Tara Van Ho
Tara Van Ho is a lecturer and the educational director of the post-graduate programmes in human rights at the University of Essex’s School of Law and Human Rights Centre (UK). She is a Vice President of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association (‘BR2R’) and the Conference Chair for the organization’s 2019 annual workshop, which will be held in Essex in September. Her most recent publications include ‘Investor Obligations in Occupied Territories: A report on the Norwegian Government Pension Fund – Global’ and ‘Assessing the Duty of Care for Social Auditors,’ European Review of Private Law, vol. 27(2), both of which came out in April, ‘The Fukushima diaspora: assessing the state-based non-judicial remedies,’ in Civil and Political Rights in Japan: A Tribute to Sir Nigel Rodley(Saul Takahashi, ed.), which came out in February, and ‘The Duty to Prosecute and the Role of Victims’ Rights,’ in Beyond the Binary: Securing Peace and Promoting Justice after Conflict(Nelson Camilo Sanchez and Rodrigo Uprimny, eds.), which came out in January.
A core member of the Essex Business and Human Rights Project, she advises states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and occasionally businesses on issues of business, investment and human rights. Her primary research interest is on the impact of businesses and investment law on situations of armed conflict and transitional justice. As such, she did the principle drafting of a statement by eminent jurists on legal obligations when supporting reconstruction in Syria that was released in September 2018.
She holds a B.A. from Marietta College (Ohio, USA), a J.D. from the University of Cincinnati, an LL.M. in international human rights law and a Ph.D. in Law, both from the University of Essex. She was previously a post-doctoral fellow and an Assistant Professor of Law at Aarhus University. Follow Tara on @TaraVanHo
What first drew you to working in international law?
I grew up in working- and middle-class neighbourhoods in the US Midwest. I was exposed to issues of injustice at a young age. Friends were targeted – by the police, teachers, or random hooligans – because of their race or religion. I watched how socioeconomic inequality becomes cyclical. And at a young age, I also learned how prioritizing business profits over human rights can have devastating consequences, thanks to the US’s absurd approach to healthcare. My parents had health insurance until my dad was laid off (‘made redundant’ in the UK). My mom, who was university-educated but had chosen to stay at home to raise us, found a job working at a McDonald’s franchise, which is how she supported us. Because the local franchise had a small number of employees, it was not required to provide health insurance to its employees.
My parents were in their 30s, healthy, and struggling to pay bills. They made the strategic decision to not purchase health insurance. When my dad finally found a job, their new health insurance kicked in a month before my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the first time. Had she been diagnosed six weeks earlier, the cancer would have been deemed a ‘pre-existing condition,’ meaning the health insurance would not have had to cover her treatment. We would have gone bankrupt trying to save her, and she likely would have died. If, by some miracle, she had survived the first time, we would have faced the same reality five years later when it was discovered to have metastasized to her lung. More likely, without health insurance, my mom wouldn’t have gotten diagnosed the first time until it was too late to save her life.
It took until Obama passed the Affordable Care Act – 25 years after my mother’s first diagnosis – for this to be partly fixed. Still now, Trump wants to overturn that legislation, benefitting businesses but sacrificing the lives of people like my mom. And not just my mom’s life – really, in many ways, they would have sacrificed my life, at least who I am now. I was not an easy child and I was a worse teenager. Had my mom died, it is likely I would not have gone to University. It is more likely I would have ended up in jail or dead by the time I was 20.
Growing up, I saw a lot of people struggle with the same economic and healthcare issues as my parents. Not all of them were as lucky as we were; many of them did not survive because of the choices they were forced to make. Remembering where I come from and how easy it was – and is – for a segment of the US population to write off my mother’s life – and ultimately mine – as economic necessities … it both evokes a level of anger that I can hardly express and is a motivation for my life’s work.
But no one really spoke about human rights or international law in my neighbourhoods. It wasn’t a language or a claim that we knew to use. When I was 20, I studied abroad and did an internship for an NGO working with the British all-party parliamentary group for world government. The whole thing – studying abroad, the internship – were flukes. I didn’t even apply for the internship, but the programme wanted to maintain the relationship and thought my CV was appropriate. I said yes because I thought working for the British parliament would be a fun story to tell my grandchildren someday – particularly since I was convinced I would never live outside of Cleveland again. I could’ve ended up working on tax law and I still would have said yes!
The internship took place right after the signing of the Good Friday accords, during the arrest of Augusto Pinochet, and when the UK pledged to ratify the Rome Statute. I got a crash course in a lot of international law issues. My boss, Dan Wheatley, was patient and generous in talking me through the issues. After returning to the US, I came to realize that I wanted to do human rights, but I didn’t know how you did that.
I share some of this because I think it’s important that we remember that there are individuals and communities who would benefit from understanding how human rights – the theory and discourse, the practice, the law – is meant for them. And we should create pathways for them to move into the field. I had no pathway; it took me about a decade longer than it should have to figure out what I was doing because there was no one to guide me.
What were your first steps?
