Akila Radhakrishnan is the President of the Global Justice Center. She directs GJC’s strategies and efforts to establish legal precedents protecting human rights and ensuring gender equality. In 2010, she helped to conceptualise GJC’s August 12th Campaign to ensure access to abortion services for girls and women raped in war as a matter of right; since then, she has since led legal and advocacy efforts on the project. Ms. Radhakrishnan also leads GJC’s Gender and Genocide campaign, which works to ensure justice and accountability for the gender-based crimes of genocide, including against the Yazidi and the Rohingya.
Ms. Radhakrishnan has authored numerous shadow reports, legal briefs and advocacy documents and provided legal expertise to domestic and international stakeholders and policymakers, including the International Criminal Court, the United Nations, the European Union, and state governments. She has been published widely on issues of international law, gender equality and human rights, including in the New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, Women Under Siege, Ms. Magazine, and Rewire.
What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to work on issues affecting the rights of women. I was born and spent my early life in India where I saw a different world to that I would see after my family moved to the United States. My mother was widowed with two children before she was 30 years old. She made the decision to move to the States by herself - a tremendous act of bravery and a leap of faith in her own abilities to create a new life for her and her children. I am very fortunate to have a strong female mentor in my mother. Through her, I developed a keen understanding of the particular challenges that women face, and why it is important to empower and support women as they move through the world.
In college, I specialised in political science and international affairs, which gave me the opportunity to go abroad to study as part of my degree. I spent a year at Sciences Po in Lyon, which exposed me to a range of ideas, to a non-US focused world, and to different conceptions of the role that governments, and political life more broadly, could play. I had already decided to go to law school, but gradually my attention was turned to the international dimensions of law.
At the time I applied to law school, I had already worked for two years in a corporate law firm as a paralegal and I knew that wasn't for me. I applied to University of California at Hastings because it offered a concentration in international law and would allow me to study abroad and to take specialised courses in various facets of public international law. As part of my degree, I spent a semester at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands and while there, I undertook an internship at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It was a privilege to be able to go abroad and have that experience.
A few months after I graduated from law school, I received a fellowship at the Global Justice Center. It was for three months and unpaid in New York. Three months was the maximum I could support myself for at that time. I graduated from law school during a difficult and tumultuous period in the United States. The economy had just crashed. For friends who had received lucrative offers from large corporate law firms, this had unexpected consequences. Many firms offered their incoming associates the option of taking a year off, while still paying all or a percentage of their salary. Some firms asked those they'd made offers to, to work in a non-profit for a year. At the time I was applying to positions in human rights organisations and non-profits, I was suddenly up against would-be corporate lawyers who came with their own funding and could commit to a full year of work without pay. Entering the profession, which is not easy at the best of times, became immeasurably harder.
What have been the high points of your career thus far?
One high point of my career was meeting and being a mentee of Janet Benshoof, who was the President of the Global Justice Center when I joined, and who passed away in December 2017 after a short illness. She was a brilliant mind and, for lack of a better term, a true force of nature. She was the first Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, the Founder and President of the Center for Reproductive Rights and, most recently, the Global Justice Center. She was also fiercely devoted to mentoring and supporting young women. This, in many ways, is her greatest legacy and I'm proud to be part of it. When I think about the trajectory of my career, much of it is rooted in the confidence that Janet helped to ingrain in me. From the outset, Janet took my ideas seriously and invested in me. The reason my three-month fellowship turned into a paid job is that I had an idea early in the fellowship and Janet listened to it, liked it, and invested in it. She chose to hear a suggestion from someone who was barely past the threshold of her career. At the time I was shocked that I was being listened to, that I was being taken seriously - and it had a tremendous effect, not only on my career but also on who I am. I was very fortunate to have Janet as a mentor from such an early stage of my career.
In terms of issues I have worked on, the one I am most proud of is my work on abortion access in conflict. Over the past nine years, GJC has worked to shift how abortion is considered under international humanitarian law, and have pushed for its inclusion in global policy conversations around humanitarian aid, and sexual and reproductive health. When we started, this was seen as a radical feminist and progressive approach to interpreting the law, a characterisation that I broadly agree with, and such work is in fact GJC’s mission. Nine years ago, it generated a lot of resistance, but more recently we've been happy to see the legal arguments we pioneered taken up by peer organisations, and others working in the field on this issue, as well as in global policies. Seeing our work reflected in UN Security Council resolutions and Secretary-General reports and in academia has been an absolute highlight. We've been able to usher in a larger norm change on this issue, affecting the way abortion access in conflict is viewed, discussed, and approached.
Other highlights include working with the Global Justice Center's local partners in Burma, who are mainly minority ethnic women's groups. We work with them on issues related to conflict-related sexual violence and broader issues of gender-equality. This includes training and technical assistance, including for example training and supporting them to access UN human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review. It has been a privilege to work with partners on the ground to strengthen their voices and advocacy, and to form long and on-going relationships with them.
