Hilary Stauffer


You are currently a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the London School of Economics. What does that entail?

The post of Visiting Fellow is usually envisioned as a type of career break – a period of months (up to a year) where the Fellow can take a breather from the hustle-and-bustle of the daily workplace and focus on research and writing projects. I've spent my time here working on a book chapter about the U.S. drones programme, authoring several op-eds for outlets like the Huffington Post, drafting entries for the 'Weapons Law Encyclopaedia', doing various consulting projects for private clients and also networking with other women in my field through events at LSE, Chatham HouseIISS and other think tanks. Now that the school term has started, I'll be giving some informal lectures on international law topics to various departments on campus.

What is a 'typical day' like?

It is very relaxed compared to other jobs I've had! I can make my own schedule. The Centre provides me with desk space and an email address, but it's up to me to plan my day. I find I work better when I 'go to work', so I often go into the Centre, but I don't have to. Generally, I have at least one longer writing project on deadline at any given time, so I'm either doing background research for that, or writing drafts. I try to write an op-ed at least every two weeks on something topical, so I'm always on Twitter trying to become inspired, or get a different perspective on something. I spend at least part of every week mentoring young law students (usually, but not always, women) who want to know how to 'break into' the field of human rights or international law, either over email or just meeting them for coffee. And at least twice a week after work or during lunch I try to go to an event on legal, international or political topics.

Why did you decide to follow a more academic route?

I'm not actually on an 'academic route'. While I have a Juris Doctor (an American law degree, which is a graduate degree), I don't have a PhD, so I won't become a classic 'academic'. This was more a case of a great opportunity that presented itself right as I finished a previous job, and it gave me time to pursue research and writing at a prestigious institution for a year. I assume I'll have another legal or foreign policy position again in the not-too-distant future.

You’re a columnist for the Express Tribune, a blogger for the Huffington Post and are writing a chapter of The War Report. What role does writing play in your career?

I'm fortunate in that I both love to write, and it's something that come relatively easy to me; it's just taken me a long time to find the appropriate outlets. Even as a trained lawyer, writing has always been part of my career. In one of my previous posts, I was a speechwriter for an Ambassador--that's a very specific kind of writing. I've also worked for several NGOs, so I had to become comfortable writing grant applications, or reports for funders. As a legal officer for the International Labour Organization, I helped to draft many policy papers, which is dry, technical writing but important in its own way. In the course of my international career, I’ve found I'm often the 'editor of last resort' because I'm a native English speaker, and it will fall to the native speakers to tie everyone else's contributions together. Now, I get to write under my own name and about topics I'm passionate about, and I'm really enjoying finding my voice. I basically try to talk about international legal topic in a way that's accessible to ordinary people. I don't know if it always succeeds, but I'm having fun with this work-in-progress.

Previously, you were deputy director of Reprieve UK, working on human rights abuses by the US and its allies in the war on terror. What did it entail?

I was hired to head Reprieve's 'Abuses in Counter-Terrorism' team, with whom I had volunteered many years ago. Since the mid-2000s, Reprieve had been one of the leading NGOs on September 11-related litigation and its associated abuses: secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, torture. They represent several clients who are still in Guantanamo, and also call attention to the terrible policies which grew out of the War on Terror, which manifests most often as governmental overreach in the name of national security.

However, right as I started my job with Reprieve in 2012, opposition to CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen were reaching a fever pitch - and of course, the drone programme itself was an outgrowth of America's response to September 11. Given Reprieve's long experience with abuses in counter-terrorism, this seemed like a natural fit. So, unexpectedly, I had to become an expert on drones-related issues: the legal issues of inter-State use of force, human rights implications for civilians, accountability for the CIA.

You started your career at the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN. What was that like?

This was one of the toughest but also most interesting jobs I've ever had. I was in Geneva completing a poorly-paid fellowship at an NGO when I met someone at a dinner party who eventually suggested that I apply to be the Mission’s Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs adviser. I knew it would be challenging - Israel's position in the international community is always controversial, and its relationship with the United Nations is fraught. On a more practical level, I was worried that I didn't know enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be effective. I am not Jewish, don't have any Israeli or Palestinian family members, and during university and law school, I hadn't studied the Middle East in depth. But the job just sounded too interesting to turn down: I essentially went to meetings at various UN agencies (and other international organisations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization of Migration) and helped advise the Ambassador and other diplomats on Israel's relationship with the UN, its various legal obligations and its international responsibilities.

