If you’re interested in a career in international law, an internship is often a great way to get started. UTS JD student, Jock Steel, talks to Survive Law about his internship with the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate’s Human Rights Working Group.
Many of us dream about a career in public international law, but it can be hard to know where to get started. Steel says he applied for a range of international internships last year. “I did applications for everything I could think of, like International Criminal Court, the works.”
The application form for the general UN internship intake included a section for attaching additional documents, so Steel included an essay he’d written: “I’d done a Masters of International Law already and one of my courses was international law and the use of armed force,” he says. “I had to write a major essay and my conclusion was that the UN is totally redundant in its mandate from 1945… the whole thing just needs to be totally reworked, and whoever’s reworking it isn’t doing it fast enough… and I got the job,” Steel laughs.
He was offered an internship in November and found himself in the middle of a freezing New York winter two months later. “Being in a winter wonderland in the middle of the city isn’t that bad, but when you walk out of your apartment at 7am to go to work and it’s minus 15 degrees, it’s a bit of a rude awakening. But I did like it.”
Steel interned with the Human Rights Working Group of the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, “which I think was the most interesting arm to get,” he says. “I was assigned to the human rights working group with very limited knowledge of international human rights. My masters was mostly trade and environment law, armed conflict law… so I was thrown in the deep end,” he says. “[But] at the end of the day, it was the best working group to be in. Out of all the internships, I absolutely struck gold.”
On the day-to-day of his twelve week internship, Steel says, “every Monday there’ll be a full [Executive Directorate] meeting, and every Thursday there’d be a Human Rights Working Group meeting in which we’re talking about the services that we’re giving to the clusters to help them implement counter-terrorism measures.” (Clusters are groupings of UN member states. They are arranged according to various factors such as stability, development and terrorist presence).
Steel loved the experience of working with brilliant and passionate colleagues. “I used to just go to the Working Group meetings and write down everything these people would say, because they were just brainwaves. It was like being in a room with geniuses.”
“I was [also] able to go to the Counter Terrorism Committee, which is the General Assembly branch of the Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate,” says Steel, who enjoyed “going to their meetings and watching diplomacy absolutely in full flight.”
“You know, the translator’s booth breaking down and the French representative refusing to do the speech in English, even though she’s fluent in English, because she wanted to speak in French and so they had to stop the meeting for half an hour to fix all the audio. I thought ‘that is such an amazing moment,’” he laughs.
Steel’s role also included research, preparing papers on issues and propositions that nations were putting forward at the Human Rights Council in Geneva which could affect the implementation of counter-terrorism measures, and providing research assistance to the clusters. “It was quite a challenging environment,” he says, explaining that many of the deadlines were, “so-and-so is going on a plane for a conference in Paris. The taxi is coming at three. She needs the briefing paper by three so she can read it in the taxi and then she’s going to write a reply on the plane flying over.”
Despite the deadlines, Steel relished the experience of being in such a serious environment. “Everyone there has a sense of total purpose and commitment to the UN’s goals.”
“In my office there were twenty different nationalities, which is amazing,” says Steel, who adds that the varying backgrounds and experiences of his colleagues made the work particularly interesting. “When we were working on issues relating to hostages, one of my colleagues was able to share his first hand experience of a hostage situation… so the exposure like that was amazing,”
Unlike a clerkship or corporate internship schemes, UN internships do not lead to a graduate role with the organisation. In addition, there is a six-month waiting period until interns can reapply for another internship. “But you go to a lot of cocktail parties and drinks and lunches so you have an opportunity to network with a lot of people, including your own nationals, which includes the Australian mission to the UN, and through them a lot of interns will often stay in New York for six months, work for the Consulate or Mission and then go back to the UN if they so wish,” Steel explains.
“It’s a very open area of law,” Steel says of the UN. “I think importantly it gives you a great insight into working internationally at that level of law, and the diverse range of people you can meet [means] you definitely get an appreciation of what is a real multicultural working environment.” For anyone considering a career in public international law, Steel says the UN is “definitely a great launching pad.”
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