Vani Sathisan


What do you do as International Legal Advisor for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)?

I'm almost entirely working on rule of law reform and human rights in Myanmar. I have been undertaking field research that leads advocacy and policy work aimed at strengthening the role of stakeholders such as the government, judges, lawyers, prosecutors, legal aid groups, lawyer networks and civil society organisations. I work on capacity building initiatives and devise and deliver training on the independence of the judiciary, bilateral investment treaties and development, environmental laws, and economic, social and cultural rights.

A lot of the other work I do has been focusing on ensuring rights-compliant investment in Myanmar. There's been a gold rush in Myanmar and a lot of investment has come in at a time when the country was just waking up from hibernation. It's been isolated for half a century under military rule, it’s the second poorest country in Asia, and the laws are just not there, or if they are, they're bad. My work aims to ensure that all national legislation is in line with international laws and standards. At the ICJ, we try to see how we can provide relevant and sound advice to government bodies to enact legislation that ultimately protects human rights. We provide guidance on strengthening their regulatory capacity to enact public-interest policies and legislation that not only protects investors’ rights but also the rights of the people of Myanmar.

A lot of my work involves working with civil society organisations, helping them with capacity building and boosting their advocacy efforts so that they are an effective check on the executive and on the parliament. Our support extends to asking the right questions, monitoring trials, helping with the advocacy when lands are grabbed when there are illegal evictions, inadequate compensation, and communities are dispossessed without any respectful consultation. In those situations, I help design the research missions and advocacy programmes with my colleagues.

You've been in the country for two years and as you say there's been quite a bit of change during that period. What is your experience of it?

Mind-blowing. Living, working and travelling within Myanmar for about two and half years now have been some of my most intense and marvellous experiences that have enriched me as a lawyer and as a person.

It feels like Yangon is literally under construction. The physical landscape changes dramatically. When I first arrived two years ago, my international SIM card did not work. A local sim card cost hundreds of US dollars and was more expensive than my phone itself. Now, two telecommunications companies have enabled access to cheap SIM cards as soon as you land in Yangon. There has been an explosion of new international restaurants to cater to the expats and the middle-class.

The best change has been the freedom for the people in Myanmar to openly discuss politics and socio-economic affairs. This was unheard of under military rule and at least up until the reforms in 2011. Now, at my usual breakfast spot in the local teashop, young and old Burmese people walk up to me boldly to chat about my work and share their opinions about social affairs vocally. Several NGOs have held public meetings and workshops discussing sensitive topics and criticising the military government’s repressive rule. There is, of course, still a clampdown on the freedom of expression and opinion by means of criminal defamation laws, or the curtailment of peaceful assembly, but such striking differences in just over two years do show the dramatic changes in the country.

Of course, when there are such rapid changes, you want the laws to also change for the better. You want a more democratic space for civil society to function in. There's been a rush to pass laws, as the sun set on the USDP government, and the hope is that the new government will prioritise human rights over profits and will extensively amend several existent legislation to ensure that Myanmar’s international human rights obligations are met.

Can you talk more about what the International Commission of Jurists does?

The ICJ was founded in 1952 and for over six decades, it has played a leading role in the development and implementation of international human rights law and standards. It is headquartered in Geneva. We have regional offices in places including Bangkok, Latin America, Johannesburg and Kathmandu. The ICJ’s has been a key player in international standard setting. It has played a critical role in the elaboration and adoption of a number of important international human rights instruments. In the 1990s, several important international developments took place as a result of initiatives by the ICJ; foremost among these was the establishment of the International Criminal Court with the adoption of the Rome Statute. We also convened a meeting of legal experts that led to the Maastricht Guidelines on remedies for Violations of Economic, Social and Cultural rights. We’ve been a powerful advocate for justice through our work that involves fact-finding missions, trial observations, inquiry commissions and diplomatic advocacy.

