Programme Lawyer | International Bar Association (Human Rights Institute)
You’re a Programme Lawyer at the International Bar Association (IBA). Can you tell me what that involves?
I’m a human rights lawyer, and at the IBA I manage our programmes on Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Within the region we assess different human rights topics to address in order to be of some added value for the country, the people, and in a broader sense for the community. It really ranges from country to country and depends on the interests and needs of local people.
We recently started working with youth in a couple of countries. We want to work with the future generation of lawyers, and try to bring them up with a human rights focused approach. This means promoting critical thinking and an ability and willingness to ask questions, look for answers, and in general to challenge the situations they’re in. We arrange a variety of activities, including human rights trainings and study trips to other countries. We also provide them with opportunities to do practical work, for example human rights internships and experiences to do international advocacy. We are trying to raise a new generation of aware, smart, bright human rights advocates, and that’s a very rewarding and fun thing to do.
We also provide support to the legal profession and lawyers depending on their needs. In some countries, lawyers need very particular training, for example in criminal law or international human rights. Other countries need technical support or assistance with internal organisational structures. It varies.
What I find very important is always having gender in mind, whatever activities I do. It doesn’t matter if I’m working with youth or the older generation, providing training or doing advocacy, I’ll always include a specific focus on gender issues.
When you were applying to university, what motivated you to study law? Were you thinking about human rights then?
I wasn’t thinking about human rights then. I was one of those people who didn’t know what they wanted to do after finishing school, but I think it’s perfectly okay to not know what you want to study. You shouldn’t feel frustrated about that and you definitely shouldn’t give in to pressure from your friends or family or community.
I didn’t know what I wanted to study but since I was a good student my parents suggested I should get into law school. I think they wanted me to become a commercial lawyer rather than a human rights lawyer though. Well, I enjoyed my first years of university but I was never crazy about the law. It was only in the last year of my studies that I discovered human rights law, which changed the situation a lot. When you feel really passionate about something then it becomes a totally different thing.
After you finished your undergraduate degree, you completed an LLM in Public International Law at Leiden University, an institution which is famous for postgraduate law. Would you recommend following that course?
I would definitely recommend Leiden - both the university and the law programme. Before I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect and I can honestly say that the law studies I did in Vilnius University and at Leiden differed quite drastically. They took a completely different approach and there were different dynamics between the professors and students. At Leiden, there was constant research and work and studying, whereas at Vilnius University you only had to study at the end of the semester when you had exams.
For me, Leiden was a learning process. I developed a new approach to studying. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to go there, but it was challenging because it’s a tough programme and they have the best students and the best professors. For me it was something completely new. The first semester was really difficult but during the second one I understood what I needed to do. I’m very grateful for that challenge. It taught me a lot and I think it also opened a lot of doors for me and gave me opportunities later on.
What was your first job after graduating from Leiden and how did you manage to get it?
Like most students, I started gaining experience with internships. A huge advantage of studying in the Hague is that we had easier access to institutions in the Netherlands. That’s how I got an internship at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with the Defence Team. At the ICTY, every single day teaches you something new. Every single meeting with the judges, the barristers, the lawyers and the defendants is an experience in itself. You feel a lot of responsibility because you want to contribute to your team. If you enjoy challenges and are able to learn in an environment where you are under pressure, this is definitely something you should do.
After the ICTY you went on to undertake a five-month Traineeship at the European Commission. What was that like?
It was very different from an international criminal institution. It was a more relaxed environment. Although we did a lot of work, I think the traineeship is more about having fun. In general, the European Commission internship programmes are designed to bring European youth together and give them a chance to socialise and experience the feeling of being EU nationals. Workwise, it was less challenging than the ICTY but it was very fun to see from the inside what they do and how humanitarian aid works.
What did you do next?
