Rebecca Hamilton

Rebecca Hamilton is a force. Advocate, journalist, author, and now an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law (WCL), with a research and teaching focus on national security law, international law, and criminal law, Bec is perhaps best known as the author of Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, which analyses citizen activism and the effort to stop mass atrocities. Her academic credentials are enhanced by her previous work at the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, on cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda and Sudan, as well as her previous existence as a Washington Post and Reuters journalist, notably reporting from Sudan and South Sudan during the events of 2010 and 2011. 

What is not immediately apparent from Bec’s biography, is the story behind the story; the path she forged to reach her current position. To call it unconventional is a significant understatement. From an early exit from high school in New Zealand, to becoming a recognizable influence within the field of international law, Bec’s story will be of interest not only to those who seek to move between the intersecting worlds of journalism, law and academia, but also those seeking to enter international law from less traditional trajectories. Her article in the Washington Post, published at the height of the #metoo movement, is compulsory reading for all women in this field. @bechamilton 

Bec spoke with Kate Gibson, for ATLAS. 


What pulled you towards international law as a career? And what were your first steps?
Well – my starting point was being uneducated and basically clueless about the world beyond my immediate environment. I left New Zealand without finishing high school, and made my way to Australia, but with no real idea of what university was or why people would study instead of earning an income. I eventually found my way into provisional college entrance, studying neuropsychology. I loved the academic side but socially it was alienating because my life experiences by that point were just so different from my classmates. Eventually, I signed up to do volunteer work with children who were being detained while seeking asylum in Australia. I’d had a stint living in a youth domestic violence shelter and figured I had some idea of the dynamics in play when highly traumatized strangers are housed together. Of course, my experiences were nothing like anyone seeking asylum, but that was the shoddy logic that pushed me to volunteer. And from there the world started opening up.

To cut a long story short, I ended up on a scholarship to Harvard to study public policy, imagining I’d go back to Australia and work on immigration reform. But my first course at the Kennedy School was in human rights, which was really not something I had been aware of as a field but that suddenly made sense of so many of the things I cared about. I remember going back to my dorm and googling everyone who worked at Human Rights Watch! Most of them had a J.D., which I subsequently figured out was a U.S. law degree. Not in a million years had I ever considered becoming a lawyer, but since that seemed to be the entry into human rights I thought I should try to become one. I took the LSAT the following week and transferred into the joint J.D. program.

I was the antithesis of a well-rounded student. I spent my first law summer working with displaced populations in Sudan, before the second North-South civil war had ended. When I came back to the U.S., then-Secretary of State, Colin Powell, made the genocide declaration on Darfur. The only way I could make sense of being amidst the privilege that is Harvard, was to immerse myself in all things Sudan, all the time. I was involved in the start-up of an NGO, spoke to State legislatures about divestment, gave speeches an events around the country, basically lived/slept/breathed nothing but genocide – a task facilitated by having Samantha Power as my thesis supervisor. By the time I graduated I had a contract to turn the thesis into a book and a job in the ICC Prosecution.    

What would you say are the high points of your career, to date?

First, I should say - I have never had a plan. My career has essentially been about throwing myself into what I am passionate about, and then finding meaningful ways to work on that substance. That’s meant I’ve had to rapidly pick up a bunch of different skills at different times. So even though it looks a bit like I’ve had nine lives, there’s a common thread because it’s always driven by wanting to understand the levers of change in a world where people routinely do horrific things to their fellow human beings. 

The UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC when I was in my second year of law school. To really understand what International Criminal Law could do, I felt I had to be a part of it. I was working in the ICC Office of the Prosecutor when the arrest warrant for al-Bashir was being drafted. Thinking about that time in light of the excellent report Sareta and the Global Justice Center just put out, I’m particularly proud of the work we put into highlighting the parts of the genocidal campaign against the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit that went beyond the mass killings, the crucial role of rape, and the forcible destruction of conditions of livelihood. Of course, more than a decade later, with no execution of the arrest warrant in sight, we can debate the merits of the warrant, and of issuing it publically. But hopefully al-Bashir will eventually join the growing list of strongmen held to account. 

Another highlight was being able to report for the Washington Post from Sudan – this country I had so immersed myself in – when the south of the country was undergoing its self-determination vote. This was a chance to be part of history, and I felt that at the time. Being on the ground in 2010 and 2011 in both Sudan (and what became South Sudan) and reporting about what was happening was an opportunity I’ll never regret taking. Plus it gave me a window into the media industry that also helps in thinking through how to create change. 

Writing Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide grew from a genuine need to figure out the impact of the advocacy movement for Darfur on the actual events on the ground. Having been involved in the start of the U.S.-based advocacy movement, but also travelling back and forth to Sudan, I had increasing concerns about the movement’s efficacy and impact. I needed to reconcile the two things I was seeing: the huge expectations in the U.S., and the extremely limited scope for change on the ground. The book was really born from a desire to understand the piece-by-piece impact of advocacy on policy making; I wanted to understand what the advocates thought they were doing, and to what extent the policy makers were being influenced. The research involved hundreds of FOIA requests, and over 200 interviews with policy makers. It was an amazing excuse to reach out to people like Kofi Annan or Colin Powell - “Please speak to me - I’m writing a book, and I need answers to these questions”.  

Today, being part of the WCL faculty is another career high. I am thrilled to wake up every day and come to work. It is different from being in the trenches, but it is an amazing gift to have the time to step back and think about the big picture and some of the systems we’re all working within. Currently, I’m trying to better understand the link between social media platforms and mass violence. I really want to get a grip on this area, and it’s a privilege to have the time and the resources to be able to try. 

