Elise Keppler is the Associate Director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. During her 15-year tenure at Human Rights Watch, she has worked to advance justice for serious crimes in Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Guinea, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Uganda, in addition to efforts to promote support for the International Criminal Court. She played an integral role in advocacy for former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s surrender to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Darfur’s referral to the ICC, and bolstering cross-continental activism in Africa to combat unprincipled attacks on the ICC by a small group of African leaders.
From January to April 2012, Elise was a visiting scholar with the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit at the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Law. A graduate of Brown University and University of California Berkeley School of Law, Elise worked as a litigation associate at Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP prior to joining Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.
What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?
I always had a passion for promoting social justice, and my experience learning about the Holocaust from an early age as someone who is Jewish was probably a motivating factor. Once in college, I was particularly drawn to international human rights issues and majored in international relations to learn more about this area. I then wrote my undergraduate thesis on the failure of the international community to prevent the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
As I prepared to graduate from college, I successfully applied for the Herbert Scoville Peace Fellowship. This provided essential funding to be involved with substantive work related to international human rights at a very early stage in my career. My project involved research on the relationship between the global arms trade and human rights violations in Africa. This fellowship was (and I believe still is) one of the few paid fellowships available to recently graduated college students and I was hugely fortunate to have had the opportunity. Following the internship, in the summer of 1998, I went to Monrovia, Liberia, as a US State Department intern. I chose to go to Liberia because I wanted to better understand the reality of serious violations of human rights.
After those experiences, I went to law school with the sole objective of using a graduate degree as an entry point into a career into international human rights. I debated whether to undertake a masters in international affairs, or to pursue a law degree. Looking back now, I think I would have enjoyed the masters coursework more but I believe the law degree has better served my career advancement.
What have been the high points of your career thus far?
Some of the most significant work I've been involved in was the multi-year effort to see Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, surrendered to the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), where he later stood trial and was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes. This effort involved extensive work with dedicated local partners, as we knew that if international groups like Human Rights Watch were not conducting advocacy in coalition with groups based in the sub-region, the advocacy would be dismissed as representing only a western view. Often when one works on accountability, there is little assurance of those efforts bearing fruit, or of being certain whether the advocacy played a significant role in positive developments. But, in 2006, shortly after her election in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated that international pressure had made her request for Taylor's surrender to the SCSL a necessity. That Charles Taylor was transferred to and tried by the SCSL was the work of many dedicated people, and it was incredibly important for the victims in Sierra Leone to see him brought to justice. I am proud to have been a part of that.
In more recent years, I have worked to ensure a counterweight to unprincipled attacks on the ICC by a small group of African leaders. This effort has been extremely rewarding in large part because this work has allowed me to continue to develop and sustain relationships with human rights activists in various African countries and to support their work to secure justice. I am appreciative that I've been able to assist in connecting activists from different countries, some who hadn't been in touch previously, to collaborate on advocacy across Africa to support the ICC as the crucial court of last resort. Developing group material is labour intensive, but the numerous documents we have issued are a benchmark of support for the ICC in Africa that contrast the narrative that Africa, as a continent, opposes the Court or there will be a withdrawal en masse by African ICC members.
What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?
The first significant hurdle that I faced was that it was extremely difficult to break into the field. I ended up taking unpaid work, as did many others I know who have built careers in this field. This included volunteer positions and internships, in order to develop relevant experience. Changes in federal law have made it much harder to take unpaid work with non-profit organisations once one is no longer a student now; this is to help avoid exploitation but also makes it harder to develop a career as a junior professional as so few paid entry level opportunities exist.
Unlike the private legal sector, there's no uniform way into public international law, and securing the first paid position in a public international legal career is often the hardest. Directly after law school, I ended up working in a corporate law firm for approximately 18 months because it was my only option for paid employment. I had been shortlisted for several fellowships – which can be an effective way into the field for those who obtain them – but did not secure one. When I started working at the firm, I made a commitment to myself to prepare for a transition into the human rights field by: doing pro bono work at the firm if and when I could; volunteering outside of my work at the firm; continuing to build my networks in the human rights field; and to save a significant portion of the money I was earning. Working in corporate law isn't necessarily a barrier to working in public international law – and can enable lawyers to gain valuable skills to do human rights work – but it also doesn't set you up to get jobs in that field. The legal skills you gain are useful but not uncommon, and it's difficult to develop the expertise and the networks, which you need to secure jobs in the public interest field when you work in private law.
A personal challenge I also had to overcome once I already secured my first position at Human Rights Watch was a severe difficulty with public speaking, even sometimes to relatively small groups. This problem was extraordinarily time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. Prior to even modest speaking engagements, I would need to spend massive amounts of time to prepare—or rather over-prepare, and even still I would often show signs of distress while speaking—irregular breathing, shaking, inability to think clearly, hyperventilation at points. I would then experience severe embarrassment and shame as a result of my reactions while speaking, and my physical reactions as well undermined my ability be a compelling communicator. I ultimately tackled my phobia through a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, and the use of medication that counteracted the physical symptoms of stress that I was able to gradually decrease over time as I become more comfortable with speaking. I spent several years pushing myself to undertake public speaking events at every opportunity I could so I could build up my skills. Now I'm extremely fortunate to have overcome the phobia, and am truly comfortable speaking publicly, whether the occasion is planned or impromptu, large or small.
Public speaking is an essential part of human rights work and I wanted to work in this field, so I committed to confronting and overcoming this challenge. Human rights and international legal advocacy demand a variety of skills: research and analysis, drafting, advocacy, media work, and fundraising. No one starts their career with all the skills you need, but it's important to work out what parts of your skillset you need to improve, and dedicate attention to enhancing those skills, appreciating that improvements won't necessarily happen overnight.
Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?
If you're working in private law and want to shift your career into public international law, have a game plan. Many people start careers in private law with the intention of leaving after a few years to do something they consider to be more meaningful. If you work in private law and want to work in public international law, it will not, however, happen on its own: you need to work to develop a very clear idea of what jobs you'd ideally want to do; what specific qualifications you need to do those jobs; ways to obtain these skills; and where is the community of people working in that field and how you can connect with them. It’s also important not to let your lifestyle costs become so high that you are tied into a private legal career, if that's not where you want to be. Save money so you have a cushion when you start to shift over to the career you want and are used to living on a budget more comparable to a public interest law salary.
Be strategic about your choices. Early on, I took on some internships which didn't align with my vision for my career. The internships didn't hurt my career trajectory but they also didn't help me move my expertise and connections closer to the jobs that I actually wanted. I also recommend people consider two possibilities if they want a career in international human rights work. First, apply for the United Nations Volunteer (UNV) roster. UNVs are actually paid and becoming one is one of the best ways to get into the human rights field. It gives you enough entry-level experience to make you a viable candidate for other jobs. Second, look out for short-term consultancies, as these can often go to candidates with less experience who are looking for their first toehold in the profession. Consultancies are rarely posted publicly so you need to be able to have and use your networks to get news of when such short term opportunities become available. And finally, if you want to work in human rights and your job gives you the opportunity to go to places where human rights are being violated, go. The experience will shape your approaches to the work and increase your credibility as a professional in the field
Nurture your networks.
Dedicate time to meet and build relationships with people who are doing the work you'd like to do. The human rights community is relatively small and it is extremely valuable to know people in the community when trying to become part of it. If someone takes time out to speak with you, or help in other ways, always remember to thank them, and occasionally to update them on your progress.