Helen Durham

Durham Helen

‘The right balance between courage and compassion’

In Conversation with Dr Helen Durham (LLB (Hons) 1991)

Never forgetting that it was an “honour to learn the craft” is how Dr Helen Durham describes her attitude towards her law degree. The gratitude she holds for her legal education is probably why, despite being on a very well-deserved break from the law, Helen has agreed to be interviewed. In June, Helen finished a two-term (8-year) stint in Geneva, as the Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Helen and her family have just returned home to Melbourne and despite ‘lot of work to do in the garden’ and many coffee catch-ups in the diary, Helen was kind enough to give us her time for a fascinating discussion about her career to-date.

Dr Helen Durham is a humanitarian, an academic and an optimist. The third she agrees, people find hard to believe given her daily work can be “deeply, deeply depressing”. A good day, Helen reflects, is playing a part in the negotiation of the safe passage of 35,000 people before a city is attacked. A very bad day comes a week later, when Helen is informed several of her colleagues have been killed doing their life saving work. Amongst these unimaginable highs and devastating lows of humanitarian law, Helen believes that to work in this field you must be a cautious optimist: “you need to possess the hope that things that can better.” If not, you’re better off elsewhere.

Helen’s optimism was evident from a young age. At 10 years old, Helen witnessed the inequity and horror of refugee camps on the boarder of Thailand. She returned to Melbourne with a keen awareness of injustice and a desire to “make the world a better place”. Helen commenced an arts degree, but later switched to law, feeling it offered a more “structural and concrete way” to enact change. Unsurprisingly, it was in her electives, subjects including Feminist Legal Theory and Human Rights Law, where Helen saw her passion for the law reflected in her studies.

When asking Helen to describe herself as a student, the interview is momentarily interrupted by her husband Dr Greg Arnold (BA Hons 1989 UoM, PhD 2013 Utas) who delivers us both a cup of tea. Greg met Helen during their university days. He describes his then-girlfriend as “diligent but fun”, a description he thinks is still fitting. Helen adds that whilst she had a great time as a student, she never forgot the privilege that comes with studying law. Amongst her waitressing job (to pay rent) and many extracurricular activities (including the Feminist Law Journal and volunteer work), Helen was also involved in a range of creative feminist actions ranging from responding to sexist ads to supporting women refugees.

Following graduation, Helen worked at labour law firm Holding Redlich. While she thoroughly enjoyed industrial relations law, it was not where she saw her future long-term. Looking back on her career so far, Helen advises that experiences come in many forms, even in fields that from the outset seem totally unrelated. Her time at Holding Redlich shattered the “illusion of justice”, the idea that the ‘right’ side will always win. This realisation underscored for Helen how important it was to be highly strategic with the law and to know it well, as being on the ‘right side of justice’ does not guarantee success. As the first woman to hold the position of Director of International Law and Policy at the ICRC, preparation would prove crucial. As the successor to 150 years of Swiss men, Helen’s audiences were not always receptive to an “informal Aussie woman”. Helen admits there was very little margin of error when greeted by a boardroom of people who would spend the “first five minutes waiting for [her] to fail”. Although worlds apart, Helen also credits the former experience at the law firm with shaping a strong sense of self. Representing male dominated unions taught Helen to navigate hyper-masculine spaces without conforming to male paradigms. This would prove be a very valuable asset when dealing with military men across the globe.

After two years at Holding Redlich, Helen left to search for her niche in the law. Although ‘are you crazy?’ was not an uncommon reaction from those who had heard she’d swapped her secure legal job for a policy role with Asialink (Australia’s leading centre for creative engagement with Asia), Helen advises aspiring humanitarian lawyers to take a similar leap. The realisation that a career is not linear, and diagonal jumps are not uncommon is another piece of career wisdom Helen offers. Helen describes her career experiences as a game of ‘Marco Polo’: you’re not entirely sure in which direction you are headed, but you’re doing your best to find out and listening very carefully to echoes of what deeply interests you. Helen also pursued further study,  a Masters that would later turn into doctoral studies on International Law and a scholarship to study in New York. The laws of war became imperative when Helen was working with former Yugoslavian refugees. Assisting with the movement to have rape recognised as a war crime, Helen realised the magnificent aim of the Geneva conventions; through the laws of war,

“amongst the worst things you can face, you can find humanity.”

