Elizabeth Griffin

Elizabeth (Liz) Griffin's career in international law spans two decades. Liz has extensive experience working with NGOs and the United Nations investigating violations of human rights and humanitarian law in conflict and post-conflict situations. As Professor of Law, she has held positions at the University of Essex (United Kingdom), the University of Oxford, the UN University for Peace  (Costa Rica), and Jindal Global University (India) where she has taught and mentored thousand of students and directed two human rights centres. Liz is currently a Fellow of Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, Extraordinary Lecturer at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria (South Africa). She also serves on the Advisory Board of the NGO, Universal Rights Group.

Liz’s most recent research critically examines the responsibilities of human rights organisations and the impact that viewing traumatic eyewitness media has upon the mental health of staff working for human rights, humanitarian, and news organisations. Liz is an advocate for wellbeing in the non-profit sector and she runs wellbeing retreats around the world. In 2019 she is in residence at the UNESCO award-winning Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria where, alongside teaching, she will spearhead an empirical study into the impact of structured coaching and mentorship programs upon the work of human rights defenders. 

As freelance coach and mentor, Liz helps women to maximise their professional and personal potential providing personal and professional development support and advice. Liz empowers women at all levels of their international careers, including senior UN staff, NGO directors, mid-career activists and women who are taking their first steps. 

Follow her @ProfLizGriffin 

Liz Griffin was interviewed for ATLAS by Yashaswini (Yasha) Mittal, an Indian lawyer who works on issues at the intersection of public health and human rights. @ymittal 


What pulled you towards international law as a career? And what were your first steps?

I was not called Elizabeth when I was born. I was renamed Elizabeth by a generous British couple who rescued me from a children’s home in the early 1970s. Had it not been for this twist of fate I am sure that my life would have taken a very different path and I doubt that I would have had a career in international law. In fact, I may have had neither the privilege of an education nor the luxury of living in a country free from war.

As a young woman I was absolutely fascinated by my roots and this led me on a personal journey of discovery that shaped my professional path. My desire to learn about my roots motivated me to study Serbo-Croatian language, literature and regional studies as an undergraduate. The career advisors did not know what to say, except that I should consider translation or joining the secret service! 

A tragic twist of fate turned my obscure education into a valuable asset. When war erupted in the former Yugoslavia, my skills became a hot commodity. For all intents and purposes, I was a British woman who spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian and knew the former Yugoslavia like the back of her hand. I went to work for Save the Children in Bosnia during the war on projects for internally displaced persons (IDPs). This was not a calculated career move. Rather, it was something I felt I had to do. As a young woman who had been adopted and brought up in the UK, I was determined to do something about war in “my country.”  

I remember clearly the defining movement that ignited my curiosity for international law. It was July 1995. I was stationed at an IDP reception centre in central Bosnia and my task was to coordinate assistance for people who had been forcibly expelled from the UN “safe haven”, Srebrenica. I greeted them, carried bags, coordinated assistance, and listened to horrific stories of the siege, genocide, lives and homes destroyed, the barbaric expulsion from Srebrenica, and the impotence of the UN. My reaction was visceral. The injustice permeated my every cell. I somewhat naively resolved to do whatever I could to fight for justice and prevent this from ever happening again. I was frustrated with my humanitarian role, giving out sympathy, sticking plasters and handing out sleeping bags - and I was haunted by the fact that, had things been different, this really could be happening to me. I searched for tools to prevent, stop, and punish injustice. This is was what led me to study international law. 

My first job in the international legal field was at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and it was the combination of my language and legal skills that got me the job. I worked with the Office of Prosecutor when only one suspect - Dušan Tadić - was in detention and I was involved in search and seizure operations that secured key evidence for future trials. At the time I think even those of us working there were a bit sceptical - looking back is really incredible to see just how far the international criminal law project has advanced. 

