From activist to international guardian

By Alicia Patterson

InJune, a former "fairly bolshy" student activist will take up the position ofDirector of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of theRed Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. Dr Helen Durham (LLB(Hons) 1991, SJD 2000), who isalso a Senior Fellow at Melbourne Law School, will be the first Australian, andthe first woman, to hold the position in the organisation's 150-year history.

DrDurham is incredibly well credentialed for the job – which to date has tendedto be filled by Swiss German men, some with military backgrounds. She hasamassed an extraordinary body of work and research in internationalhumanitarian law, the "laws of war", the impact and role of women during andfollowing conflicts, and international criminal prosecutions.

At theICRC, Dr Durham will become a part of the five-person Directorate (theexecutive of the ICRC) led by Director-General Yves Daccord and appointed bythe International Assembly for a four year term from 1 July 2014. The role ofthe ICRC is to remain impartial, neutral and independent while working inpractical ways – through negotiation and influence - to protect lives, preventsuffering and provide humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of warand armed conflict.

DrDurham is an author and contributor to an extensive list of books. She has beenthe subject of numerous articles and has been interviewed many times on herarea of expertise. She has also received numerous awards – most recently shewas inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

As astudent, she was a "political student activist" – a regular attendee at studentprotests, prone to occasional subversive acts, with strong recollections of theFeminist Law Collective and Reclaim the Night marches, all-night philosophydiscussions, poetry readings in pubs and an occasional penchant for dying herhair in clashing colours.

"Iflourished in the uni experience," she laughs. "Sometimes when I look at lawstudents now they seem so serious compared to me back then."

For DrDurham, university was a time spent living in a student share-house with othercreative, independent thinkers, waitressing, backpacking in India, teachingEnglish to new arrivals from Vietnam, acting, writing poetry and thinking aboutmaybe becoming a journalist.

It wasalso where she met her partner, Greg Arnold (BA(Hons) 1989), another lawstudent who dropped law – ultimately for music – and who found fame as the leadsinger and songwriter of the band, Things of Stone and Wood.

It wasfor her 22nd birthday that Happy Birthday Helen was written – a hit in 1993 forthe band. There followed a string of awards, international tours and one ofAustralia's biggest hit songs of the early '90s by the band who are now aboutto celebrate their 25th anniversary. Dr Durham and Greg Arnold married in the'90s. With little interest in following the band on tour, Dr Durham decided todo a masters focusing on human rights and ethics.

DrDurham confesses that the law was not an obvious path for her at first. Shecombined it with arts, and dropped out for a year and then came back again tofinish both degrees in 1992. "I struggled occasionally… but the study of lawrefined my intellect to look at things in a precise manner, which is reallyimportant to what I work with now – to not be overcome by the horror of itsometimes."

For herhonours thesis, she looked into ways to deal with domestic violence inVietnamese communities and why legal options did not seem to work in thiscommunity. She asked Victoria Legal Aid at the time what area of work she coulddo that might be useful. "I had a desperate requirement to use the law in a waythat would help people, to find a way my learnings could be useful."

At thecompletion of the law degree, Dr Durham returned to Thailand, a country whereshe had spent some time as a child with her family. "Looking back, it reallyopened up my mind to issues of cultural relativity. There were refugees comingfrom across the Cambodian border; it was just before I went to high school, itleft a big impression on me."

Thereturn to Thailand led to work on a Baker & Mackenzie law internship withthe Prostitutes' Collective: "I went from bolshy Doc Martin activism tospeaking to these women from the collective and it taught me that you reallyneed to listen carefully, that working with communities is the only way thatdeep changes work."

Afteradmission to practise and articles with Holding Redlich, Dr Durham continuedworking as a volunteer with women's groups, and then in a position runningprograms for Asialink at the University of Melbourne.

It wasaround this time a friend of hers went overseas and worked with women who hadbeen held in the "rape camps" of the former Yugoslavia. "My friend called andwanted help – in making rape a war crime," Dr Durham explained. She became partof a group of lawyers that started taking evidence from refugees from theformer Yugoslavia who had come to Australia, evidence which formed part of thecase which led to the ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal thatsystematic rape in a time of war was a crime against humanity.

Itopened my eyes to international humanitarian law, an area of law that in timesof war tries to carve out a place for humanity

Sincethen, Dr Durham's career has shifted between positions at the University ofMelbourne and the Australian Red Cross, all focused on this area, and earning aDoctor of Juridical Science along the way. Her interest in the ICRC as "theguardians of the laws of war" has challenged her "activist" self who might wantto jump in to right wrongs and expose wrongdoing.

Shesays work like this, done by NGOs such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, playsan important part but is different to the role of the Red Cross. "If yougenuinely want to make change, you have to influence people. To influencepeople you have to have their trust. Sometimes that means withholdingjudgement, knowing there are other organisations and institutions that can takethat up."

Thereis no getting around the fact that this job means getting up close to peoplewho have committed terrible atrocities, and spending time with people she knowshave a terrible capacity for brutality.

"I'vebeen in scary situations, but I never feel scared at the time. I am very, veryfocussed on the principle of humanity and 'how do I make this situationbetter?' It's similar to criminal lawyers in a way – you focus on the task athand and suspend your emotional response."

What ofthe people who have suffered because of them – people about the same age as hertwo children, her siblings, her partner, her mother? How does anyone cope withthat?

"Itwould be false to say it doesn't wear away at you… but the day it stopsaffecting you is the day you stop," she explains.

Apartfrom the debrief process available to her, it is probably her resilience andpositive focus in making a difference that keeps her balanced. She describes areturn to Australia after field missions in war-torn countries as restoringhope rather than relief. "I think: how great is it that I live here in acountry where we can worry at the school gate about cleaning cricket whites. Iwork with people who are literally dying to have what we have and I do them nobenefit not to take advantage of what I have here – and to live it."

For thenext four years, Dr Durham and her family will call Geneva home. Her firstfield mission in the role will be to Somalia, Sudan and Nairobi.

Is shedoing what she thought she would be doing now – when she thinks back to thoseshare-house, Doc Martin-wearing days? "I think I am," Dr Durham says. "I wantedto do something that was engaging intellectually – tick. Something that helpedpeople – tick. Would my 20-year-old self be happy with me? Well, maybe not somuch with wearing pearls, but I am doing what I wanted to do."

Banner Image: Dr Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy, ICRC
Photographer: Peter Casamento

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