Outreach and Campaigns Officer | UNA-UK
Laurel Hart spoke to Women in Foreign Policy about how she found her passion in atrocity prevention, global trends in international organisations and the necessity of putting yourself out there to reach your goals.
Where are you currently working?
I work at United Nations Association-UK, a charity in the United Kingdom that provides the leading source of independent analysis on the United Nations and makes the case for an effective UN to British policy makers and the public. I manage UNA-UK’s outreach which involves working with key constituencies including UK Government, parliamentarians, UNA-UK’s networks, NGO partners and the public to build support for an effective UN. To stimulate action on the ground, I craft campaign actions that engage our movement and enables them to push for stronger UK action on the international stage. The end goal is to see a UN that works for everyone, everywhere.
I also lead on UNA-UK’s atrocity prevention work, with a particular focus on the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, representing the organisation at international meetings and providing updates on developments in atrocity prevention and R2P.
How did you start working in international affairs?
Academically, my background is in genocide studies – I studied history at university, and I looked in depth at how genocide is remembered, commemorated and memorialised in different countries, across various societal levels: from within the home to national institutions. My interest in genocide studies started from a very young age. When I was 15, I became an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust and joined a delegation to Auschwitz concentration camp to learn about what took place. The experience stayed with me for life. To witness the size and scale of what took place and to meet and hear survivors share their stories, I came away with a strong sense of duty to carry their testimonies with me and to speak up for those who could not speak for themselves.
It forced me to reflect on how these kind of atrocities come about in the first place and how we can prevent them from occurring again. Since then I’ve visited other countries where atrocities have taken place, including Bosnia and Rwanda and have been involved in a number of organizations that educate people on the steps towards genocide. I work very closely with Remembering Srebrenica, as a regional board member, raising awareness of the genocide in Bosnia and working to combat hate and intolerance in society.
What does a typical day at UNA-UK look like?
There's no such thing as a typical day. Depending on the time of year, I could be organising an upcoming conference (like our ‘Global Britain conference’ in July this year), going to speak to students at universities about the UN’s work, or crafting campaign actions for our 100 local UNA groups across the country to call for UK action on a particular issue. I’m always on the lookout for ways to engage our networks in our policy work, so that we have an engaged, active, and informed civil society behind the work we do.
A recent example is our Yemen Can‘t Wait campaign where we’ve been pushing for the UK to support a UN-led peace process with the help of our supporters and partner organisations. We asked our supporters to write to their MPs and to visit them in person - over 30 MPs have already been urged to call for UK action on Yemen and it’s not over yet!
We also do a lot of media work. Organisations and journalists tend to approach us first for analysis on the UN, so, I was recently interviewed for UNA-Sweden’s international affairs magazine to discuss the UK’s response to the crisis in Yemen.
So all in all, it’s very, very varied - to give you a idea, in the last year I organised a film screening with former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark on the UN Secretary-General appointment process, ran a meeting in parliament with the former UN Special Advisor on R2P, I was a judge at the Global Campaign Challenge at the University of East Anglia and attended a global meeting in Uganda on atrocity prevention.
Behind it all, I’m always keeping my eye out for opportunities where we can involve our 20,000+ supporters in the UK - UNA-UK derives its strength from its members and supporters!
As a person who focuses on atrocity prevention, how has the retreat from multilateralism impacted your work?
We’re living at a time when countries are looking inwards, retreating from multilateralism and inaction is becoming an unsettling global trend. We’re seeing an attack on human rights values across the globe at the same time as an attack on international institutions.
This isn’t helped by the international community’s lack of meaningful action to address the critical situations we see today in places like Myanmar and Yemen and it’s risking people’s lives – full stop. The number of armed conflicts has increased over the last decade alongside the rise in the number of civilian casualties. Mass atrocities have become a feature of our time. And the threat they pose is not going away anytime soon.
We need to see political will from states. We need to see them upholding their international commitments. That is why our work at UNA-UK, calling for active and progressive UK leadership at the UN, is so important. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the UK has a special responsibility to address matters of international peace and security. And the UK will needs to do more to leverage its position at the UN, especially post-brexit. Yes it is challenging in this climate, but the current international backdrop proves the need for UNA-UK’s existence and others like us.
Atrocity prevention is not difficult to sell in theory, but it is in practice. With countries shutting shop on multilateralism and turning inwards to focus predominantly on domestic issues, it remains a challenge. That’s why we at UNA-UK are calling for the UK to make atrocity prevention a firm policy priority. Atrocity prevention is better for everyone in the long run – it saves lives, it’s a matter of national security, national interest, and it cuts costs– it is in everyone’s best interest.