After my internships I went back home to Lithuania and started an internship at the Human Rights Monitoring Institute (HRMI). I interned for a few months before they offered me a paid position. I liked living in the Hague and I loved Brussels, but after being away for more than two years it was nice to be back in Vilnius. It was great to work on human rights issues in Lithuania because Lithuania is a young democracy with an intention to respect human rights. Even though there are still a lot of human rights issues in the country, and anti-human rights statements and narratives from politicians or state institutions are still quite common, the country has generally taken the right direction. I really felt that a civil society organisation could play a meaningful role. The change wasn’t happening quickly, but it was happening.
For example, the first time we hosted a Baltic Pride event, it was horrible. It took place outside of the city centre and we had to be surrounded by a fence and police forces to be able to march. When Baltic Pride came back to Lithuania three years later, after being hosted in Latvia and Estonia, we were able to walk in the city centre but there still had to be a police presence. Baltic Pride returned to Lithuania in 2016, and by that time basically no police protection was needed. There were a few protestors but they were marginal and looked really stupid; the entire picture had changed. We went from representing the minority to being an event where people came to celebrate equality and tolerance. That’s not to say that there aren’t any LGBT+ issues in Lithuania anymore, there’s still a lot to be done, and things are not moving as fast as they should, but change is happening, and being a part of that was really nice.
Talk me through some of your biggest achievements at the HRMI.
We achieved meaningful victories doing strategic litigation (i.e. precedent-creating litigation that has an impact on broad numbers of people, as well as the victim). For example, in 2013, we won a domestic violence case (Valiuliene v Lithuania) before the European Court of Human Rights. The judgement was very timely. A violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture) was found - and for a lawyer Article 3 is a huge thing! At that moment there was more political will, firstly, to acknowledge that domestic violence was a real problem in Lithuania, and not just a private matter; and secondly, to fight domestic violence in the country and start some training programmes for officers. There are still a lot of issues, but we got some things changed and this was definitely an achievement.
We also had a case before the national courts on the rights of unaccompanied immigrant minors. This case reached the Lithuanian Supreme Court, where the court found that detaining asylum seekers (which used to be the usual practice) was a violation of their rights and in contradiction to Lithuania’s international obligations, and ordered damages to be paid to the victims, who were unaccompanied Afghani minors.
What have been the biggest challenges in your career?
It was actually quite difficult for me to decide to leave my previous job as Legal Director at the HRMI because the work I was doing there was very interesting and satisfying. However, at some point, you have to put yourself out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself by taking up new roles and commitments.
What traits are important in a career like yours?
The variety of your expertise is important. You don’t want to be limited to one thing so it’s good to show that you have broader areas of experience, as this allows you to have a broader perspective.
Also, you should always remember not to be too serious. You have to relax sometimes and remember that it’s not possible for you to do everything. At some point, there will be something you fail at and that’s okay. If you manage to sort the problem out, learn something from it, and move on, then that’s fine.
What do you look for when you’re hiring someone?
First of all, I need to make sure that they know the subject area. I need to know that the person I’m interviewing is an expert in whatever they’re talking about.
I also want the person to be a team player. Even if I’m hiring someone that I’ll be supervising, I still need for him or her to feel that we’re equally involved in the work and that we’re equally contributing. I want to discuss things and then come to decisions together. I think teamwork brings better results and subjectively it’s more motivating and more satisfying to work with nice colleagues.
Do you have any role models and if so who?
My colleagues, especially my female colleagues, are my role models. I’m mostly inspired by female leaders in the human rights field, especially those who work in my countries. I sometimes find the Central Asian and Eastern European countries so frustrating and even depressing to work on. In spite of that, you meet people who are fun and super professional and manage to find humour in the whole situation. These people really care about what they do, they are devoted and work hard to help others and achieve some progress in their countries. Working with them is an inspiration in itself.
What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to a career in international human rights law?
Definitely go for it. We need more people in the human rights field. The more, the better, and the stronger we will be in our pro-human rights voice. Unfortunately, with the current trends worldwide, it seems there will be enough human rights work for everyone. So be persistent, devoted, and go for it.
Don’t pursue a career just because of the social status or family pressure. It should be about achieving change and having fun at the same time. Then it works for you and for everyone around you.