Kate Mackintosh is the inaugural Executive Director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA School of Law. She relocated to Los Angeles from The Netherlands, where she was closely involved in international justice over a number of years, as Deputy Registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), legal officer with the judges of the ICTY and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, prosecution appeals lawyer, and defence co-counsel. As Head of Humanitarian Affairs for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) she guided field operations on humanitarian law, protection and advocacy from their Amsterdam headquarters over a period of eight years. Kate started her career as a lawyer in the UK, and worked for human rights in field situation in Bosnia and Rwanda. She is the author of numerous articles and reports on the principles of humanitarian action, the protection of civilians and international criminal justice.
What pulled you towards international law as a career? And what were your first steps?
I went into law because I wanted to work in human rights. I had studied history and philosophy with African and Asian studies as an undergraduate. After graduating, I applied for jobs in human rights, with no success. So I thought, ‘Maybe if I qualify as a lawyer I stand a better chance of getting a job in human rights.’
I started off in a small civil rights firm in London. It was meaningful work, but the thought of getting stuck in the traditional legal career path scared me. And I didn’t want to spend my whole life on Camden High Street. It was at that time that I saw a small advert in a newspaper saying that Amnesty International was looking for French-speaking lawyers to work in Rwanda. That ad was such a turning point for me! I could have so easily not followed it up and actually I almost didn’t. I remember going to the pub after work with a colleague and telling him – almost shame-facedly – that this was something I really wanted. It was so…outside the framework of what we were doing and what we were supposed to do. He asked me if I had followed up and I said that I hadn’t. He said: ‘Why not?’ and then I thought to myself, ‘Yes, why not?’. I followed up and, to cut a long story short, it was a call from UN Volunteers to work with the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Rwanda and…I got to go!
As part of my preparation for the mission I read the ICTR Statute. I was astonished. Bear in mind that I had not studied international law at this point. I remember thinking: ‘You’re kidding – I could work on the crime of genocide?’ I had been working with crimes likes theft, involving the intent to permanently deprive someone of their property, and the ICTR was looking at genocide and the intent to destroy a whole human group! I had my first inkling then that the law itself, as well as the mission, might be interesting.
I went to Rwanda and worked there for a year. When I came back, I did an LL.M in international human rights law at Essex, which was my next step towards an international law career. This was in 1996-1997. I discovered that I was fascinated by international humanitarian law. The TadićInterlocutory Appeal on Jurisdiction Decision had recently come out, which was very exciting as it added definition to so many aspects of that then underused law.
At the end of the LL.M I found out about an ICTY EU-sponsored programme looking for one junior lawyer to work with each judge at the tribunal. I applied and Antonio Cassese selected me to work with him. This was thrilling: the judge whose name was on that Tadićdecision that we had been pouring over the whole year!
What have been the high points of your career thus far?
Working in Rwanda was definitely the most extraordinary learning experience for me. I was there only one year after the genocide had ended and the consequences were still very visible as well as emotionally present. It was all very intense. Also, we were working on trying to rebuild a legal system and thinking about what it takes to deal with this kind of crime, whereas previously I had focused on criminal defence. It was a different kind of responsibility.
Working with Antonio Cassese was also a high point, for the reasons mentioned above, but also because of what he was like as a person, and because of what we were doing: we were really writing international criminal law. That felt hugely exciting.
Thinking not only of high points, but also of moments when you realise why it is that you are doing what you are doing, something that stands out for me is a visit I made to Northern Rakhine state around 2010. When I joined MSF my office-mate had just come back from Bangladesh where he had been visiting MSF’s Rohingya programme. I was shocked because the situation he described sounded like a sort of slow form of genocide. Among other things, he told me that families had to apply for permission to have children, to a maximum of two per family. At the time I was writing an article about international core crimes with contemporary examples, and in relation to genocide I did not have an example of measures intended to prevent births within a group. This was it.
That is how I first heard of the Rohingya situation. I was deeply involved with it for the whole 8 years that I worked with MSF, though it was not for about 6 years that I visited the projects myself. We were struggling with the question of what to do with the information we had concerning what was happening to these people -which was not as acute as the attacks in 2017, but was still terrible. We knew that if we made any sort of big public announcement, we stood the risk of the Myanmar authorities expelling us. We therefore organised a meeting local staff who were Rohingya themselves and asked them what they thought about having MSF present vs. having us speak out. They asked us to: ‘Please, just speak out, we have nothing left to lose.’ I remember 40- and 50-year-old men crying in the meeting, recounting sexual assaults of their wives and daughters. I really felt the emotional weight of a situation that I had been working on for a long time.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced and how have you tackled them?
