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Exploring Careers in Human Rights: ISHR’s 2020 Human Rights Career Panel

Exploring Careers in Human Rights: ISHR’s 2020 Human Rights Career Panel

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews 

In the midst of the global pandemic of COVID-19, orders of social distancing and indoor sheltering in place, students and panelists tuned in virtually for ISHR’s annual career panel last week, meeting through screens to discuss what the multiplicity of careers in the human rights field can look like. Gergana Halpern, ISHR’s Director of Educational Programming, moderated the panel. 

The Panelists – What Do You Do?

Halpern began the session by asking each of the four panelists to introduce themselves, their current work, and what their job entails. 

Louis Bickford is the CEO and founder of Memria, an online platform for the collection and sharing of stories through audio and text, and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at ISHR. He has 20 years of experience in the human rights field and as such has worked in a variety of capacities, including in truth commissions, testimonial collection, academia, NGOs, and now technology. 

Rebecca Norlander is the Lead Researcher at Knology, a “collective of scientists, writers, and educators dedicated to studying and untangling complex social issues.” Knology focuses on providing practical approaches to problems in which human rights play a role. Norlander highlighted that her current job looks at human rights at large from a variety of approaches, encouraging cultural appreciation and identifying best practices in advancing positive social change. She identified two focus areas of her work: institutions themselves—how can they serve as vectors to advance social good?—and human rights education.

Karen Karnicki, an alumna of ISHR’s Human Rights MA program, is a Program Associate at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF). RBF is a philanthropic grant-making institution with an endowment to support projects worldwide. RBF’s investment assets as of January 31, 2020 total $1.26 billion. Karnicki works on a program that provides grants to civil society organizations focused on peacebuilding. Karnicki’s responsibilities are twofold: firstly, she performs grants administration and management, including advocating for grant recipients and ensuring grants comply with IRS and other regulations. Secondly, Karnicki travels to meet various people involved in the grant application process, giving her the opportunity to see the work of many civil society organizations and their human rights-related missions.

Daniela Karrenstein is a Political Affairs Officer at the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism’s policy unit. She prepares talking points and makes background notes on policy issues that will be later discussed with the Secretary General and other senior officials. A significant portion of her job involves working with the many UN member states, attempting to find common ground in opinions on policy approaches or document provisions. She also handles the preparation of the Under-Secretary-General for engagements on issues of strategic interest to the broader UN. 

Breaking Down Partnerships in Human Rights

Halpern queried about the nature of partnerships in human rights work. Human rights is filled with many actors. How can one identify the right actors to work with, and what do partnerships look like? Agreeing, Bickford stated that “this entire field is built on partnerships,” and although the nature of the actors and partnerships may vary, they all boil down to the same conversation. In essence, all partnerships are about developing strategies and alignments, asking “how can we work together?” and “What do we bring to the table?” Of course, not all partnerships will work out, such as an instance when a funder may decline to contribute to an applicant, but when partnerships have been established, they operate through communication and a shared commitment to human rights issues.

Karrenstein described the nature of her specific engagement in human rights partnerships, ones which exist within the large intergovernmental system of the UN. Because of the legal and moral authority of the UN, universal values as enshrined in the UN charter are the basis of the UN’s human rights work. United by this commitment, member states ideally work together to develop solutions to international issues. In her capacity, Karrenstein is able to have direct contact with the UN member states, as such developing partnerships both informally and formally to push states on issues of strategic interest. Direct contact with member states and the security council has many advantages. Yet, the UN system also comes with challenges. It is hard for 193 states to agree, and Karrenstein notices the heavy influence of geopolitics on causing stagnation on certain issues. Further, although she loves the intercultural and interdisciplinary relationships between UN staff members, those varying backgrounds can also make it challenging to communicate effectively with each other.

On a much more “birds-eye” level, the partnerships Karnicki builds in the human rights field are a bit more removed. In the world of philanthropy, program staff like Karnicki build large networks, connecting with individual actors, governments, civil society, and NGOs. These connections allow Karnicki to see the whole “ecosystem of organizations” and human rights issues, a broader perspective that excites her because she can see not only the many issues, but also how they overlap. Bickford, who has also spent some time in the philanthropic world, noted the tension between NGOs and philanthropic organizations, in which NGOs see only their issue and consider it the “most important”, yet philanthropy sees the many “most important” issues all vying for support.