As I said, I didn’t really know what it meant to do human rights. But I knew law was a way in which to challenge systems and change societies. So, I went to study at the University of Cincinnati’s Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights, which is run by Bert Lockwood, the Editor-in-Chief of the Human Rights Quarterly and the University of Pennsylvania Press’s human rights book series, and a wonderful Program Manager, Nancy Ent. I went there because it was affordable, close to home, and had a good programme. It ended up changing my life.
During my first year, Bert encouraged me to do an internship with the Danish Institute for Human Rights working on business and human rights. When I returned, we established a class and held a conference on the issue. Then, everyone told me to go into corporate law. The theory was that a corporate law firm would give you the training you needed for human rights law while helping you pay off your loans. This might work for other people; it was a bad move for me. Without knowing the term, I felt like I was working against what the Inter-American Court calls my projecto de vida (life project). It was awful. When I asked Bert what to do next – how to move from what I was doing to what I was meant to be doing – he told me to go to Essex and study with Kevin Boyle. So that’s what I did.
Most of my life as it is now can be traced back to these two conversations with Bert Lockwood: the one where he told me to go to Denmark, and the one where he told me to go to Essex. I will never forget that. Anything he ever wants from me he gets. A talk, an article, a kidney, my first-born child… okay, not my first-born child. Actually, all children are off the table. Everything else is on the table.
When I got to Essex, I worked with Kevin and the late Sir Nigel Rodley. I also worked with and found mentors in the amazing and incomparable Clara Sandoval and Sheldon Leader. I worked long hours – much longer than I encourage my own students to work – and just kept saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity that sounded interesting. Conferences, research projects, papers, amicus curiae briefs – yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I now realize this is dangerous, and encourage students to say no more frequently and to be cognizant of their work-life balance, but I really didn’t know what I was doing and I was excited to learn as much as I could.
I eventually realized that I liked setting my own research priorities and agenda. I also really love teaching. So, I decided to create my own job, in a sense, by pursuing an academic life with a research focus on something I find inherently interesting and in an area where I think my voice is still needed. I’ve then worked to practice the collective advice of my Essex mentors by ensuring my academic role complements (and sometimes challenges) the work I and others do as advocates and activists; I work to make sure I’m a public international lawyer first and a human rights lawyer second so that my work is grounded in the law and not my own desires; and I try to think through the balance of rights and interests on both a macro- and micro-level. Clara also has this really powerful voice that I find inspiring. She speaks with nuance, rigour, and a moral clarity about where we need to go. In doing so, she’s allowed me to find my own voice and moral clarity and to use that appropriately. I think that’s an under-valued skill for academics, but it’s sometimes an important one to have.
What are the current challenges to working in business & human rights generally?
There are several issues. First, you are going to lose more frequently than you win, particularly if you’re advocating for the rights of victims. There are around 38,000 transnational corporations in the world, and that doesn’t even include the small- and medium-sized single-nation businesses that can have a huge impact on the realisation of human rights. And we get excited when approximately 2,500 people gather in Geneva each year for the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights. Some of those people are working for states or businesses with bad policies or practices, so we’re really down to maybe – maybe – 2,000 people trying to get 38,000 transnational corporations plus all the small- and medium-sized enterprises in the world to respect human rights and to get all the states in the world to adopt appropriate legislation and enforce it adequately.
Of course we lose more than we win; we’re outnumbered and we’re challenging the status quo of an economic system that dominates the world and benefits the wealthiest and most powerful. I hate losing, so I decided a long time ago that I’d just extend the game time I use to decide if I’ve won or lost. I don’t measure my success on the basis of short-term impacts; I won’t judge my career until it’s over, and even then I’m giving myself at least an extra 10 years.
There are other challenges, too. Business and human rights is like all other aspects of public international law and human rights: it remains dominated by individuals who do not reflect the populations that they claim to serve. It takes a great deal of privilege – or in my case, luck, naivety, and some pushy mentors – to break through. You are told by everyone everywhere that you should do 1-3 years of unpaid or very low-paid internships in places like London, Geneva, Brussels, and NYC. If you aren't willing to do this, people deem you uncommitted. It’s inappropriate to say that to students or early career colleagues. Attitudes like that perpetuate the socioeconomic inequality in our field. They tell students that there is no place for them, when in reality we need them – we need their voices, their experiences, their communities, their ideas – often times much more than they need us.
We also need more diverse voices in every other sense: gender (inclusive of gender identity), sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, and geographic location. Who I am is fundamentally and undeniably shaped by my background and my experiences. My knowledge and empathy might expand, but how I respond to a problem will always be informed by the realities of my own experience and imagination. To fix what ails us in the area of business and human rights, we need more than what my experience or imagination – or the experiences and imaginations of people who look like me or are similarly situated to me – can offer. Getting others to the table, listening to them, challenging them, and amplifying their ideas is necessary if we are to get closer to the solutions we need.
Are there particular challenges you’ve experienced as a woman working in business & human rights?
