Tirana Hassan is currently the Director of Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Programme. Previously, she worked as a Senior Researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Division. She has over 20 years' professional experience and is a qualified lawyer specialized in human rights investigations in conflict and crisis, as well as an experienced social worker.
Ms. Hassan has extensive experience working with children and women in armed conflict. She has worked with leading humanitarian and human rights organizations in the area of civilian and child protection as well as human rights in conflict and crisis-affected countries, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and Sudan.
What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?
I came to international law somewhat by accident. I started my professional career as a social worker in Australia, working with young people with mental health issues and at risk of homeless. While I was doing this work I felt quite powerless as I kept witnessing young people fall through the cracks of the legal and welfare system. I thought the best way for me to serve them was to navigate these systems and decided to go to law school. At the time my intention was to continue to be a social worker while bettering my understanding of how the legal system works.
During the last year of my law degree the Australian refugee crisis escalated significantly. At this point I had the opportunity to join a small group of lawyers who challenged the Australian government to obtain access to a detention facility located on a former rocket launching facility in rural South Australia called Woomera. What we discovered was that there were over 1,000 asylum seekers and refugees who had been detained, in the middle of the desert, in this barbed wire makeshift facility for over a year with barely any contact with the outside world. After that I worked in Woomera with this pro bono group of lawyers providing legal services to those detained. For me it was about dealing with an immediate injustice. I could just not fathom how this was happening in Australia.
I do recall a specific moment when I attended a presentation by a Melbourne-based solicitor. He had been representing a group of 433 mostly Afghan asylum seekers, rescued in August 2001 by the Norwegian shipping vessel, Tampa. The Australian government refused to allow the ship into its waters. He said something that stayed with me. He explained that he went to bed watching these asylum seekers trapped and thinking, "This is terrible - I’m sure somebody will do something about it." But the next day he woke up and thought, "What if they don’t? What if everyone thinks like that?" And, if I recall the story correctly, he then started trying to make contact with the asylum seekers on the boat, which he successfully did, and took the matter to court. That statement very much stayed with me. We have all been in a situation where we see horrific things happening and injustice unfold, and we assume that surely somebody is doing something about it. Actually that someone should be us, should be me, or each of us, working to combat injustice in whichever way we can.
I decided to work directly in places where the abuses that led people to flee were taking place. That led me to humanitarian work, where I started as a child protection officer and then began working with women and girls who survived sexual- and gender-based violence. I worked in conflicts throughout the world. This is when I realized I was always at the end of the cycle of abuse. It was important work but I felt I was always dealing with the aftermath of violations and decided to make a change and go into human rights investigation and advocacy. I thought this is where I could make a contribution. I could take my skills with me: my social work experience, my legal knowledge, and my understanding of on-the-ground operational issues in conflict settings. I thought we could undertake human rights documentation, not only for accountability and to prevent future abuses, but in real time instead of retrospectively after the war. This is maybe somewhat naïve but I thought this was the strongest way I could make a difference.
What have been the high points of your career thus far?
If I were to look back at my career, the high points and meaningful moments were such because in each of those instances I was surrounded by and working with a committed team of professionals who were delivering what they were there to do, to the highest standards. I was working with practitioners, not just professionals, who tried to use their skills in the most creative ways.
This was the case when I worked in Darfur trying to find innovative ways for survivors to get access to the support they need, and more recently during the Rohingya crisis when I was working with a team of people who were addressing some of the most egregious wrongs of modern history, creatively using everything they had at their disposal to make a difference. You can get a government to stop dropping barrel bombs on an area, that is of course really meaningful, but I think such moments were always the results of a collective work by brave and brilliant practitioners. When I reflect my career, I think of multiple examples where with a little creativity, we got life-saving assistance or post-rape care in Somalia and Darfur. We would create spontaneous women-only events in clinics and invite women we knew had arrived from routes or areas where we knew rape was frequently being used as a tool by armed groups.
Most recently I am very proud of the work we have done in response to Myanmar. We were able to put evidence out of crimes which kept up the pressure. Individuals who were identified as key perpetrators have now been placed on targeted sanctions lists.
What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?
One challenge is how to do this work and not be ‘broken’ by it. We expose ourselves to some of the most unimaginable things, and we ask people to recount some of the most horrific things that could ever happen to a person. Something happens to us as individuals when we do that. We have to process this information; the sense of responsibility of what to do with that information rests heavy on one’s conscience. I still struggle with it but I feel more and more committed to creating a culture amongst us, as a professional community, where we talk about it, and don’t think of it as a weakness. We have a responsibility to create a cultural shift where we see this as a priority and we do everything we can to look after each other and ourselves.
Another challenge is everyday sexism, which is evident in the small things. As a woman more than once I have had my experience minimized, whether it is in a meeting, an interview, or in a strategy discussion. As a result you always have to have that little extra energy to deal with these “micro-discrimination” moments that happen constantly. For instance, that moment you are asked to hand over your work so it's represented by a man, or when questioned on whether it is appropriate to be sending an all women team to the frontline.
Hassan is my surname, I am Asian with an Australian passport, and I am a women, and I find myself operating in quite a macho environment: conflict settings, war zones. I am constantly made aware of the assumptions people make based on my profile. I am not ‘asian enough for some’ and ‘hold cultural biases for others’ and you have to be ready to challenge them because the sector isn’t very good at challenging unconscious biases.
There are also more women than men in this field yet there are too few women in senior leadership positions. It is important for women to be in these roles, not only because we are qualified to do them, but because we are good at it, and because we bring a different perspective. Diverse voices in leadership are valuable for organisations and our sector.
In terms of challenges that I'd like to see quickly overcome: can the entire sector please stop referring to 30+ year old women in this field as ‘young women'? It is patronizing and unhelpful.
What’s your advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?
Go out and do it: Your first gig is not going to be your dream job but it might give you a series of different skills that will make you a brilliant practitioner. There are so many steps and so many skills required to be a good practitioner. It is also about being proximate to the people that you work for and with. Consider spending a year or longer with a local or small organisation, to really understand what it is like on the ground and challenge your assumptions. Think of things where you can contribute and where you will also learn and do it for a decent chunk of time. Don’t be shy. Take opportunities when they come. Expose yourself.
Nurture a support network and a community where you can both challenge and support each other. Sometimes our biggest challenge is our inner critic. We need to invest in silencing our inner critics - or at least find a way to make it constructive. We might need help to do that so surround yourself with a solid peer network or invest in a professional support. For me what helped was to be surrounded by incredible, strong women and creating this sense of community and support. Sometimes we can feel isolated and so invite these people into your professional and personal life. This is beyond networking. This is a community.
Don’t take no for an answer. Always engage in the discussion. It is not about entering the conversation with a win/lose mentality, but promoting respectful debate and an exchange of ideas. Be the person who challenges the status quo, provide the evidence to prove that it can or should be done differently. And if you are the final decision maker then be open to ideas. One always has to balance multiple factors, but well-calculated risks can sometimes change the way we do things for the better.
Don’t pass up opportunities because you think “there is someone more qualified out there”. If someone is asking for your opinion, for you to speak on a panel, or offering you a job, it is because they believe you have something to offer, and they are right.
Tirana Hassan was interviewed by Elise Tillet-Dagousset. Elise is a human rights researcher and legal advisor with 10 years professional experience. She has worked for Amnesty International conducting investigations into human rights abuses in Myanmar including crimes against humanity and the crime of apartheid against the Rohingya, corporate abuses, war crimes, and arbitrary detention. She also previously worked on Human Rights Defenders’ protection in Nepal and Cambodia and started her career at the International Department of the Paris Bar Association. @EliseTillet