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Human Rights Career Paths: Senior Legal Consultant (International Criminal Law)

Interview with Helen Sullivan-Looney, Senior Legal Consultant for a defence team at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

What does your role involve? What is a typical day for you?

The case in which I’m currently involved is in the investigation stage, so my day-to-day work involves a lot of review and analysis of witness statements and other documents, and drafting motions to protect our client’s procedural and substantive fair trial rights. I assist the lead lawyers in developing defence strategies and tactics, at the instruction of our client. I also supervise junior consultants and interns.

What was your route to your current role?

I started out as a public defender in the United States, but had always been interested in ICL and international human rights. After a few years as a public defender, in 2011 I moved to The Netherlands to do an LLM degree in ICL at Utrecht University. While getting my LLM, I did an externship with a defence team at the ICTY in The Hague. The lead lawyer in that case also represented one of the alleged senior leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea government (also known as the Khmer Rouge) in Case 002 at the ECCC in Cambodia. When I graduated from the LLM program, he offered me an internship with his team in that case. A few months after my internship ended, a consultancy job opened up on his team. I applied for it and was hired in 2012, and have been working at the ECCC more or less since then. When our client in Case 002 passed away in 2013, I worked for about a year and a half in Myanmar at a commercial law firm doing a wide range of transactional work, and then I was contacted about a senior consultant position at the ECCC in Case 003 (involving the alleged commander of the Khmer Rouge navy). I was hired in 2015 and have been back at the ECCC since then.

What do you enjoy most about your job? What are the challenges?

What I enjoy most about my job is the litigation on substantive legal and procedural issues. Since the Democratic Kampuchea regime existed from April 1975-January 1979, the ECCC can only apply domestic and international criminal laws that existed at that time. This legal requirement has resulted in a lot of interesting litigation about, for example, the definition of crimes against humanity in the 1970s or whether rape was recognized as a crime against humanity in the 1970s. Much of this litigation represents the first time these questions have been addressed by an international or hybrid international tribunal, so it’s been exciting to be part of that process. I also really enjoy the people I work with. Our team is Cambodian, American, French, you name it, and it’s great to work with people from different cultural and legal backgrounds. It gives me a deeper perspective on my own work.

The challenges of my job relate to what I enjoy most about it, which is that it can be difficult to find the relevant documents that allow you to examine a treaty’s legislative history or a State’s practice in the 1970s regarding a particular international crime. Sometimes it can feel a bit like you’re a private investigator trying to hunt down a piece of evidence, which is both challenging and fun!

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring human rights professionals who want to pursue a similar career path?

If you want to practice ICL, I think it’s important to practice domestically for a few years before moving into the international arena. Domestic practice gives you advocacy and client representation experience and research and writing skills that are of huge value in a case. You’re better able to strategize about a case, recognize fair trial issues, and help advise a client if you’ve had experience strategizing and managing your own cases and clients. I also think networking with people in the ICL world is very important. The ICL community is quite small and most people I know got their jobs through other people they knew. So, as difficult as it can be, networking is invaluable.

Do you have any other comments or words of advice?

Take advantage of as many seminars, trainings, or meet-ups as are available in your area. They’re a great way to learn more about ICL and to meet people engaged in the work.

About the author

Natalie Matranga

Natalie Matranga is a lawyer and human rights professional from the United Kingdom. After practicing as a lawyer in the UK, Natalie worked in South East Asia (Cambodia and Myanmar) for a range of human rights and international development organisations, including local and international NGOs and the United Nations, specialising in rule of law and human rights in criminal justice systems in transitional and post-conflict contexts. Natalie is currently a partner at Amicus Legal & Advisory LLP, a consultancy firm providing research services and project support to NGOs and international organisations.