Interview with Ben: working for the UN

This is an interview with Ben about the journey to work for the United Nations as a Human Rights Officers and skills needed to perform this role.



Bahar: Hello Ben, and thank you for talking to us today.  Please tell us what is your current job and your academic background?

Ben: For the United Nations my job title is Human Rights Officer and my profession is a Human Rights Professional. My training and my academic background is law.


Bahar: Where did you study law, in England?

Ben: Yes, I did my first degree in law at Liverpool, they do a degree in law and then you be a solicitor or barrister.


Bahar: How long have you been working professionally? You’ve graduated, you did all the academic work. After that how long has it been for you that you have been working as a Human Rights lawyer?

Ben: It’s a bit of a long story. So, I’ll try to give you the short version. It wasn’t exactly a straight path I suppose, because I needed some time taking time to learn languages. I spent some time teaching English in Italy and in Spain. And then with that’s done, I came back and I worked in the private sector for three, four years. I got the money together for my masters and got my ideas together as well, and decided what I really wanted to do. Finished that in 2004 and then I guess from then on there was a period of volunteering and working for free for 2 or 3 years and then I was hired professionally.


Bahar: So how did you end up working for the United Nations?

Ben: My first job in UN was back in Rome, there was a big UN agency in Rome which was called the FAO, and it’s a food and agriculture organisation. I just took attempts job there. But then I started an official and unofficial job at the same time I was trying to build a CV and get some experience in development in law. I did that for a year and a half which was way back in 2003.


Bahar: Working for the UN as a human rights lawyer, I guess it is necessary to have a certain character to be able to do this job, so how was it for you, could you please describe us your experience?

Ben: It’s an absolute privilege to be able to do this despite talk about as well, it’s an honour to be able to do this kind of work within the UN system, when we can do it successfully and have impact. I don’t think that is anything, I quite like it because at the end of the day, the UN is the representative body of the vast majority of states in the world so when we get it right we can work with tremendous authority. Without wishing to speak badly about NGO’s rather people doing tremendously import and very effective human rights but we’re not an interest group based in a particular country. It can be frustrating going through that process but when we do get it right, we are speaking on behalf of the United Nations and that can carry some additional clarity, it gives more legitimacy to do work. It is harder to get there, it is harder to reach the consensus to be able to work with UN system. But when you get it right within the UN you hit with a heavy hammer if you like, because you can argue with an additional legitimacy.


Bahar: The sort of skills one needs to be able to do this job, could we say being really aware of yourself, your own ideas and opinions about the rest of the world for it must be quite hard to be able to be in such critical moments and to be part of the whole process in partial way.

Ben: Absolutely, I guess for any kind of legal work you have to have a good knowledge and understanding of a set of fairly abstract norms. The work of a lawyer is being able to marry to reality whichever context comes across. I mean you could be a divorce lawyer, a criminal lawyer, a corporate lawyer. Let’s say you’re a corporate lawyer dealing with a commercial client or a bank, in the real life commercial situation, you then have to work within your frame of reference which is law and apply that to each situation. It is the same when doing human rights lawyer except that the context is usually going to be a country going through some kind of turmoil and your frame of reference is of course international human rights and international humanitarian law. You always need to be able think within that frame of reference because it is that gives you the right to speak if you like because again this is about legitimacy, it’s not about what I think about a situation or you might think about a situation when working in somebody else’s country, it’s what international law has to say about that situation so you always need to be able to work within that frame work.


Bahar: The reason why I ask that question is that I’ve got university students who are studying law and asking me about internship opportunities abroad. Some of them one day would like to have a placement in this organisation.  Sometimes during the academic work they are overwhelmed with their emotions when they observe how certain things are unfair to certain people and then they can’t really put their feelings aside and focus on the facts like they need to sit and study, so is there like a certain way you came up with whilst you were studying to help yourself to bring a self to that balanced place, or maybe it sort of happens naturally if you’re a law student.

Ben: I wouldn’t say it happened naturally for me when I was a law student. To be completely honest, I didn’t take studying all that seriously the first time around when I did my law degree because I didn’t have clear ideas about how I wanted to use it and I studied law because it really sounded good because I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity . I got the grade to do it so that I should take advantage and study law it seemed prestigious and I didn’t have enough commitment to it and I didn’t have a clear vision about how I wanted to use it so I kind of model through and I passed the exams but not spectacularly so.

It was only later once I got my ideas together and once I had experience in other sectors, working in the private sector as well, once I lived in different countries, I started to speak different languages and the UN experience that I got in Rome then I had an idea about what I wanted to do. So when I went back and did my masters degree, that was an entirely different experience. To use a cliché, you only get out of something what you put into it and in my masters degree I was %100 in synchrony to it because I had a very clear vision about where I wanted it to take me and I was studying something that I loved by this stage. So it wasn’t difficult for me at that stage to have that level of commitment and I worked incredibly hard and as a result I got a tremendous amount from it. But that was in very contrast to when I took my first degree when I guess I had some grown up to it.


Bahar: From a practical point of view, while working for the UN, I suspect that you did a lot of travelling, do you have to do that in whichever job you do in this business context or are there any other opportunities or is it specific to a certain responsibility that gives you that?

