A “Badass” Feminist Lawyer’s Journey in Human Rights Legal Research
In Conversation with Dr Julie Fraser (BA/LLB (Hons) 2006)
“I wondered what your views are on expanding these systems of law that influence how the Court operates to other systems of law beyond civil and common law systems and…how perhaps victims can be seen to be having justice also framed within their own cultural perspective which for many cases includes also victims from Muslim communities across various different states and situations that the Court is now dealing with…”
This was Dr. Julie Fraser’s question at the International Criminal Court’s high-level Conference, ‘International Criminal Court at 20: Reflections on the Past, Present and the Future’, a Conference that the Court hosted to review its achievements and further developments needed at the Court.
Julie’s question reflects her passion and commitment to human rights and her quest to understand and address inequality and discrimination. Her foray into human rights law was for her an “obvious choice”, stemming from her “profound sense of being a woman and the inequal treatment [of women] in society”. She says that this led her to think about global inequality.
“So it wasn’t just men and women or people of different races but also questions about…how do we divide resources, how do we divide opportunities and, of course, how do we do it inequally or ways that perpetuate inequality.”
So, Julie, a qualified Solicitor from Australia having done a BA and LLB (Honours) from the University of Melbourne in 2006, pursued a Masters in International Human Rights Law in Utrecht University, the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, she met colleagues from different parts of the world, and this also contributed to her understanding of different legal systems, particularly the inter-American system of human rights.
Today, Julie is an Assistant Professor of Law at the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She is also the author of Social Institutions and International Human Rights Law Implementation: ‘Every Organ of Society’, the monograph born out of her PhD thesis which was awarded the Max van der Stoel Prize in Human Rights. About her PhD, she notes that while certain parameters were set, she had a lot of freedom in designing her project. She reflects:
“I ended up looking at religion as my social institution…particularly in relation to women's rights, because often you see a lot of the places where women's rights are limited or violated, often, religious reasons are given…I wanted to…look at how those social institutions can also help human rights and in a way, push back against often Western discourses that paint religion as the culprit or as an obstacle to realizing rights.”
Given her fascination with Islamic culture, she chose Indonesia (the country with the world’s largest Muslim population) for her field research. She remembers that she wanted to engage in empirical research because she wanted to challenge herself and because she “thought that it was methodologically important, especially if I was going to study a country where I’m not from, a language that I don’t know, a religion that I’m not part of.” Another reason was because, having chosen academics after practising law, she wanted to make sure that her research was connected with practice and so she wanted to make recommendations that were feasible.
“I went off to Geneva to work with the treaty bodies…to make sure that I understood…at this upper level and what the realities were…and I feel…I had an advantage in doing that because I had been a practitioner.”
So, Julie did her empirical research in Indonesia and in Geneva.
Having decided to perform empirical research, she relates that she found the journey both enriching and overwhelming. She narrates how she found connecting with people in the field of her area of research, moving and inspiring compared to conducting interviews in a business-like fashion, say over zoom.
“I met this one woman who was very famous and very well known in Indonesia for her work as a civil society leader…she welcomed me into her home and she introduced me to her children and to her grandchildren, and then we sat and we had a cup of tea and we spoke. And then we had lunch with her whole family. So everybody then came down to lunch and we all sat at this big table and spoke…the whole interview lasted the entire day, and gave me, not just her intellectual insights into her understanding of Islamic law, and her practical experiences having worked in this field for her whole career, but also getting to know her personally and her family…just seeing this whole context was incredibly rich and I felt incredibly lucky to have, you know, been invited into her home in that way.”
Apart from her monograph, Julie has written extensively on international human rights law and teaches public international law, international criminal law, international human rights law and transitional justice. She finds teaching ‘the most rewarding thing’ that she does in creating impact through her work.
“In those moments where I do doubt my life and all my life choices, you also think you know there’s one student [sic] that I connected with and…helped you know learn and inspire and that makes it worthwhile.”
In academia, while she acknowledges her struggle with being expected to be a ‘one-woman show’, ‘your own brand’ as opposed to working in a team, she notes that she uses her position to mentor other women and pass along opportunities that come her way. In this regard, she points out the importance of mentoring and peer support.
“[H]aving somebody that you can actually speak to, who will give you advice, who will give you encouragement…I never had a mentor in Australia and I think my career in Australia would have been different if I had. But I'm also very much aware that my job here in the Netherlands was only because I did have a mentor, and I did have somebody advising me and supporting me through all the stages.”
So, she advises anyone aspiring a career in law, particularly human rights law, to get a mentor. She also recommends that one has to be persistent in finding a mentor through the network that they have. She quips:
“[Y]ou have to put yourself out there and see what happens. And if you get nothing out of it, you’ve also lost nothing, but you have to keep trying.”
Prepared by: Andrea Marilyn Pragashini Immanuel
PhD Candidate, Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, MLS