Simon Chesterman

What is your background?

I was educated in Melbourne, Beijing, Amsterdam, and Oxford. I studied law as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and did a D.Phil in law at Oxford University, where I was a Rhodes Scholar.

You are an Adjunct Professor of Law at New York University School of Law?

Yes. I am currently Global Professor and Director of the New York University School of Law Singapore Programme, and an Associate Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. From 2004 to 2006 I was Executive Director of NYU’s Institute for International Law and Justice. I remain a Senior Fellow of that Institute.

So you are an academic lawyer. Were you ever a practising lawyer?

Not really. I did work part-time in a law firm in Australia after completing my undergraduate studies. I was about to do my articles but then I got the Rhodes Scholarship to come to Oxford so I never did practise as a lawyer. After obtaining my doctorate I worked at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yugoslavia and then at a think tank in New York called the International Peace Academy conducting research on post-conflict resolution. I was also a Senior Associate at the International Peace Academy and Director of UN Relations at the International Crisis Group in New York before joining the faculty at NYU.

Do you ever wish that you were a practising lawyer?

Yes, but not at the expense of the other experiences that I have had. I don’t regret the path that I have taken.

What are your most interesting experiences so far?

I can highlight two extremely rewarding experiences. The first goes back to 1991 when I was living in China studying Chinese before going off to university. I remember a listening comprehension test where there was a discussion about the White Paper on Chinese Human Rights. Then more than a decade later I am in the United States and we have Guantanomo, Abu Ghraib, and other incidents, which have prompted some Chinese friends to remark that the US now understood the difficult tension between national security and human rights. The second was my internship at the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda, which I did while I was completing my D.Phil thesis. I remember that my supervisor thoroughly disapproved of me going off to this internship as he felt that I should focus on my thesis. However, at the time it was a good challenging counterpoint to my thesis and to academia.

How easy was it for you to secure that internship at the Tribunal?

The internship had been extremely difficult to arrange. To be honest, I first had to find the right person, make contact with them and persuade them that I was the right person. I remember that a friend of mine, another Australian, also applied at the same time but was unsuccessful. He was told that there could only be one representative intern from a particular country at any one time. Interestingly, when I arrived at the Tribunal there were several American interns! This highlights a general problem with human rights work. No one goes into the human rights field because they want to do human resources. However, that is precisely where you often have to start. There is a lot of competition for relatively few positions and there is very little capacity to support or select the correct individuals for those positions.

You have chosen to be in academia rather than in policy. How effective can you be as an academic in the international human rights field?

My time at the think-tank in New York was my way of avoiding having to choose between the traditional academic world and the policy world. Eventually, however, I chose the academic path. I don’t regret the path that I have gone down, partly because being an academic affords me the extraordinary luxury of being paid to think, talk and write about topics that I am interested in but also because an academic base allows me to get involved in other projects such as my consultancy for the United Nations Security Council and with the not-for profit organisation Independent Diplomat. It is possible to make a difference as an academic. I can describe it as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid it is important to write scholarly publications and articles in order to gain legitimacy and to change the way people think about issues. At the next level, it is possible to attend meetings with policy makers as an academic and to use such opportunities to engage with them and influence policy in that way. But at the top of the pyramid would be when bodies such as the UN Security Council actually come to you as a leading academic in the field and ask you for answers to difficult policy questions. That is when you are most likely to make a difference as an academic.

Looking back on your career, is there anything that you would have done differently?

I probably would have learned more languages. I learned Chinese but I wish I could speak French, for example. But otherwise I can’t think of much more I would change. I think that I have been extraordinarily lucky in my career so far. Each job has almost fallen into my lap. It is very hard to plan a career in international law and international human rights. Most people who have been successful have made the most of the opportunities as they arise. This may involve changing jobs or country of residence quite frequently. It makes having a normal personal life quite difficult, however. It is easier to be an academic in that sense and that is why I chose academia.

What advice would you offer those who would like to enter the field of human rights?

I would offer three pieces of advice. First, try to do internships, of course. Secondly, aim to do your first position in the least desirable places, for example the Balkans or Sudan (whilst paying regard to personal security issues of course!). Thirdly, remember that even more important than what you are doing is who you are working with. In other words, if you get the opportunity to work with someone interesting or eminent ultimately that is a much better career move than if you are working with someone who is not very interesting or very good, regardless of what your day-to-day tasks are.