Elaine Pearson, Australia Director of Human Rights Watch, has forged an impressive career in human rights which has seen her work for the United Nations and a number of not-for profit organisations across the world. In this article we asked Elaine to share some information about her current role, her background and her advice to young Australians starting out in the human rights sector.
You are currently the Australia Director of Human Rights Watch. What does your job entail?
My primary role as Australia Director is to encourage the Australian government to prioritise human rights as part of its foreign policy. This includes providing briefings to Australian government officials and politicians, as well as giving interviews to journalists about a broad range of human rights issues in the Asia-Pacific region that we work on. I also oversee the fundraising side of our operation in Australia that allows us to continue our work.
What is a ‘typical day’ like?
The first thing I do when I wake up is check my emails and various media outlets to see if anything major has happened overnight, or to see if there is anything I need to address urgently. I often have several meetings a day, whether it is with politicians, diplomats, representatives from other NGOs, or with donors to brief them about our work. Throughout the day I give interviews with journalists who are seeking commentary on key human rights issues and I often have speaking engagements. There is a great deal of travel involved with my current role, so I spend a lot of time in Canberra or travelling around the Asia region. In between my meetings, interviews and travel, I collaborate with my colleagues in drafting letters, press releases, and statements about key areas of Human Rights Watch’s work.
How did you get to hold the position you hold today?
I studied a combined Arts/Law degree at Murdoch University in Perth. After graduation I did the Australian Youth Ambassador for Development program, funded by AusAid (sadly now defunct), and was sent to Thailand to work with a global anti-trafficking organisation. Following this I moved to London to work for Anti-Slavery International, working there for three years. I consulted for a bunch of groups back in Asia – Oxfam, International Labour Organisation, UN Women. I always knew that I wanted to go and live in Asia for a few years following university; I am half Singaporean and spent a lot of my holidays in the Southeast Asia region when I was growing up.
My journey with Human Rights Watch began in 2007, when I moved to New York for five years and worked as the Deputy Director of the Asia Division. During this time I studied a Master’s degree in public policy at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. When Human Rights Watch decided to open an office in Sydney, I jumped at the chance to be involved in setting up Human Rights Watch’s first ever Australia presence.
What has been the most rewarding part of your career to date, and what has been the biggest challenge or setback?
The rewarding part of working in human rights, is meeting people who have suffered greatly, but are inspiring and give you the motivation to keep going. While working in the area of human trafficking we were quite successful in convincing governments to adopt a victim-centred approach, which is something that I am quite proud of – victims are treated better and services have improved. While I was working on Burma, we campaigned for many years on the release of political prisoners. After a mass amnesty, I met with a bunch of them in their office in Yangon, and it was so incredible to meet all of these people in person, having worked on their cases for so long.
At the moment, working on refugees in Australia is challenging as it doesn’t seem as though the government is going to change its policies. I used to think that if stories started to come out about the abusive conditions in these camps that the government would have to do something different, but things really seem to have taken a turn for the worst. Working on the Sri Lankan civil war was also very difficult. We put so much work into drawing global attention to the plight of Tamil civilians trapped in the conflict zone, but so many of them were killed in those final months of the war.
What would your advice be to young Australians wanting to work in the human rights sector?
Get involved with organisations in any way that you can; volunteering and internships are a great way to do this. Completing some field experience is very important, so if you are in a position where you can go overseas for a period of time and volunteer with an organisation, the experience is very rewarding. Employers like to see that you can operate in a cross-cultural environment, where you may have certain limitations that don’t necessarily apply in Australia. Demonstrating that you can operate in a more difficult and challenging environment is really important. It is also good to try and build up some sort of research experience, writing for publications or starting up a blog would be a good way to go about this.
Elaine Pearson is the Director of Human Rights Watch Australia, which launched its first ever Australian office in Sydney in August 2013. The organisation aims to increase its engagement and advocacy with the Australian government on human rights issues in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. For more information about Human Rights Watch Australia, please click here.