Unfortunately, being a woman in business and human rights has all the same challenges as every other field of international law and human rights. We are dominant in the field but under-represented in leadership positions. I also look young for my age – although that’s starting to change – so I have had people dismiss my ideas as youthful naivety, or try to explain to me my job, my dissertation, the field of business and human rights, etc. People often don’t know that I’ve been a corporate lawyer, so they say things to me that are clearly embedded in the belief that as some Ivory Tower academic I don’t know what it’s like ‘in the real world.’ (For the record: I don’t know any Ivory Tower academics in BHR.) Sometimes I laugh; sometimes I want to throw things; sometimes I have a witty comeback. It can be exhausting, but the thing that keeps me going is all the other amazing women (and amazing men, too) in the field that make up ‘my people.’ When we get together and talk about the problems and potential solutions, I get a jolt of energy and excitement for my job and I have renewed hope for our future.
What have been the high points of your career thus far?
I generally don’t hold on to highs and lows of my career. I’m already a bit of a workaholic because I love what I do so if I put too much stock in what I accomplish or what I fail at, I think it would be detrimental to my mental health. There are a lot of successes (big and small) that give me enough juice to continue in my work without losing faith, and a lot of failures (big and small) that keep me humble and ensure my work does not become the sole measure of my success. I tend to hold onto that balance more than any one event.
That said, there are two things I’m really proud of in the past year. First, is my work on Syria and Palestine. The Palestine work just came out, and the Syria work came out last September. They touch on similar issues and they draw on my research going back to my PhD.
Second, I’m stepping onto the Editorial Board of the Business and Human Rights Journal and will become President of the Global Business and Human Rights Scholars Association in September. For me, the recognition by my peers – really by people I’ve looked up to and have admired for a long time – means that I am doing what I love in a way that is having an impact. That’s pretty cool.
What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?
The biggest challenge is, and has always been, being away from my family. I don’t have my own children but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with balancing work and family. When my nephew was 5, he stopped speaking to me for several months. We later realized it was because I kept coming home for short periods and then leaving for long periods. He was upset and sad but couldn’t really express that. Then, last year, my oldest niece asked me to come to her birthday party and when I explained I couldn’t, she said in the sweetest voice, ‘Okay but maybe you can try.’ Pfff. Those are, honestly, the two worst moments of my life that didn’t involve someone dying or telling me they had cancer. They cut deep. This career is demanding; finding ways to balance work and family is hard, and I know I haven’t figured it out yet.
The second biggest challenge is time. There’s never enough to do all that I want to do. I’ve had to learn to say no to good opportunities so that I can focus on the right projects. That’s a hard line to draw and I’m really not good at it.
Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?
I have so much that I wish I had known. I’m going to try to avoid advice I’ve seen on ATLAS before, although some advice needs to be repeated.
There is no one right way to do this. You have to find the right way for you in light of all the constraints and opportunities you have. All the advice I got about taking unpaid internships was useless because it was unrealistic. So I created my own path. Focus on what’s realistic for you.
Most jobs in international law require good research and analytical skills. Spend some time intentionally developing those skills. Talk to a law librarian; read articles by well-respected academics and examine how the authors frame the discussion and how they engage with others’ ideas (particularly in the final 2 sections); spend time in writing workshops.
Don’t ‘network.’ Find people you think are interesting and talk to them about what interests you. The difference is significant. When I feel like people are ‘networking’ with me, I count the seconds until I can politely leave the conversation. If someone seems genuinely interested in talking to me, I will try to make time for them.
Develop good self-care habits early in your career. This can be a hard and exhausting field; the habits you establish early will follow you through your career.
Be generous, be kind, and be aware of your own privileges. You will never convince me that another woman’s success comes at my expense. Instead, it just creates more opportunities for the rest of us. But I also need to ensure that my success does not come at the expense of people who suffer from different types of discrimination than I do. Women of colour, trans-women and –men, non-binary people, people with disabilities, people from ethnic, racial and religious minorities, and people from developing and least-developed states all face different challenges than I do. It is my responsibility to understand those challenges and work to create opportunities for those who might not have them otherwise.
Leave positions and people if they aren’t right for you. Something is not right if it is no longer helping you grow in directions you are proud of.
Find your mentors, be grateful for your mentors, and then become a mentor. And you need mentors, not a mentor. It is unlikely that one mentor will be able to give you everything you need; you will need a few people who believe in you and invest in you. If you don’t have a mentor yet, try to get to a place where you can develop one. That usually means studying with someone who specializes in this field.
I’m going to end by thanking my own mentors. In addition to Bert, Kevin, Nigel, Sheldon and Clara, my most notable mentors are Sabine Michalowski, Geoff Gilbert, Michael Addo, Karen Hulme, and Lorna McGregor. I also have peer mentors that include Anil Yilmaz Vastardis, Josh Curtis, Charline Daelman, Nadia Bernaz, Chiara Macchi, Jernej Letnar Černič, Carrie Comer, Jena Martin, Katerina Yiannibis, Thoko Kaime, and Camilo Sanchez. They’ve each profoundly impacted my life and career and I will forever be grateful to them.