In 1997, Helen started at the Australian Red Cross. Unbeknownst to her, it would become a 26-year career with the organisation and wider movement at the heart of humanitarian law. The foundational principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, independence, unity, universality, and voluntary service that underpin the organisation remain as pertinent today as they were when in 1863 when the ICRC was founded. In an area of law that is enmeshed in the wicked problem of war, how has Helen endured almost three decades in a field that seemingly has no end? “Never make perfect the enemy of the good” was the advice given to Helen by a diplomat early on in her career. It resonated deeply, because “as humanitarians there is always more that can be done” Knowing at what point to stop and how to be strategic in what is pushed for, has helped both practically and psychologically. Martin Luther king Jr.’s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” are another source of comfort.

While the ICRC remains neutral, there are moments that necessitate a more politically unfavourable reaction from the world’s most eminent humanitarian organisation. Knowing when to heed to the principle of neutrality and when to speak out has presented Helen with a challenge “every day for 26 years.” Helen cites the example of the IRCR President meeting the foreigner minister of Russia earlier this year. Although controversial, Helen states ”it is impossible to open a humanitarian corridor without dialogue.” The importance of neutrality for Helen was always evident during her missions overseas. Helen’s time in the field allowed her to see the utility of the principle in practice. While “black letter law and more straight forward solutions may be on hand for those in an office in Melbourne”; field trips to war ravaged parts of countries such as Somalia, Mozambique and Iraq offer an awareness of the complex realities of law in war.

Beyond ICRC missions, the work of the Director includes presentations to the Security Council, high level media and conversations with states about various issues; detention practices one day, the use of child soldiers, the next. Leading more than 150 lawyers, over 100 policy makers, diplomats and former military staff, Helen juggled the internal politics of the ICRC. Being responsible for the New York office meant it was not uncommon to receive phone calls in the early hours of the morning asking for input on resolutions. The enormous time commitment required of the role and demanding nature of the work means one four-year term sounds like enough for even the most exceptional of humanitarian lawyers. Helen, however, was asked and nominated for a second term. A testament no doubt, to her success in the role. She admits to “enjoying it more” the second time around, once her credibility and resilience were less heavily scrutinised. Amongst the intensity of it all, there are also the wins. “No-one is more excited than me when a treaty is finally concluded” Helen affirms. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force earlier this year, is thanks in no small part, to the work of the ICRC. It was seventy-five years in the making and as the first multilateral agreement (with 51 state party signatories) to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, Helen’s excitement is understandable. These are the hard-fought for successes that suggest Martin Luther King Jr. is right.

For those considering a career in humanitarian law and eager to influence the arc, Helen has many nuggets of wisdom. The first is the ‘three Ps’. It is advice that she would give to her former self, and the advice Helen gives to all those who ask: persistence, passion and patience. In an area of work as challenging and relentless as war, Helen acknowledges that progress can seem glacial, meaning all three are vital. Helen offers the progress made in the areas of sexual violence as a war crime, and the treaty on nuclear weapons as two key areas of legal policy that have seen huge change over recent decades. The success in these areas reflects the culmination of passion, patience, and persistence.

The second is to keep an open heart and to remember the importance of your own humanity when working in a field that can have a hardening effect.

“Just because you are doing great work publicly, doesn’t afford you the right to lose your humanity at a deeper level.”

How has Helen held on to her humanity? Dedicated days away from work and time spent with family are non-negotiable. Looking after your mental health as if it w your physical health is also important. Alongside this, Helen remains appreciative of the life that she is fortunate to lead. After all, her work is done in the hope that “these people can lead normal lives, like mine.” She mentions the incredible support of family, Greg and her children, who provide a constant source of love, even if the “one year trial” in Geneva turned into an eight-year stay.

Although Helen is uncertain as to what the next few years will hold, her diagonal career trajectory has already offered the next adventure. Helen is very excited to be joining Greg’s band as a roadie. Greg has had a successful career in music (‘Happy Birthday Helen’, written for Helen’s 22nd birthday, became a top ten hit) and she will join him for a tour up north, responsible for selling CDs and band t-shirts. Spending time with family and getting the house and garden sorted are also high on the list.  
As we reach the end of our interview, it seems that humanity, hope and humility go hand in hand with Helen. We are interested though, in hearing how Helen would like to be remembered.  After a pause Helen offers

“someone who strove to find the right balance between courage and compassion.”

While her career in International Law is far from over, it seems to already be a fitting description of Dr Helen Durham.

Prepared by: Cara Dooley-Heath and Devni Wimalasena
JD Students MLS
September 2022