Slightly removed from direct service, Norlander’s work in research takes a more behind-the-scenes approach to a human rights partnership. As she noted, there are many different layers and levels to doing what we call “human rights work.” What Norlander does brings research and analysis to direct players in the field, informing best practices, approaches, and helping to guide decision making. As such, she builds one relationship with academia and research and another with on-the-ground practical solutions to the issues that the research reveals. 

Figuring Out Your Path

From the grassroots to the international level, main players to players behind the scenes, it is clear that partnerships structure the human rights field. With so many potential paths to follow, how can you know what type of human rights career best suits you? Panelists touched on this throughout the event, explaining how they were able to mesh their personal preferences and styles to their various jobs. 

Karnicki encouraged students to ask themselves “how does my brain work best?” Personally, she would not work well in a job that is too specific: “I would be a terrible specialist. I’m much more of a generalist.” This is why philanthropy works so well for her. Bickford concurred with the suggestion to build off of the generalist/specialist distinction. Do you want to wake up in the morning and ask yourself what is going on in a narrow slice of the world or do you want to drink your morning joe while pondering the state of the entire field at large? 

Students may also consider how they want their days to look like, said Norlander. This is something she wished she had asked herself when in school. Do you want to be interacting with people all the time, or do you want to sit back and do more solo activities? Norlander spent several years in academia, which she admitted could be individual and isolating at times. Once she began to embrace an interdisciplinary approach to her engagements, she found it rewarding to be collaborative with others. “This whole time I’d been my own mini think tank,” she said, “and now I have all these other people to think with.” You get trained to do one thing well, Norlander said, but there is a richness that comes with working in collaboration. 

Certainly, academic training can influence where students may direct their interests, although several panelists stressed the importance of being open to new and unexpected interests, as well. Bickford received his training in political science and enjoyed that because of its problem-solving nature. Karrenstein came from a legal background, having received a law degree in Germany focused on public international law and human rights law. Her time as a research assistant to a professor in public international law also solidified her interest in seeking a career where she could use this expertise. She knew that she wanted to work in the multilateral world and set her sights on the UN. Yet, panelists encouraged students to cast a wide net when thinking about jobs after graduation. “The human rights education lies in you,” said Norlander. Don’t sell yourself short; there are any number of organizations and companies across many sectors where you can be the human rights voice. Karnicki agreed, stating that some people may have to go out of their comfort zones to things more tangentially related to human rights, but that you can bring a social justice lens to any job you do. 

This is relevant for what Halpern noted as one of the most commonly-asked questions from students, and a question that was posed to the panelists: “do I have to go to law school to do human rights?” The overwhelming consensus from the panelists was a resounding “no.” While, as Karrenstein pointed out, some jobs may have a prerequisite of a law degree, human rights work can take a plethora of forms which do not require a JD. You should do what you love, claimed Bickford. If you love law, then by all means pursue law. For people who enjoy rules and structure, law can be a great career path. But if you are someone who thinks culture changes society, then a sociological or anthropological approach may be a better fit. The moral of the story? Think deeply about what will provide you the most value, personally and practically. 

Building a Human Rights Skillset

It is clear that human rights jobs can span the gamut, yet the panelists all stressed a common “human rights skillset” that is helpful no matter where you choose to work. 

Technically, Norlander stressed the necessity of being able to conduct research in a variety of methods. Learn the research skills, and more importantly, do not treat issues in isolation. “Not only do you need a range of methods,” she said, “but you also have to recognize it as a social system.” Connected to this is what Bickford called the skill of “problem-solving-ness.” The field, he said, is all about tackling problems. Can you sit down at a table, take a problem, and wrestle it into some type of a solution? The human rights field is moving on from its old “naming and shaming” approach to one that is solution-focused. Be prepared to bring interdisciplinary problem-solving skills to the work you do. This is especially important because, as Karrenstein and Bickford noted, it is necessary in the human rights field to be able to demonstrate impact. 