The most important feature of ICJ is the Commission itself. It's a body made of some of the most eminent jurists from around the world and is led by Sir Nigel Rodley. When we have workshops, training or events, the commissioners fly in to support our work and share their own knowledge and expertise. This helps in a country like Myanmar where Supreme Court justices wouldn’t necessarily listen if I stood in front of a room and gave them a lecture about a certain topic. But they will listen to other judges and our Commissioners have the expertise and gravitas.

We officially opened the Myanmar office almost two-and-a-half years ago. At the Myanmar office, we've been looking at business and human rights issues. We work with the Attorney General and the Supreme Court as well as with the Myanmar Investment Commission, the Directorate of Company Administration, and civil society organisations.

What was the application process for your job like?

It was a series of small, fortunate serendipities. My experiences before the ICJ involved working in Singapore in private practice as a commercial and criminal litigator; being a pro bono lawyer for an international litigation team representing survivors of mass crimes at the UN’s Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia (ECCC); and a senior researcher at a University on public international law issues. It was very clear to me from a very young age that if I went to law school it was ultimately to become a human rights lawyer. I was trying to find ways to get my foot in the door of public international law work, especially in Asia. As part of my research on extractive industries and the impact on human rights in Myanmar and Cambodia, I undertook a research trip to Yangon and got extremely interested in its politics and legal history. At the time, the country was just opening up so it was an exciting opportunity to explore.

Once I had decided that I really wanted to be based in Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited and delivered a speech at the university I was working at in Singapore. I asked her a question about what concretely Singaporeans could do to assist with reform in her country. She gave a very long answer and in the end, she said, "But if you want to come to my country, you're very welcome."

I obviously took that very personally and said, "Well that's brilliant, I'm going to come to Myanmar and I'm going to try to be a tiny part of the big change." It all sounds very rather naïve and idealistic now, but thinking back I realise I was looking for inspiring and meaningful work that would gel my academic and professional training in both political science and the law. Fortunately, working for the ICJ allows me to engage in work that is about providing redress for serious human rights violations through the judicial process.

Can you talk a bit more about the pro bono work you did for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia?

I was helping a Singapore-based NGO and international litigation team. We were representing the Khmer Krom, a minority group targeted for elimination by the Khmer Rouge primarily because of their cultural and geographic ties to Vietnam. I had started out helping this NGO with pro bono legal research when I was in my second year of law school. I continued even after law school when I was doing my pupillage to get called to the bar in Singapore, and after I turned to academia for a year before joining the ICJ. It was about five years in total in varying roles from Program Manager to Litigation Associate.

A lot of my work was collecting testimony from Khmer Krom survivors and assisting with drafting the court submissions. We were submitting evidence to pursue their case in the ECCC. The efforts really paid off because in 2013 the first Khmer Krom civil party testified. His testimony in court was about what we had documented throughout the years: forced transfer, starvation, disappearance, and torture. He also bravely questioned the defendant, which had never happened in court before because most of the civil parties usually end up giving a closing statement and then leave. His question led to a flurry of activity and to renewed interest in the case of the Khmer Krom. His words in court were poignant. He said “Even though I am here, my suffering still remains. We are trying to find justice. I hope that if justice is done, my suffering will subside.” It was emotionally rewarding, humbling and momentous for the whole team to see one of our clients have his day in court, to vindicate the dignity of victims of mass crime, and to know that I played a role in that outcome.

Where did you go to law school?

In the National University of Singapore. It wasn’t a difficult choice to make once I decided that I would return home for law school after my undergraduate studies in the United States.

It has been ranked to be among the top 10 universities in the world for law – and the only Asian law school to be on that list. Some of Singapore’s brightest legal minds received their training there. It felt good knowing that there would be that academic rigor that would adequately prepare me for a career as a litigator.  

While I received excellent training on the theory and practice of law, I remember hoping for more emphasis on human rights clinical work and more encouragement of students to pursue a career in international human rights law.

Certain professors had those interests but it wasn't something that was readily available for students. I spoke to several professors, lawyers, friends, and alumni about potential opportunities. I guess it was quite fortunate that there happened to be an NGO in Singapore at that time focusing on work with the Khmer Rouge Tribunal and its team believed that my skills were valuable to their documentation, research and litigation work.

