Kim Thuy Seelinger
Kim Thuy Seelinger is the Director of the Sexual Violence Program at the Human Rights Center at University of California’s Berkeley School of Law (HRC). She oversees the Center’s research, teaching, and writing on sexual violence during armed conflict and forced migration. She also teaches Refugee Law and serves as supervising attorney to Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Workshop. Kim’s current work focuses on accountability for wartime sexual violence, protection in humanitarian settings, and the prosecution of international crimes in national courts. For this, she has conducted extensive field research throughout Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and Europe.
Kim also provides technical support to judges, prosecutors, victims’ counsel, and investigators in international criminal law trials. Most recently, her team successfully intervened in the case against Hissène Habré, the former president of Chad, and of Thomas Kwoyelo in Uganda. At the policy level, Kim serves on the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Advisory Group on Gender, Forced Displacement, and Protection. She was also an expert commentator on the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict (2014, 2017) and supports francophone African magistrates for the Cassese Initiative and Asser Institute in the Hague. She has won awards for her teaching and public service, including a Rockefeller Bellagio residency in 2016 and earned HRC’s nomination for a MacArthur Award, which the Center was awarded in 2015. Before coming to HRC, Kim was a staff attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of the Law, where she co-taught the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic and represented asylum seekers fleeing gender-based violence. Follow Kim on @ktseelinger
Kim was profiled for ATLAS by Angela Mudukuti, a a Zimbabwean lawyer currently with the Wayamo Foundation, where she focuses on capacity building for African prosecutors and investigators to further enhance domestic capacity to investigate and prosecute core international crimes. Find out more about Angela’s work at the end of the profile and follow Angela on @AngelaMudukuti.
What pulled you towards international law as a career? And what were your first steps?
You can’t really tell by looking at me, but I was born in Liberia. I spent most of my childhood in Bahrain, Australia, and Indonesia, due to my father’s work. We made our big move to the United States when I was 13. By that point it was not necessarily a conscious choice to work on international issues, as I was just oriented that way. It was all I knew. The question was how to do it, with which tools, and through which discipline?
I originally considered going into journalism or diplomacy (or even fine art, but that is another story). I was ultimately drawn to international law, as it seemed to me to promise the most hands-on skillset. I decided to study at NYU, which has such a strong international law program. I spent my first summer of law school in The Hague and the second in Vietnam; I was preparing to head back overseas after graduation. Things were all falling into place.
Except, right at the start of my third year of law school in downtown Manhattan, the Twin Towers were attacked. This was September 11, 2001, of course.
Aside from the immediate impact on life in New York City at that time, the 9/11 attacks also forced me to re-orient myself professionally. I still wanted to pursue international human rights work, but my classmates and I quickly realised that this attack would trigger a massive national security crackdown, which would have a devastating impact on immigrants - particularly folks from the Middle East and South Asia. And it would all start in our own backyard. A dozen of us were enrolled in NYU’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic that semester, so we tried to learn everything we could about deportation defense before graduation. I had to put my fantasies of becoming an international human rights lawyer on hold. Instead, that fall, I scrambled to secure a post-graduate fellowship to represent low-income immigrants throughout NYC’s five boroughs.
Fortunately, I was granted a fellowship to work with a scrappy but brilliant immigration non-profit based in Times Square. We took the lion’s share of the city’s “Special Registration” cases – this was the national security program instituted right after 9/11, requiring immigrant men from mostly Middle Eastern and South Asian countries to present themselves for possible removal proceedings. I worked with a no-nonsense, tireless team of women to represent dozens and dozens of men who were swept up by this absurd registration law. We fought for them every way we could – immigration relief, regulatory violations, constitutional rights. (I have to admit, these days, I have flashbacks, with the Trump administration’s travel bans and border policies …)
I also ended up working on asylum claims as a way to protect clients from deportation. Somehow along the way, I got most of the sexual and gender-based violence cases, as well. Perhaps this was because I was the only lawyer in the office who could speak French and many of our clients from francophone Africa were fleeing domestic violence, female genital mutilation, or conflict-related sexual violence. I also ended up representing many male survivors of sexual violence – they had been tortured in detention or violated by paramilitaries or brutalized by homophobic strangers. In time, I started specializing in these gender-based claims – I knew where to refer survivors for psychosocial support, for HIV testing, for restraining orders. I suppose I also developed a way of interviewing and enabling folks to talk about these experiences. I was often the first person a survivor had ever told his or her story of rape, of incest, of sexualized torture. Can you imagine? That felt like a huge responsibility– so I wanted to focus on these clients, really learn how to serve and support them best.
For family reasons, I moved to San Francisco in late 2006. I was fortunate that a job soon opened up at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) at the University of California, Hastings. I was a clinical fellow and staff attorney from 2007 to 2010. I was very lucky to work under Karen Musalo and deepen my focus on gender asylum, not just representing clients but also supporting CGRS’s policy advocacy and strategic litigation work. It was a way of still staying in touch with international human rights issues while continuing to practice in a domestic context.