I was there for the beginning of the new Human Rights Council, which was a re-boot of one of the UN's primary venues for addressing human rights violations. I learned so much about the art of diplomacy - listening for what people are saying between the lines, and how throwaway conversations at cocktail parties can sometimes be the most important. But all that being said, it was definitely difficult. You don't meet many people who do not have a pre-formed opinion about Israel or the Middle East conflict, and sometimes those opinions are very negative. I still meet people all the time who want to try and 'convince' me that their viewpoint is the correct one. This is a shame, because the issue to too complex to break down into one side is right and one side is wrong. I personally have very nuanced views on the conflict and I'm always happy to hear other perspectives. But I do understand why it provokes such strong reactions.

On balance, though, I loved my time there and the insight that it gave me into the conflict - I learned about the perspectives of both Israel and its allies and the Palestinians and their allies, and found the experience invaluable. I made many personal acquaintances who have now gone on to be politicians or officials with international organisations, so my professional network was very much enhanced by my time spent at the Mission.

You spent six months in Liberia as parts of improvements of its justice system. What did you do and why was it important to you to go work there?

Liberia was another opportunity that just presented itself that I was in a position to say 'yes' to. I had always wanted to do fieldwork in Africa, just because I felt the need to serve in some way, but didn't particularly have a preference which country I worked in. One of my mentors from law school was starting a new programme with the University of Liberia law school and needed someone to manage the programme for him. I had recently left the Permanent Mission of Israel and was looking for something completely different.

This is just another example of being open and flexible to things that come along. I know not everyone has the same opportunities, but young women in particular tend to paint themselves into a box pretty early on, believing there is a 'right' way to climb the career ladder. There isn't, and in foreign policy, you often have to be open and take unorthodox opportunities to differentiate yourself from the crowd. My role in Liberia changed over time. My primary job was to manage this programme, which was basically hooking up Liberian law students with American law students over satellite link as a kind of exchange programme where they could discuss the difficulties and advantages of each particular legal system.

But, as is often the case, once you are on the ground and people discover that you are competent, lots of other things will be offered to you. So, I took on a teaching assignment at the law school, teaching Liberian law students analytical thinking skills, and I was asked to help design a UN programme to reduce prison overcrowding (which sounds complex, but for a country as under-developed as Liberia, the first step was just getting an accurate census of the prison population, and ensuring that there weren't any juveniles being kept in pre-trial detention). I also wrote grant-funding applications to try and ensure that the UN money which was available went to the most promising projects.

Quite a bit of your career has been about the injustice of justice. Why this choice?

I really enjoy being a lawyer, and believe wholeheartedly that law can be used as a great tool for social change. But it became evident to me early on that when it is wielded incorrectly, it can also cause great damage. At my core, I'm a pragmatist: I don't think that international law and human rights can solve everything. But far too often, governments or agents in power act rashly, out of fear, and solely in their own self-interest - and these actions can have really lasting impacts on vulnerable members of society. Counter-terrorism laws are a great illustration of this, but there are so many others: for example, governments have a legitimate right to regulate their borders, but too often immigration rules are arbitrary and used in a discriminatory fashion. I just want policymakers to think about the implications of their actions. And when they don't, I want to be among those who call attention to bad policies.

What do you think would change in foreign policy, and particularly international law, if more women were involved?

This is not an original thought, but in my experience, it holds true: women are so much more collaborative in their approach to things, and this is sorely needed in international law. Sixty-year-old Caucasian men from the Judeo-Christian background dominate leadership positions in foreign policy, and I think many of the resulting policies reflect that.

Of course there are some prominent examples of powerful women, or people from diverse backgrounds, but they are statistically under-represented. Women are more prevalent in the human rights field, but too few of them are Ambassadors or military leaders. If women led the world, I'm sure they'd make some questionable decisions as well - that's just human nature. But it is my belief that they would be more willing to get a breadth of differing opinions, be more willing to consider the impact of their actions, and be more willing to build coalitions and ask for help if necessary. All of which could help give a fresh approach to some of the pressing issues of today.

What would you advise to girls and young women who want to go into human rights and international law?

I often meet young women who tell me they applied for a human rights job, and they didn't get it, and now they are disappointed and will instead pursue a 'regular' law job. They get frustrated too easily, and early on, they think the international law path is closed for them. There is no 'right' path to an international legal career. Flexibility is key.

On a more practical level, speaking several languages is very much an asset, as is a willingness to move to countries that are experiencing a great deal of political upheaval or armed conflict. Everyone wants the cool UN job in Geneva or New York. But those are jobs for people that have already put their time in elsewhere. So go learn about human rights as a volunteer on the ground in a refugee camp, and then you will actually have some insight to offer when you finally get to Geneva or New York.