One of the groups that you are on the board for is called Tell MAMA, what is their objective?
Tell MAMA is an organisation that works on tackling anti-Muslim hatred and works closely with UK Government to raise the issues of anti-Muslim hatred at a policy level. It also acts as a secure and reliable platform that allows people from across England to report any form of Anti-Muslim abuse. We work with police forces across England, Wales and Scotland in order to ensure access to justice for victims through the prosecution of perpetrators.
We’ve seen a rise in hate crime and anti-Muslim prejudice in the UK. And sadly, it’s common knowledge that the number of incidents of hate crime that are reported are just a fraction of those that occur. Tell MAMA makes reporting an incident incredibly easy. It’s also a useful way to accumulate data and ensure access to justice for victims.
You were recently in Uganda - what were you working on there?
I was in Entebbe, Uganda for the Global Action Against Mass Atrocity Crimes’ (GAAMAC) third meeting to discuss ways to improve national atrocity prevention mechanisms. The conference was useful because it brought together leading practitioners from governments, the UN, NGOs and academia in one room to share their best practices and learn from each other. You don’t get the opportunity very often to be part of a global meeting like that. It was such an important platform through which to build partnerships and form an international network.
It was a reinvigorating week - it reminded me that there are practitioners across the globe who care about this issue and who are working tirelessly to prevent atrocities, whether at the local or national level. It’s easy to forget that in the face of such distressing situations we see today with little action from the international community.
Before working at UNA-UK, you also worked at the UN Headquarters in New York. What were you doing there?
I was working for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) with the policy development and studies branch. I was working on the Secretary-General’s report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, tasked with sourcing and compiling data - working with in-country offices to accumulate that data. We were also preparing for the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul so I was doing the logistics and briefing notes for that.
What did you take away from working at the UN Headquarters?
As with anyone who is going to work at the UN or another international institution, it often starts with idealism and excitement. Before the UN I was working in a very hands-on environment in human rights education for Amnesty International and as a legal caseworker at an HIV charity. I then went to work on policy and research for OCHA which was a change of scenery and very eye-opening. I was able to witness firsthand the mammoth portfolio of the UN while focusing on putting together one of the Secretary-General’s reports. I was working with country offices around the world to gather accurate data on the protection of civilians in armed conflict.
You learn what you’re good at and what you want to do very quickly at the UN. If you're like me and are interested in improving systems I found it really interesting going from being on the inside to working on the outside at UNA-UK where we focus on UN reform and work to make the UN more effective. There’s lots of different roads you can take to achieving change - I’ve learnt you can do it on the outside too.
What are some things people should know while trying to get into international affairs?
In terms of general advice, I’d say don’t be afraid to do lots of different things first. I didn’t go down the conventional route necessarily - I worked for an HIV charity, a human rights charity, at the UN, among others, before I started at UNA-UK.
If you have a passion for something, start by mapping out organisations/institutions/individuals working in that area. Send out an email and ask: “Are there any ways to get involved? Are there any programs that need assistance?” That’s how I got involved in some of the organisations I work with now. Sometimes, it’s about dedicating a good six months of your time to testing different roles out, or a year if you can. Some people land their dream job straight away, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Don’t wait around and expect people to come to you. Ask people about their work, make connections, put yourself at the table. Don’t expect people to come to you.
I hear that people say it’s quite hard to get internships or traineeships at the UN. My advice would be: keep applying. The UN is hungry for passionate students and post-grads and if you keep applying, you have a good chance. But also, don’t dismiss smaller NGOs you’ve never heard of. Email them. That’s often where opportunities are born. You need to have conversations with people, introduce yourself. More likely than not they’ll be happy to have a conversation with you, get a coffee, invite you to events, and share volunteer/job opportunities.
Form conversations early on and you never know where you’ll be - you could be working for them, or they could be working for you.
A bit of final advice: get yourself a business card. You don’t need a job to have a business card. Just put your name on there, your area of expertise or interest and your contact details. Take them to events with you and exchange business cards. I guarantee this will give you confidence.
If you could summarise what people should know about genocide in a few words, what would you say?
It’s a risk that no one is immune from - we've seen mass atrocities occur in the heart of Europe, in East Africa, and beyond. 2018 has seen rising levels of hate crime in the UK, anti-semitism, islamophobia and more divisive political rhetoric. Abroad, divisions are becoming more and more entrenched. We all have a part to play in raising awareness and combating hatred and intolerance in society. We’ve seen the consequence of ignoring early warning signs that lead to atrocities. We must remain vigilant and continue to hold our governments to account.