The formative years of my career were spent investigating, documenting, and devising advocacy strategies to prevent and punish violations of international law in conflict and post-conflict situations, often with very little organisational support. For example, I established and managed Amnesty International’s (AI) first ever field office in Kosovo in 1999, just after the NATO intervention at the height of the bloodletting. It was a precarious and dangerous time - we had no security advisors, no evacuation plan, and very little substantive support.Our work pushed the boundaries of international law. We were amongst the first to publicly argue that when acting as a de factogovernment, the UN should uphold the same international legal standards that apply to States - a legal argument that was rejected outright by the UN at the time, but is now accepted. 

My first full-time role with the UN was with the Department of Peace-Keeping Operations (DPKO). As Human Rights Advisor to the UN Police Commissioner my job included the provision of legal advice on operations, procedures and policies; designing and delivering human rights trainings; and serving on the UN board of internal inquiry for police misconduct. It was an eye-opening, hair-raising and challenging experience, not least because each of the 53 police contingents was adamant that its own domestic law was thelaw within a context where no one could actually agree what the applicable domestic law was! 

In Afghanistan, as Gender Advisor on the Rule of Law for Amnesty International, I investigated and reported on the international community’s failed efforts to re-establish the rule of law and horrific gender-based human rights violations. I spent months in Afghan prisons interviewing women and girl survivors of gender-based violence who were accused of zina crimes and had been subjected to a catalogue of fair trial rights violations. Afghanistan did not have, and still does not have, an international criminal mechanism. It is is worth underlining just how important “old fashioned” investigative and advocacy work is in situations where international criminal law has no reach. As Consultant Gender Advisor to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) I had the immense challenge of mapping gender-based human rights violations in seven Central American countries. This involved field research and a comprehensive review of the decisions and statements of the UN human rights machinery and the Inter-American Commission and Court. The final outcome was the delivery of a regional strategy and work plan on gender for OHCHR. 

Just over five years of field work, mainly in conflict situations, took its toll on my heath and wellbeing. I remember being offered a post with DPKO in Sierra Leone. I turned it down and instead ran for cover in the ivory tower. I took a junior academicposition in the Department of Law, University of Essex. This was the start of what is now an eighteen-year academic career that led me to live and work at universities in Africa, Asia, the Americas,and Europe, eventually becoming Professor of International Law. 

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

It is not what some might perceive as the “sexy” stuff, meaning working for NGOs and the UN. For me, the high point has always been contributing to the teaching branch of the international legal profession.

As a legal academic you get to work with the most incredible thinkers, plotters, and schemers - and you have the space to think about, and come up with responses to complex and emerging international legal problems in a deeply creative, explorative and experimental way. Some of my most incredible moments, some of which have led to radical acts of international law, have been spent collaborating with some truly inspirational women in the field, including Patricia Sellers,  Magdalena Sepúlveda CarmonaRadhika CoomaraswamyFrançoise HampsonFrances RadayRatna Kapur, Başak Çali, and Sylvia Tamale.

There have been so many high points - holding the Deputy Directorship of the Essex University Human Rights Centre; directing the large symphony orchestra that is the University of Oxford - George Washington University Summer School in International Human Rights Law; setting up the UN University for Peace Human Rights Centre; and, of course, being appointed in 2012 as Professor of Law. I was honoured to join the ranks of extraordinary faculty (I love the “extraordinary” bit!) in the Department of Law, University of Pretoria in 2015. Contributing to the work of the University of Pretoria UNESCO award-winning Centre for Human Rights as a teacher, mentor and supervisor on the LL.M, D. Phil., and LL.D programmes is the most rewarding role I have had to date. I am really excited to be in residence at the Centre this year, supporting the outstanding activists, lawyers, and thinkers who converge here. 