And then there’s the fact that I get to teach. The role is made even better by the fact international law is at the heart of so much of what my law school does, and our student body reflects that. I have the world in my classroom. In National Security Law, I have veterans alongside students whose countries have been pummeled by military might. My International Law class is a retort to Anthea Roberts’ great question:“is international law international?” with American J.D students learning right alongside lawyers from Syria, Bulgaria, Honduras, China, and South Sudan. And then, personally meaningful to me are the kickass first generation students that I get to mentor.

What are one/some of the challenges that you've had, and how have you tackled them? 

Gosh – so many.

Effectiveness- So let’s start with what I think is the core challenge of human rights work generally – which is how to avoid doing more harm than good. Like many in the Global North I came in with an embarrassingly paternalistic view, imagining that this was about “giving voice” to others. Of course, I rapidly realized this was bullshit and that so-called “others” were much more articulate about their own needs than I could ever be. But as to how best to stand in solidarity with survivors of atrocities, and to amplify their voices in a way that gets the change they seek, is a lifetime project. One of keys is to spend time in-country with survivors. The instincts of journalism are helpful in that sense. You can’t report out a story sitting behind a computer screen half a world away.

Balance- To this day I pinch myself that I’m not in the kind of minimum wage job that comes with not graduating from high school, and that I get to invest myself in projects far beyond just securing the basics of my own food and shelter. You think I’d be over that by now. But it’s a very present point of comparison for me. With the recognition that, but for a few serendipitous moments, my life would look very different, comes a huge sense of responsibility to make the most of the opportunities I have. Needless to say, this mindset is highly conducive to burnout! And because I started late, I constantly feel like I’m running out of time. So until I met my husband, I really didn’t do anything but work. But one of the great things about life is that you meet people and things change. Building a family has not lessened the degree I want to work, but it’s added another dimension of life that I’m equally passionate about immersing myself in. And so then the struggle is how to balance those things. [See below]

#metoo- Finally, there’s no getting away from the impact of having been raped by my boss during my first internship, at a time when I had no reason to doubt that he could make good on his threat to destroy me if I told anyone. As I’ve written about since, the mental map of my professional world has been shaped by that event and its aftermath. I hope that over time #metoo can help bring about the cultural and structural changes needed, but in the interim it is at least making visible what many of us have been navigating, sub silentio, our whole careers. 


Do you have any advice for those who embarking on a career in public international law, particularly advice for women?

Nourish your friendships: There are the friends in my professional cohort who can tell me an idea is crazy and can say that with honesty and love. And who equally, when I have an idea I’m unsure about, will say “just do it.” Nurture these friendships. But also nurture those with people who have no clue what your professional world looks like, but who have known you forever and will sustain you in ways that nobody else can. 

Listen to all the advice you get, but filter it through the lens of who you are:  Even the most well-intentioned advice comes from a particular set of experiences that may or may not be relevant to you. Everyone told me that the way to break into International Criminal Law was to work in a domestic system first and then transfer across. This wasn’t an option for me. I was U.S.-qualified lawyer without U.S. residency, let alone U.S. citizenship. But, in fact, this advice of “domestic practice first” came from international criminal lawyers who had graduated before the modern system of international criminal justice had come into existence, and so they had no option but to start off domestically. But that didn’t mean it would be impossible for me. 

Be the expert, then be open to opportunity: There are always many pathways. Rather than slavishly following advice, you need to work hard on the substance and gain real expertise. Don’t shortchange yourself on that work. But once you have the substance, you can then actively insert yourself into places where opportunities arise, and be able to recognize them and say yes!

When do you say “YES”? When facing professional choices, I have always asked myself “am I excited and terrified about this in equal amounts?” If so, then yes is the right decision. If I’m not really excited about something, then it’s not worth the cost of doing it full time at the expense of other opportunities, especially now with four small kids in tow. And if I’m not terrified, then I’m not far enough outside my comfort zone to learn anything. 

If you’re going to have a partner, make sure it’s the right one: Marrying my husband, Ben, was one of the best days of my life. But at that time, I hadn’t even begun to appreciate the significance of the decision I had made. Ben’s instinctive response to every great professional opportunity I encounter is “say yes, then we’ll find a way to make it work”.  And, of course, it has to go both ways.  I think the most important thing is that we both love seeing each other enjoying what we do. 

“Balance” doesn’t mean you need to accomplish everything at once: I’m grateful to Anne-Marie Slaughter for helping develop my thinking on this. The notion of “balance” is not something that has to be calculated or assessed on a daily or a weekly basis. Hopefully, our lives will be long. And a sense of balance is really something that should be calculated over a lifetime.  We can’t accomplish it all at once.  Today, with four children ranging from 18 months to 6 years, it is not an ideal point in my life to be based in a war zone. But it is an absolutely wonderful time to be a law professor. I think it’s important to appreciate that each of life’s stages are different, and work and life can, and often should, look very different in each.  

Rebecca Hamilton was interviewed by Kate Gibson, an Australian lawyer who has been appearing before the international criminal courts and tribunals since 2005. Currently co-counsel to Radovan Karadžić at the UN-MICT, between 2009 and 2018 she represented Jean-Pierre Bemba at the ICC. She has also represented accused and victims before the ICTR, ICTY, ECCC and SCSL. In July 2018, Kate was appointed Legal Consultant to the United Nations Independent Impartial Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. She holds an appointment as a Senior Legal Consultant (Africa) with the International Development Law Organisation in Rome, working within the judicial sector in Rwanda. She was also a groomsman at the wedding of Bec and Ben.

Sareta Ashraph