Melanie Oliver, Regional Justice Process Assistant, Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons

Council of Europe - Palace of Europe

The best advice I was given when looking to get into human rights was to volunteer as soon as possible in something that interests you. The skills you learn will be transferable to human rights or development.

Name: Melanie Oliver Current Position: Regional Justice Process Assistant
Nationality: Australian Organisation: Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons
Qualifications (and university): Lawyer of the Supreme Court of NSW; European Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation; Bachelor of Laws; Bachelor of Arts in International Studies (Chile Major)
LinkedIn Profile: Blog: 
Years of experience: 2 years in development/human rights, plus 5 years working as a paralegal whilst at law school
Languages: English (native); French (fluent); Spanish (advanced); Thai (beginner)


Tell us a bit about your career before moving into development/not-for-profit.

I worked as a paralegal for five years whilst in law school. This was a great opportunity to gain practical legal skills including interview and negotiation skills through face-to-face meetings with clients. However already in first year university I had a deeper interest in social issues than most of my peers, and spent my Saturdays volunteering with Sudanese refugees to help them to learn English and integrate into society. Volunteering early in my career turned out to be key to my future success as I was later offered an internship with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in France and was able to display a concrete interest in migration issues. I continued to work in commercial legal teams throughout my years of study until ultimately I was hired in my first human rights position as an advisor on human rights education and women’s corrections in Bangkok, Thailand.

How did you make the transition into development and to what extent were your previous skills transferable?

The skills mentioned above were 100% transferable to my later work. Firstly, as a lawyer my contribution to human rights and development is largely through policy, which requires practical legal skills to research and advise on policy issues. Secondly, the face-to-face experiences, both with clients in law firms and with refugees, taught me people skills that are applicable in any scenario, from meeting government officials at the United Nations in New York City to meeting human trafficking victims in South-East Asia.

When did you first start working in development and what was your first role in the sector?

My first permanent position in human rights was as Advisor on Human Rights Education and Women’s Corrections within the Royal Thai Government in Bangkok. I’m not sure that it’s a traditional ‘starter’ role but it did highlight that there may be more starter roles available in South-East Asia than there are in Europe, and people starting in development may want to consider South-East Asia as a promising location to get their foot in the door.

My job came about because I was researching human trafficking in Vienna – a big UN city home to many diplomats and human rights experts. My research supervisor recommended me to a Thai diplomat who was in the process of establishing a criminal justice institute under the Thai Ministry of Justice. After meeting him for coffee I was offered a one-year contract in Bangkok.

The job was not what I was expecting and instead of being development based, it mostly focused on policy and diplomacy at the regional and international levels. On the international level I was asked to write speeches and prepare documents for Her Royal Highness Princess Bajrakitiyabha, travelling with the Thai delegation to the United Nations in New York and to Qatar. On the regional level I attended meetings and conferences in Hong Kong and Taiwan, promoting Thailand’s work on implementing the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules). On the domestic level, I was asked to design and implement trainings for Thai government officials on the Bangkok Rules.

It was an exciting challenge to be thrown into the heart of diplomatic action – and definitely a steep learning curve. I had to learn on the job, and learn quickly. It was thrilling to travel in a royal delegation, with motorbikes at each end of the motorcade that stop all traffic, and bodyguards surrounding you everywhere you go. It made all the doubts of leaving a Sydney corporate law job fade away because this was an experience that I would not have had if I remained in Australia.

Although the position in Bangkok was my first permanent human rights position, my first formal human rights experience was as the legal intern with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Strasbourg, France. I monitored the activities of the Council of Europe bodies and reported to the Strasbourg office on matters of interest to UNHCR’s mandate. This involved analysing cases of the European Court of Human Rights and summarizing reports from the Council of Europe bodies, such as the Parliamentary Assembly or the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. I also conducted research, translated documents from French to English, and helped with office administration.

How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get in? Was the role paid or unpaid?

Obtaining my first development role was actually a several-year process. I studied law and felt very much like I was being channelled into being a corporate lawyer – my core university subjects prepared me for corporate law, my friends talked about clerkships in the big firms, and my parents were looking forward to the day I would have a big corporate law pay cheque. Unfortunately for my parents, I had a deep desire to work overseas in human rights and spent my university years creating opportunities that allowed me to gain relevant skills. I studied law and international studies in Sydney, Chile and France which put me in the right city to become friends with lawyers of the European Court of Human Rights: Strasbourg. After expressing my interest to intern, one of the court’s lawyers put me in contact with the UNHCR Strasbourg office. I applied for an internship, kindly supported by the recommendation of this lawyer, and was offered the position as the legal intern. The internship lasted 7 months and I was paid a monthly stipend, enough to cover most costs, but by no means a corporate salary!

