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From activist to muse to international guardian

At the end of June, a former “fairly bolshy” student activist will take up the position of Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. She will be the first Australian, and the first woman, to hold the position in the organisation’s 150-year history.

‘She’ is Dr Helen Durham (LLD(Hons) 1991, SJD 2000), who has authored a seriously impressive list of books and chapters of books. There is also a long list of awards she has received (recently that included the Victorian Honour Roll of Women) and quite a long list of articles about her and interviews with her (including one very like this  in the Sydney Morning Herald).

Not much is focussed on her poetry, however.  Nor the fact that she was the subject of one of Australia’s biggest hit songs of the early 90’s by a band that’s just completed a 25th anniversary tour  after reuniting this year for the Port Fairy Folk Festival (more on that later).

Mostly the focus is on the subject of her extraordinary work in international humanitarian law, the ‘laws of war’, and her work and research into the impact and role of women during and following conflicts, and in international criminal prosecutions.

She is incredibly well credentialed for her new job – which to date has generally been filled by men with military backgrounds. The focus of her work and research is an extraordinary body of work in international humanitarian law, the ‘laws of war’, and into the impact and role of women during and following conflicts, and in international criminal prosecutions.

The new position is also at odds with her old uni style – at least on the surface. As a student, she was a ‘political, student activist’ – a regular attendee at student protests, prone to occasional subversive acts, with strong recollections of the Feminist Law Collective and reclaim the night marches, all night philosophy discussions, poetry readings in pubs and an occasional penchant for dying her hair in clashing colours.

“I flourished in the uni experience,” she laughs. “Sometimes when I look at law students now they seem so serious compared to me back then.”

For Dr Durham uni was a time spent living in a student ‘share’ house with other creative, independent thinkers, waitressing, backpacking India after scraping together enough money, teaching English to new arrivals from Vietnam, acting, writing and thinking about maybe becoming a journalist. It was also where she met her partner, Greg Arnold (BA(Hons) 1989), another law student who dropped law for music, and found fame as the lead singer of the band ‘Things of Stone and Wood.’

It is for her 22nd birthday that ‘Happy Birthday Helen’ was written – a hit in 1993 for the band, followed by a string awards, and international tours, including with other Australian names like Midnight Oil and Paul Kelly.

With that juxtaposition of career interests, they were married (‘Something I never thought I would do – I’d always thought marriage was a patriarchal institution – then I asked him to marry me”) and, with little interest in following the band on tour, “I decided to do my Masters focusing on human rights and ethics.”

Dr Durham confesses that the law was not an obvious path for her at first, taking on Arts, dropping out for a year and then back again to finish Law both degrees in 1992: “I struggled occasionally… but the study of law refined my intellect to look at things in a precise manner, which is really important with what I work with now – to not be overcome by the horror of it sometimes.”

For her honours thesis, she looked into ways to deal with domestic violence in Vietnamese communities and why legal options did not seem to work in this community – asking Victoria Legal Aid at the time what area of work she could do that might be useful: “I had a desperate requirement to use the law in a way that would help people, to find a way my learnings could be useful.”

At the completion of the law degree, Dr Durham returned to Thailand, a country she has spent some time in as a child with her family – her two brothers, a sister and engineer father and teacher mother spent a year there when she was nine years old before they returned to Eltham. “Looking back, it really opened my mind up to issues of cultural relativity; there were refugees coming from across the Cambodian border, it was just before I went to high school, it left a big impression on me.”

The return to Thailand led to working with a Prostitutes’ Collective, while on a Baker and Mackenzie internship: “I went from bolshy Doc Martin activism to speaking to these women from the collective and it taught me that really need to listen carefully. That working with communities are the only ways that deep changes work.”

After admission to practice and articles with Holding Redlich, Dr Durham continued working as a volunteer with women’s groups, and then a position running programs for AsiaLink at University of Melbourne. It was around this time a friend of hers went overseas and worked with women who had been held in the ‘rape camps’ of the former Yugoslavia.

“My friend called and wanted help – in making rape a war crime,” Dr Durham explained. She became part of a group of lawyers who started taking evidence from refugees from the former Yugoslavia who had come to Australia, evidence which formed part of the case which led to the ruling by the International Criminal Tribunal that systematic rape in a time of war was a crime against humanity.

“It opened my eyes to International Humanitarian Law – an area of law that in times of war tries to carve out a place for humanity,” she said.

Since then, Dr Durham’s career has shifted between positions at University of Melbourne and the Australian Red Cross, all focussed on this area, and earning a Doctor of Juridical Science along the way. Her interest in the ICRC as ‘the guardians of the laws of war’ has challenged her ‘activist’ self who might want to jump in to right wrongs and expose wrongdoing.

She says work such as this, done by NGOs such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, play an important part but is different to the role of the Red Cross: “If you genuinely want to make change you have to influence people, to influence people you have to have their trust. Sometimes that means withholding judgement, knowing there are other organisations and institutions that can take that up.”

But there is no getting around the fact that this job – like the ones she has done and will do again from next month – means getting up close to people who have committed terrible atrocities, spending time with people she knows have a terrible capacity for brutality.

“I’ve been in scary situations, but I never feel scared at the time. I am very, very focussed on the principle of humanity and how do I make this situation better. It’s similar to criminal lawyers in a way – you focus on the task at hand and suspend your emotional response.”

What of the people who have suffered because of them  – people about the same age as her two children, her siblings, her partner, her mum? How does anyone cope with that?

“It would be false to say it doesn’t wear away at you… but the day it stops affecting you is the day you stop,” she explains.

And apart from the debrief process available to her, it is probably her resilience and positive focus in making a difference that keeps her balanced – describing a return to Australia after field missions in war torn countries as restoring hope rather than relief: “I think, how great is it that I live here in a country where we can worry at the school gate about cleaning cricket whites. I work with people who are literally dying to have what we have and I do them no benefit not to take advantage of what I have here – and live it.”

But from the end of this month, for the next four years, Dr Durham and her family will call Geneva home. Her first field mission in the role will be Somalia, Sudan and Nairobi.

Is she doing what she thought she would be doing now – when she thinks back to those share house, Doc Martin-wearing days? “I think I am,” Dr Durham says. “I wanted to do something that was engaging intellectually – tick. Something that helped people – tick. Would my 20 year-old self be happy with me? Well maybe not so much with wearing pearls, but I am doing what I wanted to do.”


*An edited version of this profile was first published in Melbourne Law School News in June 2014 and is also published online at the MLS website here.


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice profile. I quite like the concept of ‘Doc Martin activism’.

    July 11, 2014
    • It was the 80’s. What other kind was there? Thanks for reading.

      July 11, 2014

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