Ben: Working as a human rights officer, we have headquarters jobs filled by these jobs. The vast majority headquarter jobs would be in Geneva and they fill jobs often in conflict and post-conflict science around the world. I would say that even people in Geneva should have had considerable field experience. I don’t believe that the most effective human rights officers are those who have only worked in Geneva. I think it is essential to work in the field and from a personal point of view, I prefer to work in the field because, you are at the cutting edge and that’s where the problems are. So whilst there are headquarters jobs, if you don’t want to work in countries with considerable problems possibly conflict science, pos- conflict science then it might not be the job for you.


Bahar: I’d like to talk a bit about “leadership” as a competency.  I’m a big believer in bringing leadership skills to any job we do and as an individual, I believe it is quite important to look at things, to assess things within a leadership angle to it. For example, being really aware of our own feelings and complaints whilst we are dealing with outside world is a very important leadership skill. Others are critical thinking skills and listening skills which are major skills for leadership competency.  Would you say these skills are necessary to do the job you are doing?

Ben: Yes, I think they are all tremendously important. Leadership depending on your own, the further you go in this organisation and any, the more leadership responsibility you likely to have. But I’d stress the other two things you said about the listening and self-awareness. This self-awareness to begin with, if you can imagine that we work in some pretty sensitive situations, self-awareness is absolutely key. And often it is essentially work into try to improve human dignity. There are so many things to be aware of when in situations in which terrible things might have happen, you’re going to be dealing with people who have been through considerable drama. Usually people who are joining to this kind of work do so, they are well-intentioned people but that’s not necessarily enough. It’s difficult to explain the self-awareness aspect, you have to have tremendous compassion, in any situation there are so many things to be aware of and the way that your presence there affects things and can change things as well. So it is not as simple as dressing in a particular way or speaking in a particular way. The more you know about the situation and the more aware you are of what’s going on around you, how people are feeling and how your presence there is affecting things, it’s absolutely key.

I think the more sort of human empathy you have the more maybe emotional intelligence you have, the more able you are to pick up on signals from the people around you, the very you’ll be at the job and that’s linked very closely to the listening. Because a lot of the work that we do is based on monitoring and reporting so you are going to be talking to people and taking accounts, be witnessing council or whatever so absolutely you should listen and on a bigger scale as well, just working not necessarily on human rights law but in any UN raw, in a conflict or post-conflict or re-construction type situation, I mean, the organisation and the people of the organisation yes but the organisation itself first thing that needs to do is to listen. Instead of going into a country and you listen to people first and former both on an individual level but also on organisational level, these two things are absolutely key.


Bahar: My next question is about the challenges, you know we all have some challenges in whatever job we do, so what would be the challenges that you’re facing on a daily basis?

Ben: It depends on the particular role.  For example logistical challenges to begin with, security challenges in some contexts, work security is a major concern and can be a very big limitation on ability to be effective. If you’re movement is very restricted and you can only move around in vehicles or helicopters that sort of thing how on earth you get out and relate to the people in the country…


Bahar: how do you concentrate on whatever you’re supposed to do?

Ben: So how do you break down these barriers if you’re just travelling around, you’re in a vehicle, what do you do? Sometimes you are quite creative and find solutions to these problems because they can’t always be resolved with creative thinking and with the right spirit, there are always around these problems but that’s serious challenges in terms of relevance. It is very complicated when you’re in a messy political situation. Sometimes it is a tension between people working on political solutions and those who are tasked for sticking up for the little people and they are sort of explaining their problems and making sure that their problems are taking into account by those trying to political solutions in place, it can be an actual tension there which is sometimes a healthy tension I believe but it is a challenge. You’re getting everybody to work together and to take everything into account shall we say. That’s to mention just a few of the challenges, everyday would be doing different things and that would depend on where you are but just trying to speak generally about some of the challenges let’s say perhaps those ones.


Bahar: Okay thank you. My last two questions. The first one is about actually preparing yourself for this role. It’s not about working for the UN but just to be able to do this job. But to get there, is there any practical tips that you can share with us in terms of how to study law?

Ben: For me, it’s all about knowing what you want and having a very clear vision and clear ideas about what you want to achieve and having passion for what you’re studying I think. I mean the reason why I wasn’t so committed when I studied law the first time around was because I was doing a general law degree and I was studying things frankly which didn’t excite me or inspire me very much. It’s only when I found my field and my needs which is human rights law and law of conflict that I was then able to commit to the studying process and there is no way around there, you need to learn the law but I think if you know you’re going to do it and you’re passionate about it then it stops being painful then it becomes almost a pleasure.


Bahar: My last question is about working for the UN. I’d like to ask you, anyone who wants to work for the UN, is there anything that you can share that would provide like a short cut for them, something you’ve learnt by experience and they can’t find this information on UN website or any other document. Is there anything that you’ve learnt by your own experience which would help to achieve this goal?

Ben: UN employment is a complex field. There are various routes in, things all of which can be found on the website for the young professionals’ programmes and national creative exams etc. UN volunteer programme can be a valuable way to guarantee to professional employment but it can be a very good way to get experience I’d say. But more generally I don’t think there is a substitute for filled experience again, so the most attractive applicants are going to be those who show that they know the law and pass the exams but who have got exposure to and worked in and possibly volunteered in the kind of countries whether you slightly to be working in the field so languages and field.


Bahar: This is brilliant thank you very much for your time and your experiences you shared with us.

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