Proceed With Humility

Pernille Ironside LL.M. '02 Discusses Her 15 Years in United Nations' Humanitarian Work, Protecting Children in War-Ravaged Countries
New York, February 4, 2016—Aspiring lawyers must blaze their own trails to land a human-rights job at the United Nations, UNICEF's Chief of Field Operations in Iraq, Pernille Ironside LL.M. '02, recently told a roomful of Columbia Law School students.
But more importantly, said Ironside, they need to educate themselves about the root causes of crises and be able to set aside personal prejudices in the field, negotiating with an open mind and a deep understanding of historical legacies and cultural undercurrents in order to reach the best outcomes.
Pernille Ironside LL.M. '02, left, UNICEF's Chief of Field Operations
in Iraq, spoke with students about the path
that led her into human-rights law. She was introduced by
Social Justice Initiative's Nyaguthii Chege, right.
Ironside's Jan. 26 talk—“Protecting the Rights of Children in Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations”—was this year’s first offering in the Monday discussion series sponsored by Social Justice Initiatives, which provides career services for Columbia Law School students and graduates interested in public interest, government, human rights and legal volunteer work. The presentation was introduced by SJI Associate Director Nyaguthii Chege, who detailed Ironside’s past work protecting children and delivering humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable in countries as diverse as Iraq, Yemen, State of Palestine, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nepal, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“There really isn't any specific entry point to do this work,” Ironside said. “You carve out your own pathway. My trajectory just happened to start here in New York after the degree. You can just as well go directly into a field assignment or work with a nonprofit organization in your home country.
“But you should know that I was sitting in your position 15 years ago. I came here in 2001 as an LL.M. student, and I had a specific interest. In fact, I went to law school knowing that I wanted to pursue a career in social justice.”
Follow Your Passion
Growing up in Edmonton, Canada, Ironside said she was fascinated by “anything international.” Her parents had emigrated from Europe as professors. “My mom is Dutch, so I was exposed to Dutch, French, German, and other languages. I went off to business school first, thinking, 'Let me do international business.' I thought I'd take the corporate route, but then I started reading about all the injustices taking place in the world.”
The injustices convinced her to enroll at the Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto, where she focused on immigration and refugee law. After graduation and working as a law clerk for a federal judge in Ottawa, she joined the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, where she first filled in for a colleague on maternity leave. She participated in the U.N. negotiations over the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and in the International Conference on War Affected Children.
“When the nine months were up, they said, ‘Pernille, you’ve done such a great job, we want to give you the Law of the Sea next as a portfolio,’” she recalled. “My heart sank, and I knew it was time to move on because I wanted to continue working on these very compelling human rights issues.” That’s when she applied for the LL.M. program at Columbia Law School. “My sole focus was on gaining credibility and the additional specialization that would set me apart from the thousands of other people trying to get into the U.N.,” she said.
'Keep True to your Focus'
Once at Columbia Law School, she studied transitional justice and comparative law. She took classes in Sharia Law, African Customary Law, and Human Rights.
“I would really encourage you to start focusing on areas of research,” Ironside told the students. “You can write papers, potentially for publication. I was fortunate that two of my papers were published from the LL.M. program, and they were very topical at that time.”
She pursued other opportunities for professional development, making valuable contacts on an externship at the United Nations and at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch. “I was new to the city, and I really had no contacts,” she recalled. “You should think about networking opportunities and ways that you can differentiate yourself. Get into research topics aligned with professors and practitioners who are doing the kind of work that you’re interested in. Then just pursue it—keep true to your focus.”
'Life-changing' Experience
After earning her LL.M., Ironside was offered a job as a consultant in the United Nations' department where, as a student in the Law School’s U.N. Externship class, she had served as an extern. “Don’t be turned off by being a consultant,” she said. “You take whatever you get at that early stage in your career.”
But even after getting hired at U.N. Headquarters in New York, Ironside thought she lacked vital experience. “I felt fraudulent working on humanitarian policy issues and not having actually served in humanitarian context myself for any length of time,” she explained. “I said, 'Send me to a place where I'm going to learn and contribute. It doesn't matter where it is, but I want to go somewhere.'” She ended up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I gave myself a year, but the experience was singularly life-changing. It was the best decision I have made.”
A long-standing civil war there had killed more than five million people since 1995. When Ironside arrived in 2005, a transitional government was in place, but the warring parties refused to give up power. She discovered the problems were deeply rooted. “The Congo has a long legacy of colonialism, murder, rape, pillaging,” she said. “It's gotten a terrible reputation as the rape capital of the world, which the country is trying to address.” Over nearly four years, she worked to win the release of thousands of ‘child soldiers’ and supported programmes for their recovery and reintegration, amongst working on other pressing child protection issues with UNICEF.
“The negotiation workshop that I took at Columbia was really useful in terms of knowing how to prepare oneself,” she said, describing the discussions as “very complex.” Often she’d be in remote areas seated across the table from warlords some of whom were wanted by the International Criminal Court. “People have asked me, ‘Do you want to negotiate with someone like that?’ And I think that's where you set aside your personal perspective. We needed to be able to have a conversation to influence an outcome that would benefit many, many children.
“When one enters a context like that, especially as an outsider, one has to be really aware of all the historical, cultural and economic influences. Who is actually to blame for the situation you're going to find there, and how does one even think about contributing to improve the situation?”
Ironside held up her cell phone and noted that the Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s top producer of coltan, an essential metal for electronic devices. “All of us are complicit in some way in the pillaging and rape of the Congo,” she said. “It's essential that you become informed—that you read and understand history. It would be very easy as a white, Western woman to come in there and start saying, ‘You need to fix this.’ But that's not how you achieve anything in such a place.”
Overcoming Setbacks
In 2013, UNICEF deployed Ironside to Yemen. “I had been asked to go there to be interim Chief of Child Protection. It is a wonderful country; the Yemenis are such lovely people. It breaks my heart to see what's happening in that country today.”
She again confronted the use of children as soldiers, as well as child trafficking and early marriage. “Yemen is one of five remaining countries that executes children,” she said. “There were about 150 kids on death row, and we were advocating for their pardon from being executed.”
One day, she recalled, her office received a “frantic” call for help. “It was the end of a workweek, early on in my time there. In a remote district, an alleged 18-year-old boy, Mohammed, was about to be executed in three days and he was not our existing case list. Can we do something?” An emergency meeting with the attorney general’s office resulted in an 11th–hour promise to “pause this execution until we better understood the facts,” she said. “Had Mohammed been below the age of 18 when it was claimed he murdered someone?”
After working intensively through the weekend, she received another call. “They had just executed Mohammed. “The wind just got knocked out of me and my team: What went wrong? How could this have happened, when we had these assurances from the senior people? The family of the victim whom he had killed had paid a high enough bribe to the judge for them to proceed. It all happened locally, and it was done.
“These are the realities of the contexts in which you may be working. Normally, as UNICEF we are not so involved in individual cases, because we're working on improving government systems as a whole to have positive outcomes for thousands of children. But I share this devastating example because it is not all rosy—there are very tough moments, and you need to immediately collect yourself and figure out your next steps. How are you going to keep moving forward and somehow embrace the challenges you face?”