Knowledge acquisition, however, is of little use in the human rights field without the ability to communicate it to various audiences. Karrenstein’s job in the UN highlights this necessity. It is not just the technical knowledge that counts, she said, but rather is first of all about communication skills. The UN functions off of collaborative relationships between members who may have very different mindsets on an issue. “Set the scene,” she recommended, and keep in mind the political terrain that member states are constantly navigating. The soft skills truly steal the spotlight. Karnicki likened communication skills to translation: in her job, she needs to translate grant content from an applicant to the decision makers who approve grants. Knowing how to build a case and advocate for her grantees is crucial to translate their missions to an audience. 

Textual communication is a technical skill that every human rights practitioner will need to hone. Know how to write, said Norlander. Be able to synthesize a lot of information into concise and digestible summaries. In the context of the UN, Karrenstein could not underestimate the value of drafting skills—being able to explain a complex scenario in simple and short ways. 

Finally, panelists discussed positionality. As people in the human rights field, we must constantly question our own biases, privileges, and assumptions. Many fields are shifting right now, focusing more on questioning the intentions and impact of certain “old school” approaches to human rights issues. Karnicki noted that the philanthropy world is asking new questions about equity in a way that it has not before, querying issues of marginalities and a donor’s role given their power and resources. Donors should try to develop a sense of humility and listening, working against the industry’s history of acting as ‘expert’ in ways that are sometimes unwarranted. “I feel like I have a role to play in pushing for more equitable distribution of resources,” she said. 

This is also an important question to ask oneself when thinking about field work in human rights. Bickford argued that the role of international actors is changing all the time. What is the added value, if any, of international actors “parachuting in” to provide expertise and leaving immediately after? The paradigm of North-based expertise and South-based recipient is “totally inappropriate now,” he argued. We need to rethink the entire model, constantly reassessing power relations and scanning where there is actual added value in assistance. Karrenstein agreed, admitting the UN’s sometimes problematic past engagements in missions or mandates that were more political compromises than valuable assistance. 

From a research side, Norlander highlighted some methodologies that embrace a conscious engagement with researcher positionality. She subscribes to a constructivist approach, in which the researcher acknowledges their position and biases. She enacts this through participatory action research (ensuring those who will be affected by the process have a voice in the process) and grounded theory (seeing what emerges from the data rather than a top-down imposition). 

Where do we go from here?

Throughout the panel, speakers presented their own experiences in concert with their recommendations for students and new graduates exploring a career path in human rights. As Karnicki recognized, the job hunt is an uncertain and scary time. This is not to mention that we are currently experiencing the emotional rollercoaster of a global pandemic and massive unemployment. Yet, looking for a career is also a chance to explore one’s passions and creativity. “The idea of positioning yourself perfectly will be absolutely impossible,” argued Bickford. Instead, pursue the thing that you like the most, because in the end, it almost always “kinda works out in a weird way.”  

The Lost World of Moldova: Corruption and Human Rights

Guest Contributor: Ararat Osipian is the Alexander Mirtchev Visiting Professor and Scholar at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University, Fellow of the Institute of International Education, and Fellow of the New University in Exile Consortium, USA. His research interests include corruption, inequalities in access to education, and sexual harassment.

Recent events in Moldova, including the political turmoil and the fight against corruption, sometimes become reminiscent of a witch-hunt. For Moldova, the story is not so new, as the pro-European Union Moldovan Parliament has been fighting pro-Russian President Igor Dodon for years. For the world, this is just a storm in a teacup. According to the locals, Moldova’s fight against corruption is mostly for resources and economic assets that may be accessed through the use of state power. Some of the formative results of such a fight are arrests on charges of corruption. Due to the anti-corruption campaign, some individuals prefer to leave the country. Vladimir Plahotniuc, a self-exiled Moldovan politician, businessman, philanthropist, and allegedly richest man in the country, reportedly landed in Miami.

A land-locked country of less than three million, Moldova looks like a lost world. Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union took place three decades ago, most scenery in Moldova is grey Soviet concrete. Despite the visual sleepiness, the country has significant internal political divisions, including the breakaway province of Transnistria. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and a significant part of the national income comes from money remittances from abroad. Moldovans work in Russia and the European Union countries. While President Dodon has a pro-Russian attitude, the ruling party is oriented toward the EU. As a result, Moldova is akin to Buridan’s ass, stacked between the EU and Russia. Some citizens want to have closer ties with the EU or even be absorbed by Romania, while others prefer good relations with Russia. Such preferences largely depend on where people earn their living as day laborers: in the EU or in Russia.