This internship was the pivotal moment that opened the door to an international career, in a sort of domino effect. My UNHCR colleagues recommended me for a Master degree based in Venice/Vienna called the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation, where I was supervised by a brilliant human rights mind – the former Special Rapporteur to the United Nations on Torture, Professor Manfred Nowak. Vienna and Manfred opened doors to Bangkok where I remain today.

These experiences demonstrate that networking is the name of the game, and I would recommend to anyone wanting to get into human rights/development to make contact with the organisations you are interested in working for. Go for coffees, volunteer, make friends.

Do you consider field experience important for working in development?

The answer to this question depends on what you want to do in development. If you want to work on the ground in a remote community doing health checks for asylum seekers, then field experience will help you get there. But if you want to work in fundraising at an organisation’s headquarters, perhaps it would be less relevant. I do think, however, that all development people should have some field experience, just to understand the issues on the ground. Whilst interning at UNHCR I ran a shelter for refugees and asylum seekers in my spare time. Working directly with asylum seekers taught me their practical and immediate needs, which then influenced how I saw the asylum debate at the international level.

The best advice I was given when looking to get into human rights was to volunteer as soon as possible in something that interests you. The skills you learn will be transferable to human rights or development. For example, if you ultimately like the idea of working with refugees or human trafficking victims, then volunteering in your home town with victims of domestic violence, children, or trauma victims will give you skills that could be relevant to refugee work, because many people fleeing conflict and persecution have experienced violence and trauma.

How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?

I think that networking is absolutely vital in this field; networking has been an element in all my offers for employment. There are so many clever, interesting people wanting to work in development and so few jobs, so being known by a potential employer could help your name make it to the top of the huge pile of deserving applicants. I would also add that networking is a skill that needs to be developed – it’s not just luck or ‘chance’ meetings that get you a job. It’s about how you follow up: how you build relationships from the initial meeting. It is also about being genuine. When I meet people that impress me, I try to see them again later to hear about their career path and their current job. This isn’t to schmooze, it is genuinely to learn: I would like to be like them one day, so why not hear about how they became successful?

What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?

I am currently working as the Regional Justice Process Assistant at the Australia-Asia Program to Combat Trafficking in Persons, an Australian Government-funded aid program. The Regional Justice Process Advisor and I are a two-person team, working to design and implement judicial reform programs that allow judges to better adjudicate cases of human trafficking.

I am very much enjoying the work, and value the experience of working on a regional program; I have the opportunity to work on – and sometimes travel to – countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos and Thailand, where I am based.

The biggest challenge I face is that the work is often quite desk-based; a large part of my job is to research the laws and policies on the judiciary, human trafficking, money laundering, and people smuggling. I prefer to go out into the field, meeting the trafficking victims in shelters, or visiting their places of exploitation. Unfortunately, the impact I can have in the field is limited, as my skills lie in research, policy, and planning.

Thus, for any school leavers that might be reading this, if you want to work with victims face-to-face then studying law might get you there – but studying social work, medicine or psychology might be more useful for you to work directly with people, rather than at a policy or legal level.

What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?

I think a key piece of advice is to create opportunities for yourself. International careers don’t just happen, they are made. In fact, one of my pet peeves is when people say “oh you are an expat? You’re so lucky!”. It wasn’t luck that got me here today and my path wasn’t an easy or direct one. International careers are a result of taking opportunities that are presented to you – or even creating opportunities where they do not exist. For example, in law school I wanted to improve my French but was refused for various administrative reasons. Through my own research I found a French law faculty, liaised with them until they would accept me, and set about restructuring my law credits so that I could make my plan a reality. In the end, both universities accepted my proposal and allowed me to study human rights in France – in French. This gave me the opportunity to meet lawyers from the European Court of Human Rights who ultimately recommended me for my UNHCR internship, which then lead me to be accepted to my Master’s, which ultimately led me to my current job. However had I just accepted a university administrator’s decision on how my life should turn out, I would not necessarily be working in Bangkok today.

Secondly, it is really important to work out what jobs are available in development. In addition to reading websites like this one, I would suggest deeply familiarising yourself with the organisations that interest you. For example, what does UNHCR actually do? What kind of people work for them? What could you do with UNHCR if you study law versus if you study psychology? The earlier you understand the answers to those questions, the easier it will be to find your path.

Lastly, be prepared to intern well after your commercial lawyer friends are settled in comfy law jobs and try to ignore any suggestion that you should not intern. Development is not law. The industry is different and there are no set career paths we can follow like there are in law: clerkship à lawyer à senior lawyer, etc. Every young development friend of mine has done one, if not many, internships. Unfortunately this does suggest a year or so as the stereotypical broke human rights worker! But working for free – or little – for a year is a small price to pay for 30 or 40 years in a career that makes you truly happy. And I hope it will make you happy – good luck!


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