Helen Durham

Dr. Helen Durham is Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters in Geneva. In her current role she oversees a large global network of international lawyers, policy advisers, armed forces delegates, weapons specialists, sociologists, researchers and academic experts who work towards respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). Throughout her career, Helen has been involved in ICRC operational work in the field (in Myanmar, Aceh, the Philippines and across the Pacific) and has been part of negotiations for international treaties in New York, Geneva, and Rome.

Admitted as a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria and High Court of Australia, Helen has a law degree with honours from the Melbourne University and a PhD in international law by the same University. She is widely published on IHL topics, in particular those relating to women and armed conflict. In 2014 she was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, in 2015 she was awarded as an Australian Centenary Peacewoman and in 2017 she was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia. Follow Helen on Twitter @HADurhamICRC)


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

I’ve always been drawn to issues of social justice. As a law student I was involved in many causes: supporting survivors of domestic violence, advocating to ensure that the Australian government had adequate numbers of women in the humanitarian asylum seekers process, and working with sex workers on their legal rights. From these experiences I could appreciate the beauty and the strength of the legal framework to bring about social change.

I started my professional career as a labor lawyer, working with builder and industrial unions. It was a very masculine environment and I quickly found that I was drawn to issues relating to the empowerment of women. I decided then to volunteer with a friend working with women who had been victims of sexual violence during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. We formed a group in Australia trying to push forward jurisprudence on the prohibition of sexual violence, in particular pushing for clarity that rape was a war crime. Through that journey I discovered this extraordinary body of law: International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

To me, IHL can be summarized by this amazing concept that even in times of war we have to find a pocket of humanity. I became convinced that we need to work collectively on how we are treat each other in the worst of times.

From there I returned to post-graduate study for my Masters and PhD degrees, also focused on women and conflict and how we could get clearer jurisprudence on sexual violence as a prohibited act. I just fell in love with this idea -at the same time aspirational and heartbreaking- that you can try to reduce suffering in war through the legal framework.

What were some high or turning points in your career thus far?

I think in life there are the big symbolic ‘high points’ and then the important small sparkles.

For me, a high point has been to be part of the negotiations of international law, for example the creation of the International Criminal Court or more recently the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. The big symbolic ‘jumps forward’ in the normative framework of IHL are memorable. It has been really satisfying while appreciating and seeing that these things don’t happen without many, many people making an effort.

But what has ‘kept me going’ in my career was seeing the law moving beyond the black letter and into people’s lives. Working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a detention delegate I could see articles of law becoming alive to allow a detained nursing mother to have extra food… Telling women who have been victims of sexual violence of the jurisprudence of the international tribunals. In other words, really living those moments when you connect as people through the ambitions of the law.

And finally, another big highlight of my career is when I meet people whose thoughts and reflections I’ve contributed to, through the books and articles I’ve written. It makes me feel that I have contributed to this journey.

What are some of the challenges that you have faced in this journey? And how have you overcome them?

Working on international law in the nineties (and I can imagine what the situation was before that) was to work within a very masculine paradigm. There were a number of times when I was younger, and I was going to give a lecture to the military on IHL issues and I was suddenly asked to prepare coffee or make photocopies because it was assumed that I was the secretary. It happened more than once, and I tried to face it with humor and demonstrate that yes: I can make coffee and photocopies but certainly I can also give a quality presentation on the conduct of hostilities under IHL. I tried not to get offended. I didn’t feel I had the luxury to get offended. I felt I had the luxury however to show that we shouldn’t put each other in boxes.

But perhaps the biggest challenge that I encountered -and it is the same that many women face- was regarding work-life balance. International humanitarian law has the word ‘international’ in the title and it didn’t hit me until after I started working that it meant a very particular lifestyle. And with two children at home I had to make career choices at different points; and to move in and out of my international career to put my focus on different things at different times.

I started with the Australia Red Cross in the nineties as a National manager for IHL and pretty soon I was doing missions for the ICRC. I became a Regional Legal Adviser for the Asia Pacific Region, working with 16 different countries to encourage wide ratification of IHL treaties. I loved that role. But when my second child was born, it became very difficult to manage the constant travel and I decided that instead of ‘great lawyer’ in my tombstone, I wanted it to read ‘loved mum’.

I then took a teaching position at the Melbourne university on IHL and continued to write books, so I continued to develop and to be involved. But these choices can feel a bit lonely and scary at times. You wonder if you’ll be able to get back into the things that you’re really passionate about.

Our lives are long, and our progression is not linear. Women better understand that their careers will not be ‘junior lawyer, middle level manager, senior managers etc…’ We take different pathways and for me it meant to be able to move into academia, when I needed to spend more time with my children and reflect on my experiences, and then going back to the field as a delegate or take a senior manager role when they were older.

And this balance is a constant challenge. I just had a recent experience about this. My 14-year-old daughter had a very important concert for which she was preparing extremely hard. She was really looking forward to my being there, but she had said ‘I understand, mum, if you can’t make it.’ It was so important for her that I said: ‘over my dead body I won’t go’. And then, four days before the concert, I was told that I had to brief the UN Security Council on the ICRC position on counter-terrorism issues. It is like ‘a conflict of norms:’ you have this clash that you can’t solve. I had to be creative. I asked the teacher if I could attend the dress rehearsal the day before, which I did. My daughter was thrilled as it was extra special, and I got to do an important part of my job. You are constantly negotiating internally for solutions to your dual professional-family responsibilities: “I am a mum, so I should be there for my kids and for myself, but I am also a Director of Law and I must brief the UNSC on critical issues.” How do you find creative ways to be both?

What is your advice for people - especially young women - who are seeking to work in international law?

My first advice would be to be kind and honest to yourself and others. To yourself, because we all have this little voice saying: “you can’t do it, you’re a fake”. You must drown that voice out. You must have a sense of self-care. And this also means honesty and being courageous enough to acknowledge when things aren’t working or you need to find different ways to engage in a problem.

And be kind and honest to other women. I have had many interactions with other women in senior positions and we’re curious about each other, from the big things such as legal readings down to how to pack a dress and avoid the wrinkles for formal high-level meetings, the minutia. And this can result in support for each other but can also result in judgement. We need to show compassion to each other.

My next piece of advice, particularly for women in international humanitarian law is to be truly passionate and committed because the road is tough. You constantly witness the law fail people, you are there when it just doesn’t work, and it is then that you must find the strength to persevere. You must be optimistic about this body of law and hold on strong to the times you see if change a life. And if you must: be strategic and do a tactical retreat when things won’t work in a certain way but keep believing with integrity in your heart. That will keep you going through the hard times.

Finally, I would say, understand that your professional career is a long journey, not a linear step-by-step path. Give yourself the opportunity to move in and out as you follow different routes and be supportive to other women that are doing the same.

Dr. Helen Durham was profiled for ATLAS by Gisela Hernandez, ICRC Legal Adviser to Operations. Follow Gisela on Twitter @GIX_HER

Sareta Ashraph