Central square in Chiasnu, location of mass protests against increasing the President’s power through Constitutional reform.

Moldovans seem to believe that they should take part in political life of the country, yet are not sure that they will have any real impact on the way things are done. For instance, on June 11, 2017, I observed mass protests on the central square in Chisinau. Primarily, the protests were focused on a suggested constitutional reform that would give the President more power. Supporters of the change say having legislators represent particular constituencies would enhance the link between parliament and voters. Opponents say it is an attempt to skew the electoral system in favor of the ruling political party. 

Protesters moved as a procession to the front of the Parliament, totaling around three to five thousand. There were plenty of Moldovian flags and not much else in terms of posters and other visual materials. In general, protesters were very peaceful, chanting slogans such as “we will not surrender!” and blowing vuvuzelas, horns commonly used in soccer games by fans. Around two hundred police security forces maintained law and order by…. Before the leaders of the protest made speeches, there was a concert on the stairs of the Parliament. Overall, the whole event was very classically Soviet in style. 

Moldova’s political divide finds its reflection in public spaces throughout Chisinau, including in the form of graffiti, inscriptions and signs. Moldova’s Union with Romania is the most popular theme of such inscriptions. Moldova borders Romania, the EU member, while both countries speak Romanian language and many Moldovans hold Romanian citizenship in addition to their Moldavian citizenship. As a consequence, the President has recently introduced a suggestion to outlaw any advertisements of Unionism in an attempt to curb protesters’ access to public space to convey their complaints. In addition to walls, the giant stairs near the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) headquarters that lead to Valea Morilor Park are also used for political inscriptions. One such inscription reads in English, “#Save Donbass from Ukraine’s Army”, a reminder of the on-going hybrid war in neighboring country Ukraine. On the opposite side of the stairs, the inscription reads “Basarabia Romaneasca”.

Similar to other former socialist countries, Moldova has corruption aplenty. The situation with corruption in Moldova is rather dynamic. Upon my arrival in the country, the Mayor of Chisinau, Dorin Chirtoaca, was under house arrest and the ex-deputy prosecutor general was arrested as well, both on charges of corruption. These were not isolated incidences. While I was in Chisinau, the former Deputy Minister of the Interior and the judge of Chisinau city court were both arrested on charges of corruption. The arrests that took place while I was in the country were only the latest of many in a wave of anti-corruption arrests that rolled through the country in Spring of 2017. Prior to 2017, Moldova’s Vice- Minister of Economy and Minister of Agriculture and Food Industry were also arrested on corruption-related charges. The education sector, too, has been touched by the Moldavian government’s war against corruption. The list of educational administrators arrested in the case of falsified tenders on kindergarten meals includes daughter and son-in-law of advisor to the Minister of Education.

It is surprising that despite the government’s declaratory “war against corruption,” there are only a handful of scholarly works on corruption in Moldova. In fact, the National Library has only three sources on corruption in Moldova available in Russian language. One is a monograph on corruption and organized crime. Another source is a journal article. Finally, there is a collection of conference reports on academic corruption, published a decade ago. This collection comprises twenty-nine scholarly articles. Of these articles, sixteen are in Russian, twelve are in Romanian, and one is in English. The first and second articles in the collection are authored by the President of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Minister of the Interior, respectively. This is done in best Soviet traditions. Other authors include the ex-Minister of Justice and the acting rector of the Ismail Institute of Water Transport. It is clear that the authors of the papers published in this collection recognize that education in Moldova is one of the sectors most affected by corruption, and discuss it. Unfortunately, an anti-corruption campaign in Moldavian academia is not on the top of the government’s political agenda and “war against corruption”.

My findings from my fieldwork conducted in Moldova allow for some initial generalizations. My fieldwork in Moldova in June 2017 was essentially a small pilot project, ethnographic in its nature, aimed at getting to know the social environment in the country. This study employed several methods to investigate higher education corruption in Moldova. These included archival research, media sources, review of the scholarly literature, informal conversations with students, former students, faculty, simple empirical observations, and, of course, listening to other people’s conversations. I kept a diary and took notes.