It was a great position, but I was very happy when the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley launched its Sexual Violence Program in 2010. I came on as its first director. I’ve shaped the programme around my interests and strengths: conflict-related sexual violence and refugee protection from gender-related harms. I used to spend more time in The Hague but more and more, I work with judges and lawyers in national level courts – mostly in Africa. It’s fascinating to be back in a domestic context, trying to figure out how to apply international law locally – particularly international criminallaw. I love working shoulder to shoulder with Ugandan or Kenyan or Congolese colleagues. (Like ATLASers Florence Akello, Judy Gitau, Mariam Marr, and Lydia Muthiani.) They do incredibly hard work, often with such limited resources or at such personal risk – it’s been quite humbling to see how complicated this grand project of “international justice” really is. Our refugee-related work has been more global in scope – as much as I love working with African colleagues, it’s been a wonderful treat to spend more time this past year in Latin America, focusing on gender-based violence and refugee protection there. Of course, it’s always nice to come home. Berkeley is an amazing place to be – at the Law School, I work with amazing ATLAS women Alexa Koenig, Laurel Fletcher, Roxanna Altholz, and Lindsay Freeman. I conduct inter-disciplinary research, teach what I want to teach, and work with brilliant students through it all.
So clearly, the road to where I am today has not been a straight one. Sometimes you have to respond to the crisis of the day. I was glad to do deportation defence work right after 9/11, even though it hadn’t been my plan. We were in crisis and I needed to make myself useful. If the house is on fire, you drop your hoe and get a bucket, right? And how else would I have learned that direct representation is one of the best jobs I could ever have? I know individual client work does not necessarily bring systemic change. But for me, I see now how important it was to work directly with sexual violence survivors and refugees for years before moving into research and policy – I was able to support them, of course, but I also developed skills and sensitivity about the fullness of their needs – not just their legal ones. This grounds me in my work today.
What would you say are the high points of your career thus far?
I suppose there are two different kinds of highlights for me. More professional, public-facing victories and then also moments of quiet, personal joy.
In the first category, working quietly on the Hissène Habré case was definitely an important professional highlight. Again, it was a matter of historical accident. Recall that there had been no sexual crimes charged initially in that case. But by September 2015, witnesses and victims started testifying over and over again about rape in detention, sexual slavery at military camps, sexual torture of men and pregnant women and even children. Folks close to the case sent an urgent message asking if we could do anything – and so my team (including beloved ATLASer Naomi Fenwick) and I dropped everything for two months. With the guidance of expert reviewers like Justice Richard Goldstone, Patti Sellers, Magali Maystre, Beth Van Schaack, Kelly Askin, Nick Koumjian, George Kegoro, Felicia Coleman, Christine Chinkin, Elvina Pothelet, Madeleine Rees, Anne-Marie de Brouwer, and Olympia Bekou, we were able to submit an amicus curiae brief, mapping out potential charges under the court statute and customary international law for the judges’ consideration. It was apparently quite useful as an “informational” resource. The judges revised the charges, as permitted in their system. Habré was ultimately convicted of many of the sexual crimes we had suggested. I will never forget sitting in the Dakar courtroom when the trial judgment was read out – the victims all stood up right there in court, starting singing. It blew my mind to think of how long they had waited for that moment.
I was also thrilled to attend last year’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and banquet honoring Dr. Dennis Mukwege and Ms. Nadia Murad. I don’t know Ms. Murad so well yet but I was so touched to be near Dr. Mukwege in Oslo – I hadn’t seen him in a few years, was so happy to give him a hug that day. What a brave, modest man he is. I admire him and his team so much. I am doing everything I can to help them prepare a reparations fund for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence – it’s a massive but critical project. But something tells me they will get it done.
Then there are the quiet personal highs that just come from working with people. For example with asylum cases, if you are successful you can improve somebody’s life in a very tangible way for the long haul. My old clients in New York are US citizens now. They have kids. I am a godmother to some of those kids. It’s a trip. Working with students at UC Hastings and UC Berkeley has also been a big highlight for me. They are so bright, hungry, hardworking – really, the soon-rising stars in this field. We work, travel, learn, and play together – I brag about them to their parents at graduation, I go to their weddings, I find them housing when they move to NY... Some truly become beloved to me, become family. (And many of them have graduated and are on ATLAS, actually – hello, Lisa Marie Rudi, Sarah Hunter, Jenna Klein, Mary Dadouh, Agustina Perez, Jessica Caplin,Amy Belsher, Blaine Bookey, Naomi Fenwick…)
What are some of the challenges that you've had, and how have you tackled them?