What did you do for your undergrad?

I studied political science at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont.

I am not a fan of studying law as the first degree. I felt that students who pursued law as their postgraduate degree brought a higher level of maturity to the subject and understood better the contextual nuances and the practical application of the law. I am extremely fortunate to have received academic scholarships that allowed me to pursue my International Baccalaureate in the Adriatic United World College in Italy and then my undergraduate studies in the US. Otherwise, I would not have been able to support tertiary-level education abroad. To have gotten those opportunities and to be in Middlebury was just fantastic because it was four years of intellectual and personal growth. Even though I was on what the Americans call the 'Pre-law Track', I also studied literature, theatre, dance, geography, anthropology, and Spanish. I won a research grant to explore political theatre and socio-political activism around the world for a year after Middlebury. All of those lessons learnt have relevance for the work that I’ve done post-law school.

Why did you decide to become a human rights lawyer?

I wasn't quite clear when I was much younger that there was this profession. I always wanted to be a journalist really and I wanted to uncover human rights issues around the world. As I grew older – and especially after my two year study in Italy where I lived with several international students who had survived civil conflicts and political injustices - I got in touch with friends and alumni members who had studied law and I realised that I could use it as a tool to provide redress for human rights violations. That was the motivation for me to go to law school.

What would you advise to someone who'd like to become a human rights lawyer?

It's an amazing experience despite all the challenges for me because it is my passion. It's very important when you're in law school to be true to yourself and figure out if human rights law is something that you'd like to do pro bono or if it's something that you would like as your full-time profession. If you make that decision to pursue it full-time, then you have to be very diligent about it because it's not an easy field. Are you keen to work for an NGO? Would you be okay with a significant pay cut? If so, for how many years? Working for NGOs that are dependent on donor funding is quite different from working for a profit-driven corporation.

Personal sacrifices have to be made if you are posted abroad - are you okay with that and for how long? Go and speak to your peers and seniors who are engaged in similar work. Seek out internships, fellowships and job opportunities with organisations whose work interests and inspires you.

I left private practice because I looked at my peers and seniors in private practice and I wasn't sure that that was what I wanted to become in five to ten years. That was powerful enough a realisation to drive me to leave private practice. When I look at my peers at ICJ and my seniors, I like the idea of being like them professionally in five to ten years. They are some of the best international legal minds, who also lead personally and professionally enriching lives. That is something that spurs me to keep going with this work.

What did you learn in private practice that you're still using in your current job?

The core technical skills of being a litigator. I'm very grateful that I had that training prior to joining an NGO because NGOs don't necessarily have the time to be grooming you. You are thrown into the deep end of things whereas in a firm that pays close attention to building your capacity, you can learn key skills: drafting, writing case briefs, undertaking extensive legal analyses and drafting court submissions, working under pressure because that's really what litigation is all about... I loved being a criminal litigator but I didn't entirely enjoy private practice because it was so stressful, but now having the benefit of hindsight, I see how it really helps me to be a better lawyer in the NGO setting.

Vani Sathisan I International Legal Adviser (Myanmar) | International Commission of Jurists

10 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Government at Middlebury College | Juris Doctor (J.D.), Law at National University of Singapore

Previously worked as Senior Research Associate, Asian Business & Rule of Law initiative at Singapore Management University | Litigation Associate (Khmer Rouge Tribunal, Cambodia) at Access to Justice Asia (AJA) | Trainee Litigation Associate at Drew & Napier LLC | Youth Trainer of Human Rights Education in Inter-Cultural Dialogue at Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) | Watson Fellow at Thomas J Watson Foundation | Amnesty International USA

Languages spoken English, Tamil, Spanish, Italian, Burmese

Find Vani online ICJ profile |  @VaniSathisan | LinkedIn | Personal website

Inspired by Vani's career? Here are related opportunities: Jobs and internships at the ICJ | Careers at Singapore Management University Internships, traineeships and job openings at Drew & Nappier LLC | Careers at Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) | Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship | Get involved with Amnesty International US

Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, 13 March 2016