York in its Criminal Defense Division. Prior to moving to New York in 2005, she worked in Georgia at the Dekalb County Public Defender (Atlanta) handling misdemeanor and felony cases as a litigator. She has also worked at the Georgia Capital Defender office representing clients throughout the state of Georgia facing the death penalty in trial and appellate courts and spent many years doing pro bono work with the Georgia Resource Center with clients who had been sentenced to death during their final stages of appeal. She holds a law degree from The Ohio State University (1999), where she also completed her BA in Sociology and Dance (1996).
Understand the time frames involved:
• HR work is the kind that DOES take patience, in terms of getting to where you think you want to go / be.
• Must have your own definition for HR – for which you should keep reading, watching the news, talking to people already in HR – so that you feel most fulfilled by the kind of work you are doing.
• Internships are crucial, in undergrad and grad school: start early to make as many contacts as you can, so that you can cement a solid job after grad school.
• You don’t know what any experience is going to lead to, so be open minded!
3. Sara Rakita
Sara is a freelance consultant specializing in human rights and African affairs. She is currently consulting at the Ford Foundation, where she is helping to establish TrustAfrica, an exciting new African grant making foundation dedicated to supporting creative solutions to the continent’s most pressing challenges. In the past, she worked extensively on human rights, transitional justice! and the rule of law in the Great Lakes region of Africa. She has worked in numerous African countries, including two years as the representative of Human Rights Watch in Rwanda, and has also spent time in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Uganda among other places. She holds a law degree from NYU and a master of international affairs from Columbia University. She speaks fluent French and proficient Spanish and Russian.
Internships + volunteer work → connections.
• Conduct informational interviews to find out what you can do with yourself.
• Starting at a small organization is helpful – you experience a steep learning curve that serves you well no matter where you go afterwards.
• Don’t neglect the copying and filing jobs you have at organizations, since these segues and transition points that are more important than they might seem at first.
• Communications is a crucial field: non profits haven’t paid enough attention to communications until now, and it is a strong basis for all jobs.
• Engage local activists and local NGOs. Its good to nurture those contacts, too.
• To understand development and HR work, you need to GO to a region, and talk to people.
• Field experience, in my mind, is more important than what your master’s degree is in (law / journalism / public policy / whatever).
• Do the overseas work when you’re younger and more flexible and have less personal responsibility (to family etc)
4. Zubaida Rasul
Zubaida, a national of Pakistan, has worked with the UN for about 13 years in various capacities including HR Officer with the UN in Angola. She has also served in Bosnia, Liberia, Iraq and Sudan on the political side as Political Affairs Officer and on the development planning side as Program Manager. She is a graduate of Columbia University LSMA program in HR and also has earned a Masters in International Business from the American Graduate School of International Management (Thunderbird). She speaks several languages and has lived in many countries.
Zubaida is currently serving as Program Specialist for Emergencies, Humanitarian Affairs and HR in the Division of Arab States, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, in the UN Population Fund. Last year, she worked as Program Manager for Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Occupied Palestinian Territory for the same organization.
Education and Experience
• I started out corporate, working at Deutsche Bank in Singapore, but got bored of that, even after doing a community project in Indonesia, so I quit! Spent a year in London, partying – I like to have fun! – and was in NYC for a month – still partying! – when I came across the UNICEF office…and I haven’t looked back since then!
• Being from ‘abroad’, or living abroad does NOT count as the kind of experience that NGOs and UN-type organizations are looking for when they ask for post graduate experience in another region.
• Pick your school carefully for your masters degree; eg: CU’s LSMA
• A typical beginning HR job at the UN requires a Bachelors degree and “progressively responsible experience” – they want anyone who’s interested, can express that interest, and can prove that they will convert that interest into something relevant and meaningful.
• If you want research jobs, be prepared to deal with a LOT of data.
Bede is currently working in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, as the Leonard H. Sandler Fellow, a fellowship for recent Columbia Law School graduates. At present, he is working on the issue of forced evictions and land acquisition in Indonesia, and counter-terrorism legislation in Australia. During his first summer at law school at Columbia, Bede completed a three month internship with the Human Rights Clinic at Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone. This Open Society Institute-supported project trains student members in human rights fundamentals and advocacy skills. During law school he also interned within the legal protection unit of the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Tehran, Iran. Prior to law school, Bede worked for 15 months with UNHCR in Croatia as an associate field officer, conducting field surveys and investigations to monitor and evaluate repatriation and reconstruction programs. Bede has an undergraduate degree in Politics from Harvard, and a Masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he studied international migration and refugee studies, and development economics.
• Many HR jobs have short-term contracts, so be prepared to be on the move, dynamic, pro-active
• Research positions are key, when getting masters degrees → give you access to fellowships and unique experiences through the faculty you work closely with
Human Rights Watch (HRW)
International Rescue Committee