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International human rights advocacy

International human rights advocacy

By Tess McEvoy

Advocacy Human Rights 


Tess McEvoy is legal counsel and program coordinator at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva and New York. She spoke to the LIV Young Lawyers about her career in international human rights advocacy. What were the key ingredients that enabled (or best prepared) you for international work? A lot of my previous experience and knowledge was valuable and transferable to international work. I volunteered in a national environmental organisation after high school – gaining an understanding of working within a network across various locations. I travelled overseas, volunteering in organisations in Guatemala, Laos and India where I saw first hand extreme inequality, especially in relation to the right to education. During my law degree I worked at the Women’s Legal Referral Service – a community legal centre that worked with women who had suffered from domestic violence – seeing clearly the impact of feeling helpless and powerless. I tutored in contract and business law while at university where I developed my training and communication skills. Finally, while at international law firm DLA Piper, I practised litigation and native title law, worked on pro bono matters, took part in shaping and implementing the firm’s Reconciliation Action Plan, and volunteered at The Humanity Group, a community legal centre working with refugee and asylum seeker clients. Was there an experience that inspired you for international work? I always wanted to travel and live in different parts of the world. That motivated me to move to Ireland for a year when I was 19, and further inspired me to see more of the world. I loved learning about different cultures, but in doing so I was exposed to the intolerance and hostility that can co-exist with difference. I have always been passionate about equality and access to justice. I was exposed to this at an early age in Australia; I think taking part in the 40-hour famine as a child was one of my first actions where my intention was to support those less fortunate that extended beyond Australia’s borders. I felt incredibly privileged with the opportunities I had and had an awareness that many weren’t as fortunate. I decided at a young age that I wanted to shape my career towards making some kind of change in the world. Were there hurdles or barriers to international work that you had to face? If so, how did you deal with them? On a very practical note, visa requirements can be a challenge. On a more personal note, being away and living in a country with a 13-hour time difference to your family and friends at home, but it’s a trade-off that comes as part of the choice you make to work internationally. What was the best/worst part of your international work? The best part of my international work is that I am constantly learning and engaging in work on a global scale that crosses borders. I feel incredibly privileged to meet and work with people from different cultures that I admire and respect – those who have dedicated their life to fighting for human rights, those who are persecuted and attacked for the work they do to promote peace, justice and social change. I have had the opportunity to work and learn from so many inspiring human rights defenders and activists, and be a part of some very rewarding and impactful work at the United Nations. In terms of negative elements of my work, I find it frustrating to listen to countries pride themselves on actions taken nationally when presenting to the United Nations, while in reality on the ground defenders’ lives remain at risk. Though, I would say the greatest challenge is the tumultuous times in which we live. Not only is there a global crackdown on human rights defenders and civil society, but it occurs alongside political and religious extremism, rising inequality, increased conflict over resources, and a tide of intolerance. The fight for a fairer, more just world continues. How has your international work affected your legal career and life? My work at DLA Piper was focused on Australia. At ISHR I have an international focus – I engage both with UN mechanisms, as well as regional mechanisms and courts. My international work has inspired me to continue to work in this field. I am constantly exposed to the horrific human rights violations occurring globally, the crackdown on human rights defenders, as well as the manner in which minority and vulnerable groups remain at risk of persecution and ill treatment. This experience has strengthened my awareness that multilateral human rights institutions and advocacy are becoming more important. This is particularly so in countries with weak domestic accountability mechanisms or where international pressure may help to promote accountability or achieve progressive domestic reform. At the same time my work has introduced me to incredible human rights defenders who dedicate their lives to protecting the rights of others. It is these defenders who are the real change-makers, these defenders who inspire me each day. Is there anything that you would change about your international work experience? There isn’t anything that I would change. I feel like everything I have done, while not necessarily always in a straight trajectory, has helped me to get to where I am today. I have learnt and grown through all of my experiences, and I am thankful for all of them. What advice would you give to law students and young lawyers considering moving into international work in their area of law? It is important to remember when entering new countries or cultures that there is so much that you don’t know or understand. Learning and being open to learning from locals is integral. Believe in yourself and the value of the skills and knowledge you have. Be open to learning and experiencing different areas of work and cherish and grab hold of any opportunities that are presented to you, no matter how big or small. You can follow Tess on Twitter: @Tess_L_McEvoy Are you interested in a career in international human rights? The Autumn edition of the Young Lawyers Journal has an excellent range of articles, profiles and information to help you extend your career. Tess at the UN

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