Building legal skills in the Pacific

By Jade Bonney

When JD student Emilia Budisavljevic received a phone call to confirm that she would intern for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Fiji, she realised she was in for a unique encounter, but little did she know that she was about to embark upon an experience that would fuel her ambition to work in human rights.

"It was very exciting," reflects Emilia. "I applied for the internship months ago and didn't hear about it and then, on the eve of my torts exam, I got a phone call from the UN offering me the position and asking me to come to Fiji. I then focused quickly on pushing through visas and other paperwork, so it didn't really hit me until I was actually on the plane that I was headed for Fiji to work with the United Nations!"

Emilia spent six weeks in the company of UN ambassadors, commissioners and NGO personnel. Her role involved instrumental research for the office, including media monitoring, a challenging task in Fiji due to media restrictions and unreliability of sources, and developing briefs. 

Yet it was her core project that motivated her most, and validated legal skills gained in her studies but yet to be proven in practice. The project involved writing a draft comparing both the Fiji Constitution and the Samoan Ombudsman Act to the United Nations Paris Principles. The brief was highly useful to her manager, who used it on a subsequent trip to Samoa to review the Samoan Human Rights Institution.

"There was a presumption from the office that what I was going to produce would be worthy and valuable, so I was treated as a full-time employee and my judgement was really valued. It was never questioned that I would be up to the task," she said.

As a result of her time at the UN, Emilia not only has a lot more confidence in her career ambitions but also a much wider awareness of human rights issues. "When you arrive there and it's very obvious that human rights abuses happen around you on a daily basis, you then really understand the value of human rights," she says.

Emilia describes the interaction with the UN as a remarkable experience.

"I had the opportunity to see the UN from the inside and I was treated as part of the organisation. I had conversations with people in Geneva and I was in meetings with people from all over the world who were truly inspiring."

Emilia encourages employees to consider how an intern could help their organisation by empowering them with significant projects.

A variety of organisations from the not-for-profit, government and private sectors participate in the internship program. Students interested in practical learning can also consider other clinical legal education subjects offered as part of the Law School's Public Interest Law Initiative such as Public Interest Law in Practice, Street Law and the Business Sustainability Clinic.

Banner Image: JD student Emilia Budisavljevic
Photographer: Lisa Mamone

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 11, June 2014.