Look, I am a petite half-Asian woman. It was challenging, first coming up. When I graduated from law school I probably looked like I was 15. (No longer, sadly.) My very first case as a clinic student was in Federal District Court – our client had trauma-related cognitive difficulties and we were suing the US government for wrongfully denying her naturalization application. When my classmate and I walked into the courtroom and took our places at the front, with our professor sitting behind us, the middle-aged male government attorney looked over and said something like “interns don’t sit there.” At first, I didn’t realize what he had said. Once it registered, I felt flush with humiliation. I somehow got my wits about me and replied that actually, we were his opposing counsel but thanks for the tip. And we sat down. Everything went fine in terms of the case. But that first interaction – that man’s attempt to intimidate or condescend or I don’t know what – ate at me for the rest of the day. I felt embarrassed, angry. There was so much to celebrate because the case was going well but, really I still could not stop thinking about that thin, sharp moment.
My reaction was to overcorrect. Once I started work after graduation, I tried to look “tough” and “adversarial” in an effort to be taken seriously by opposing counsel. Dress in trousers, be fierce, don’t smile. But I soon realised that this didn’t feel right. It was not an authentic way for me to be. In time, I learned that I simply had to be myself in court and make sure that I knew my cases better than anyone else in the room. There was no need to overcompensate. I just needed to be on top of my game. The rest would follow. I actually did very well by being candid, professional and warm. We don’t have to be men in a male-dominated profession. That said, there isn’t one way to be a woman in it, either. We each have to be ourselves, find our own way.
Another challenge has been understanding and accepting the bounds of my competence. For example, even though I have spent many, many years working with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and I know a thing or two about international criminal law, I am still not a technical expert like the folks who practice those cases day in and day out. So when I am called to assist on a trial, I have learned what I can responsibly take on and when I have to ask other experts to guide me. Thankfully, there are so many brilliant folks out there who have always been willing to brainstorm something with me, like Patti Sellers, Magali Maystre, Beth Van Schaack, Sofia Coehlo Candeias, Naomi Roht Arriaza to name a few. In time, I’ve built a community of mentors and peers in this work – we help each other out in different ways. We have to. Not one of us knows it all. How could we?
One final challenge: I have a five-year-old daughter now. She’s great. But it’s definitely been a struggle to balance my job and family. These past few years, I have had to travel internationally for work almost every other month. As excited as I am to see my colleagues in Uganda, say, I still get this deep ache in my chest on my way to San Francisco airport – I miss my daughter before I even leave town. So I keep my trips surgically short now. I say “no” to more things. I send a lot of silly messages home in the wee hours.
Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?
Coming out of law school, be comfortable with uncertainty. Your dream job won’t present itself right out the gate, nor should it. Just be thoughtful about the opportunities you have and milk them for all they are worth. Be flexible and don’t be afraid to take opportunities that still allow you to learn, grow, find role models. Law Schools in the United States can exert so much pressure to have everything set up before you have even graduated – unfortunately this can signal a lack of support if you want to make your own way, take a few chances. But don’t feel alone if you want to take risks. Groups like ATLAS are brilliant resources for support, ideas, connections. Find a good opening, do good work, stay in touch with your mentors – the ones you impress as a colleague and a person will go to bat for you for years. I promise you. And in the end, honestly, most good opportunities come through your networks – so keep building those.
On a related note, mentoring is very important. Stay in touch with those who mentored you and be sure to pay it forward. Transgenerational support is crucial for women in fields like ours. I believe this with my whole heart.
Be humble. Generally, of course, a little humility is a good thing. But also, as lawyers, we often have huge blind spots about the non-legal needs our clients have and ways to think about a problem in its historical, social, political, and even structural context. Seek out colleagues from other disciplines – they will bring new perspectives, resources, tools. We each hold one piece of the puzzle.
I hope you find work you love. But more importantly, I hope you find a team you love. Granted, we can’t always know in advance what a team will be like until we’re on it. But then, invest time in the people you will spend your days and years with. Working in a field where we are confronted with violations and human brutality day in and day out is tough. We need longevity in this work. As others have mentioned, self-care is critical. But so is team care. Be intentional and pro-active about creating a supportive and even loving work community – it helps sustain us all.
Kim was profiled for ATLAS by Angela Mudukuti. Angela is a Zimbabwean lawyer currently with the Wayamo Foundation, where she focuses on capacity building for African prosecutors and investigators to further enhance domestic capacity to investigate and prosecute core international crimes. Formerly with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), Angela worked on precedent setting cases on crimes against humanity and universal jurisdiction brought before the South African Constitutional Court, and was deeply involved in advocacy and strategic litigation, including seeking the arrest of President Bashir (Sudan) during his visit to South Africa. Prior to joining SALC, Angela worked for the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, and under the supervision of Prof Cheriff Bassiouni at the International Institute for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in Siracusa, Italy. Prior to that, Angela was in private practice in Zimbabwe working on civil and criminal matters. Angela has an LLM in international criminal law and transitional justice and an undergraduate law degree. Angela has written and published on international criminal law issues in books and newspapers. @AngelaMudukuti