 The respondents clearly understand the harm of academic corruption. The overall position of the respondents is that there is plenty of corruption in Moldova’s higher education institutions, including Moldova State University. This corruption often takes the form of bribery, embezzlement, fraud, and student absenteeism. The Student Alliance Against Corruption at Moldova State University is a manifestation of student activism, an attempt to exercise the power of collective action against corruption. But catching a corrupt faculty member may actually result in nothing. Similar to most countries, Moldova exercises presumption of innocence: not guilty until proven in court and sentenced. Even if a faculty member is caught red-handed while accepting a bribe, they will not lose their job until sentenced in court. However, such a case is not likely to even reach the court, as they are usually destroyed in the process of investigation because of corruption. In my research, it was evident that faculty members have some ideas about ethical conduct, or at least they know the term itself. However, for many, adherence to a personal ethical standard is threatened by the external pressures many faculty members face. For instance, a faculty member in the cafeteria at Moldova State University explained to me that she has ethical standards and is a law-abiding citizen, but there is pressure on her.

In addition to corruption in academia, there are clear disciplinary issues. I observed one such incident in front of the main entrance to the central administrative building. A faculty member—male, in his late 30s—asked a male student accompanied by his two friends to stop smoking. Smoking on campus is allowed only in designated areas. In response, the students told him to “go his own way,” which resulted in a verbal altercation. The faculty member reminded the students:  “By the way, the fine is 1200 lei” (equivalent to 60 Euros). This is equal to half of the average monthly salary in Moldova, so although with good intentions its is likely that he simply made up the sum on the fly. The student responded with “Call the cops” and refused to name himself. The faculty member threatened to find out the student’s identity by seeing the student during an examination. The student simply ignored him and remarked with irony “Yeah, you got me.” 

The student’s response to an authority figure is typical of the Soviet mentality of ignoring the rules, popularly formulated as “beat the state.” There are “No smoking” posters on campus, but students sometimes smoke right in front of them. Despite the ban on smoking inside the buildings, male restrooms are filled with cigarette butts. Since there are very few students, they are not afraid of the faculty and administrators. State funding is tied to the number of students, and thus the university needs students more than students need the university. This is a typical situation in the entire former Soviet bloc.

Hotel Chiasnu

Moldova State University is located on a small Soviet campus, although well-maintained. The main university building is partially renovated, but still far from ideal. There are large advertisement posters both inside and outside campus buildings, with job opportunities in marketing and sales, discounts on mobile phones, the sale of mountain bikes, etc. Some student dormitories are renovated as well, but most have not seen any repair since the Soviet era. The state of decay, so visible in the city’s architecture, has its impact on the academic community too. One example of such an impact was the need to change the hotel for a visiting professor from France. They initially booked Hotel Chisinau, located in downtown, for this visiting professor. However, due to the eerie looking surroundings and especially unsafe underground passage under the United Nations Square, they had to place her in another hotel. Next to the hotel is the National Academy of Sciences of Moldova. Across the street is Hotel National, now an abandoned concrete ghost. Formerly Hotel Inturist, built during the Soviet era to serve foreign tourists, this hotel no longer houses anyone.

With only 11,000 visitors a year, Moldova is the least visited country in Europe. The lost world, indeed. To be precise, the abandoned hotel in the center of the capital is not exactly empty. The hotel does not house anyone legally, as there are no guests or foreign tourists. There are, however, dozens of homeless children living within these bare concrete walls. They beg and steal on the streets during the day, and come to the ghost hotel at night. There are also drug addicts sharing the quarters with homeless children. Immoral behavior and sexual abuse of minors a wide possibility. On one occasion, three underage children were hospitalized in critical condition to a local clinic with poisoning-like symptoms, most likely due to inhaling glue. This is the cheapest and easiest way to get “high.” The state authorities are unable and unwilling to cope with the crisis due to extremely high levels of corruption. Instead of protecting human rights of minors, they find ways to close remaining orphanages and supply the street and criminal gangs with more homeless children.