At the moment, I'm very excited about GJC’s work challenging the Global Gag rule and the Helms Amendment as a violation of free speech, as well as of free association rights under international law. We are seeking to illuminate how abortion rights are not only being restricted by the passage of laws, but also as a consequence of funding decisions that stretch to censoring the issues organisations can advocate about and the positions they take. We are adding a new layer, and a new legal approach, to examining how the United States is using its money to shut down abortion law reform and abortion access in other countries, which adversely affects women's rights more broadly.
Threaded through the high points of my career is a commitment to legally creative approaches. I am dedicated to taking progressive feminist approaches and use them to push the boundaries of international law.
What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?
One main challenge of being a young woman working in areas of public international law which are traditionally more male-dominated - international humanitarian law springs to mind - is that you often struggle to be taken seriously by others in the room. This is particularly so where one is trying to assert a progressive analysis of an area of law that the establishment, which remains unabashedly male, has already determined to be settled. I see this a lot in my work on gender and genocide as well, where there is a pushback to what is seen as the "original" or "true" conception of genocide, which is one which privileges acts which are more likely to be committed against men and older boys. Public international law, as a field, can be quite odd. It is progressive and, in some ways, very stodgy at the same time. Being young and being female are often both hindrances to being taken seriously, and to having the views you are espousing taken seriously.
When you factor in taking a progressive approach on an issue that predominantly affects women, it only gets harder. I continually have to project that I am not speaking about women's rights because I am a woman, but because these are legal issues that must be taken seriously. That distinction is not seen, or perhaps is ignored. The effect is that my expertise and knowledge of the legal issues is then - implicitly, but sometimes also explicitly - denigrated. I learnt how to tackle this from Janet. As she took my views seriously, she gave me the confidence to take myself, and what I believed in, seriously as well. She would always say "there’s a reason you're in the room and you need to own that." I learned a lot by watching Janet in action. Janet, in many ways, didn't take much notice of how others in the room treated her. Or rather, she knew those external perceptions existed, and she didn't allow them to affect the way she saw herself, or her work, or her right to be there and have her voice heard. I found it very affirming.
Finally, another challenge for me was explaining to my extended family why I had taken the trouble to go to law school, only to end up working on difficult issues for a less money than I would have made in a corporate career. My immediate family has always been very supportive but, particularly coming from a South-East Asian background, it was a challenge to get over the idea of what my life was supposed to look like, and what it was and what I wanted it to be - and then to explain that to others who found my choices difficult to comprehend.
Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?
Expose yourself to a variety of viewpoints. If you have a chance to travel - whether abroad, or even to a different area within your own country, or your own city, take it. Wherever the opportunities arise to be in the presence of different perspectives, there is an opportunity to learn - to learn about the perspectives of others but also to learn more about yourself, how you arrived at your views, and what assumptions you are carrying with you.
Seek out mentors. When you are coming up in the field, it's important to create opportunities to come into contact with those who are more senior, who might take a mentoring role. Often it requires your coming to their attention so they can see your work and your commitment to particular issues that they also care about. Being a mentor means investing time and energy in someone more junior who you see something in that you'd like to support and nourish. If you're junior, you need to create opportunities to meet potential mentors in contexts where they get to know you and your work, often over time.
Be a mentor and pay it forward. Having learned so much from Janet and seeing how she prioritised supporting the young women she mentored, I take mentoring very seriously. As the decision to embark on a mentor-mentee relationship is made largely by the mentor, it's important to decide consciously to make this a part of your life, to the extent that it is possible at various points in time. I would encourage women at mid and senior levels to be open to listening to new voices in the room, to encourage younger women to be properly prepared to come to the table and speak. This is something that I am trying to consciously work on my in new role as the leader of an organization. Think about your own negative and positive experiences as a young lawyer and think about what you wish someone had said or done for you. Consider also how you can created a better professional environment for women and people who are less privileged.
Who your supervisor is can be as important as what the job is. I had a boss who let me speak in meetings, who gave me high levels of responsibility quite early on including having me engage in advocacy, and attend meetings with government officials. I wasn't just a note taker. I was always encouraged to add my thoughts. When you are thinking of applying for jobs, or switching from one job to another, consider also who your supervisor will be. That may be a luxury at the beginning of your career, but it's an important factor in deciding what to apply to and what to accept. Who your supervisor is may have as significant an impact on your career as what the job is, where it is, and how much it pays. Having a boss who values your contributions, gives you the opportunity to increase your skillset, and opens their networks to you is invaluable to your work and to you personally.
Value your expertise and your voice. As I said above, when one is one of the few women in the room, it is often a challenge to be taken seriously. You may find yourself being interrupted or simply subtly (and sometimes not to subtly!) cut from the conversation altogether. This often becomes worse when the other aspects of who you are and what you do aren't respected. Being a young woman of colour, working on advancing progressive and feminist approaches to law, I don't always feel my voice is valued. Depending on the room I'm in, I still become intimidated at times - but I've found the most important thing is to acknowledge the perception in the room and to remind myself that it doesn't matter, that it doesn't affect my own sense of my value, and the value of what I have to say. Don't the perceptions in the room get inside your head. Value your expertise and your voice.