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career? 

The most rewarding aspect is being able to gain practical knowledge about so many different areas of international law. My career hasn't gone in a straight ladder, and it's not always clear how all the pieces fit together, but working in an interdisciplinary field like international law means that everything overlaps and feeds into each other. Human rights and labour law have much of the same DNA, international criminal law and international humanitarian law have some similar elements. I love having a holistic view. The least rewarding aspect has to be the financial instability. To some extent, always chasing the 'next cool job' leads to drastic changes in my salary from year to year - I generally know this, and plan in advance for it, but I do sometimes wish for a steady pay-check. Not as much as I wish for new experiences, though, so it'll probably continue like this for some time to come.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

In a competitive field like international law, you have to be proactive. You have to apply for jobs that you aren't sure you can get, you have to network like crazy and ask people for help and connections and introductions, you have to be willing to be flexible in your expectations. None of these are inherent skills that I was born with - they come from just having a willingness to be outside my comfort zone. I would say it's also important to become comfortable talking to strangers. You'll need to be at cocktail parties, at conferences, at panel discussions and women in particular need to raise their hand, speak up, introduce themselves and get their viewpoints on the record.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

The toughest lesson I have learned is that being qualified is only part of the equation. I'm well-travelled, I have a law degree, I speak more than one language, I have nearly 10 years experience - on paper, this should make me an extremely desirable candidate for 90% of the jobs I apply for. But being qualified is only part of the equation - it's also about who you know and being at the right place at the right time. This seems like it should be intuitive, but earlier in my career, I was very focused on only applying for jobs through the 'normal' channels, and became very frustrated when it didn't work out. Now that I'm a bit farther along, and have a bigger professional network to draw on, this 'informal' part of the equation also works in my favour. But it can be disappointing when you are just starting out.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

For someone like me, who very much prefers to work and live in countries other than the one where I am a citizen, visas and work permits are always an issue. There is always a time when I'm not sure all the administrative details are going to work out, or when I kind of just have to accept that I might get to a new country and face some logistical hurdles. And every time I just evaluate the situation in advance and eventually believe that all the hassle will probably be worth it in the end, and just commit to having three months of angst and uncertainty. It has always worked out so far.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I'm proud that I've been able to contribute to the discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a non-toxic, non-partisan way. I'm proud that I've been able to arrange discussions about the lawfulness of the death penalty in countries as diverse as Liberia and Singapore, and hopefully make people think about the topic differently. I'm proud of project-managing a major ratification effort at for important ILO treaties, which will lead to increase norms and protections for labourers. I'm proud of reminding the world that there are still detainees in Guantanamo and that we need to find just outcome for them.

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

I first became interested in international law when I was a teenager, and Madeleine Albright was the U.S. Secretary of State. I just found her so inspiring. The U.S. has had several strong female Secretaries of State, and watching their careers, negotiating tough diplomatic issues on behalf of the most powerful country in the world has been very inspiring overall.

Hilary Stauffer | Visiting Fellow | Centre for the Study of Human Rights | London School of Economics and Political Science, giving an address at the Human Rights Council in 2007

Nine years' experience

CV in brief

Studied at James Madison University University of San Diego School of Law

Previously worked at United Nations Democracy FundOmnia Strategy LLPReprieve UK | International Labour OrganizationInternational Bridges to Justice | Transnational Law InstitutePermanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations

Find her online: @HilaryStauffer

Huffington PostThe Express Tribune

Hillary Stauffer: Charlie Hebdo Human Rights Implications

Posing with my Analytical Thinking skills class at the University of Liberia School of Law

Posing with my Analytical Thinking skills class at the University of Liberia School of Law

Giving a speech at a Gala dinner in Singapore on behalf of International Bridges to Justice, the NGO Stauffer managed in Singapore

Giving a speech at a Gala dinner in Singapore on behalf of International Bridges to Justice, the NGO Stauffer managed in Singapore

Job opportunities at International Bridges to Justice

On a panel discussion convened in Brussels about the EU's policies towards drones

On a panel discussion convened in Brussels about the EU's policies towards drones

Addressing a student group at the University of Edinburgh about drone warfare in 2012

Addressing a student group at the University of Edinburgh about drone warfare in 2012

Leading a training session in Singapore for lawyer from Southeast Asia

Leading a training session in Singapore for lawyer from Southeast Asia

Hilary Stauffer, Mission of Israel to the UN in Geneva

Job opportunities with the Permanent Mission of Israel to the United Nations