Teaching and mentoring students is a really powerful form of legal advocacy in the international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law fields. The design of a course, degree scheme or programme - what you put into the curriculum, how you deliver your teaching and the messages you covey both in the classroom and outside as a mentor - has a direct impact on the future development of international law and on the careers of those you teach. I have an expertise in at least three branches of international law, but I am above all dedicated to teaching good old public international law. I now see some academic programs and lawyers that specialise in just one branch of PIL that get things wrong because they do not fully understand the context within which that one branch is located as they lack a grounding in the basic foundations and operational principles of PIL. It was a high point publishing my views on this

Equipping the next generation of advocates with the legal and practical tools they need to be effective is a huge responsibility but it is highly rewarding. It is wonderful when a former student gets in touch to me to tell me about their incredible work and says something like; “you inspired me and I still use what you taught me. Thank you.” 

Can you talk about one of the challenges that you have faced and how you tackled it? 

After long-term fieldwork in some really tough places and being harassed by a colleague - yes, #metoo - I was depressed and displaying symptoms of PTSD. I developed autoimmune disease and lost 80% of my hair. It was the most challenging time of my career and life.

I had to rebuild my life and I had to do it by myself. Mental health in our field was, and sadly still is, seen as a weakness. It is a huge taboo. This is so wrong because so many people, like I did, develop mental health problems as a direct result of their work. I felt I could not talk about it because of the “tough up or get out” mentality. I had to work out for myself what support was right for me and go out and find it. It was a really long and hard path of regular psychotherapy, diet changes, daily exercise, yoga, meditation and bringing back the things I really love into my life. 

I rekindled my passion for art and discovered the Japanese art of Kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi artists take broken pottery and reform it, using a gold resin to create beautiful work of art. It shows us that we can take an object that we perceive to be broken and create a something that is even more beautiful than the original, exactly because it went through the process of breakage and repair. So, breakages, cracks, war wounds if you like, are merely symbols of what we have survived. They do not define us, nor do they cause our destruction. The process of being broken allowed me to piece together something new, something extraordinarily unique and beautiful which would never have become had I not cracked.

What advice do you have for those who are embarking on a career in public international law? 

Be passionate. Some years ago, I wrote in the Journal for Human Rights Practice about one characteristic evident in human rights professionals. I call it the “passion factor”, and I see it in all of the inspiring women I know in international law. The passion factor is essentially the altruism that motivates us to do the work that we do. It underlies our decisions to forego more financially rewarding careers, take those bloody unpaid internships (when we should actually say no), work ridiculously long hours, and keep going when we hit challenges and roadblocks. Be passionate about what you do because it is the key to success and longevity in this field. Get all the support you need to maintain that passion. 

Retain a sense of what one person can realistically achieve. Be passionate and aim for great things, but don't be naive. International law is not going to solve the world’s problems any time soon. Understand that you are part of a multi-generational project, the results of which may not come to fruition in your lifetime. Recognise the limitations of international law. Manage your expectations so that you may view your own contribution within the proper context. Change is slow. We must focus on and celebrate the small victories. If you are not realistic about the constraints of the system you set yourself up for frustration, disillusionment, stress and burnout. 

The most important cause is YOU! Never forget this. Be passionate about your work but be even more passionate about YOU. You are more important than any “greater cause”, any one job, organisation or deadline. It is dangerous and counterproductive to work all the time, deny yourself a personal life, stay in a job you hate, or in an exploitative or abusive situation. Put yourself first and walk away from toxic situations and people. Your health, wellbeing, personal and professional development and your own happiness is the number one cause in this life, and you must support it. To be an effective conduit for change you must create a whole, healthy and happy life. Educate yourself about chronic stress, burnout, vicarious trauma and PTSD. It is so prevalent and unless you are made of stone you are going to experience negative emotional states if you deal with misery day in and out. 

Never stop improving yourself and get the right support.When faced with a challenge your first question should be, who can I reach out to for support? If you hit a rough patch like I did know that it is a strength, not a weakness, to get professional support. Invest in your personal development. Throw money at yourself! Join that gym, take that holiday, treat loved ones, hire that coach, sign up for that course, learn a language, invest in doing things that you absolutely love. Constantly work on Project You and forget the money. You are the most important cause to donate to, and your personal development is the best investment there is. 

Sareta Ashraph