Having children and an intense job is always a challenge. We can all relate to the feeling that you are somehow failing on both sides of the equation. At work people might feel that you are not there enough, while some of the parents of your kids’ friends probably think that you are always at work. You want two wholes of yourself instead of two halves and that is impossible.
I had my first daughter while I was at the ICTY and she was 10 months old when I returned to work. At the time I used to commute from Amsterdam and I just thought, ‘This is ridiculous!’. I was spending 2 to 3 hours of my day on the commute, not being at work and not being at home. I started to look around, and I was just lucky that the perfect job – international humanitarian law and human rights adviser at MSF in Amsterdam – came up at this time. I am not sure how I would have managed otherwise. It was a good time for me to leave the ICTY – I had already been there for a number of years and the work was of course still very meaningful, but compared to when I had started, it was a lot less new. And MSF was in Amsterdam!
Because the MSF office in Amsterdam is a Dutch organization, it has a Dutch approach to the working culture: working four days a week was completely normal. I managed to continue working four days a week even when I became head of the department, which was unusual even for MSF. I also had my second daughter while working with them. I left MSF when my daughters were nine and seven years old, respectively, so I was lucky enough to have a job which was somewhat flexible while my children needed me the most.
I have also moved a couple of times – both because of my work and because of my husband’s work. While I wanted to move each time, moving with a family is always a challenge. I left MSF to go to Cambodia because of my husband’s work . He had been representing someone at the ECCC for a number of years, and once the trial started he had to be there every day. While that could have been a problem, I decided to see it as an opportunity.
I moved without a job and, after spending three months helping my daughters settle in – which was emotionally hard work – I started to work independently as a consultant. None of my assignments were related to Cambodia, but rather connected to issues I had been working on before. My main contract was to lead a big UN research project on counter-terrorism and humanitarian action.
I have just made another, perhaps more radical, move, from Amsterdam to Los Angeles to set up the Promise Institute for Human Rights at UCLA Law. This time my daughters are 14 and 16 and, except for the time spent in Cambodia, have spent their wholes lives in Amsterdam. Before accepting the job, we visited LA as a family to see if we wanted to live here, and we decided together that this was something we wanted to do. But it was nonetheless tough in the beginning, and the adjustments were demanding for all of us. Setting up a new Institute from scratch is also quite a challenge! But I am happy to say, seven months in, that it all seems to be going well.
Do you have any advice for those, especially women, who are embarking on a career in international law?
Say it out loud. Name what you want to do. Back in the days when I wanted to work in human rights I was almost shy to say so because I thought that everybody wanted to do the same and that it sounded like such a cliché. However, that is not true. Not everybody wants to do the same thing. Also, it is good to say it out loud because then people will think of you that way and may pass opportunities along.
Follow-up on anything that sounds interesting. Thinking back to the advert in the paper that I nearly did not follow-up, I would strongly advise: follow-up on anything that you are interested in. You don’t want to miss an opportunity.
Be alert and know when to say yes. I am not somebody who plans my life, firstly because I just don’t, but also because I am not sure that is the way life works. Pursuing opportunities as they arose has been the way I have moved forward rather than having set out from the start to work in particular places. That would have been impossible in any case because many of the things that I ended up doing did not exist 10 years earlier. My advice in this respect is to just go in whatever direction is most interesting if you have a number of choices and to stay alert – and open – to opportunities.
If at all possible, try to live in a way that allows you to do things that pay less money. While I know that this is not possible for everybody, I do think that giving yourself the flexibility to be able to go between a well-paid UN job, a much less well-paid NGO job, maybe academia, etc will enable you to go after the really interesting opportunities. Some of the most interesting work is badly paid and it would be a shame not to be able to do it, especially when you are trying to develop yourself and build up your career.
Get field experience early. I am mainly thinking here of someone who wants to work in human rights, humanitarian law, or international criminal law, as there are obviously other fields which do not require you to do the same. But if you want to work with a body of law which deals with crises, do try to work in affected countries as early as possible, because this does become more difficult once you have a partner, children, or other life commitments.
Raluca is an Associate Legal Officer in the Chambers of the International Criminal Court. She holds a bachelor’s degree in law from the Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and an LL.M in Public International Law and an LL.M in European Law from Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Previously, she worked as a junior researcher at Utrecht University on a project on jurisdiction and global values and as an Assistant Legal Officer and, subsequently, as an Associate Legal Officer at the ICTY and interned in the Defence Office of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as well as in the Terrorism Prevention Branch of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In her free time, alongside traveling, she assists as a bench member and memorial evaluator for public international law and international criminal law moot courts.