In the latest in our series profiling Irish and Northern Irish lawyers who have worked abroad, or are working abroad, we spoke with Jack Pope, from Sligo, who is a Human Rights Officer with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and currently based in Kosovo. Jack has been working in human rights and international law for the past four years with both NGOs and international organisations, mainly on the analysis, monitoring and reporting of human rights issues. He previously worked on protection issues related to human rights defenders and journalists and on women, peace and security, including combatting gender-based violence in the DRC. A large part of his work involves writing on the implementation of human rights legislation by states and providing recommendations on how best to uphold human rights standards.
Lawyer and UN Human Rights Officer Jack Pope at United Nations Sri Lanka.
"Working with human rights defenders is incredibly rewarding. Being a human rights defender can be an extremely lonely and dangerous job, and it can mean a lot when they realise someone is following up on them and cares about their protection and security."
IRLI: What is your background/training
JP: I studied Law with French Law in UCD - University College Dublin and hold a Master’s degree in Public International Law, specialising in humanitarian law, from the University of Leiden. Among the professional training that I have completed, my most recent was a certificate in international refugee law from the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in Sanremo.
Why did you become interested in legal work?
I was interested in becoming a lawyer since I was very young. I think that a love of arguing played a strong part in that, and my mother’s willingness to indulge it! I also had a great French teacher in school, and I really wanted to keep that up, so I took Law with French Law in university, which I think started me down the international law path. I think the invasion of Iraq also had something to do with it.
What do you hope to achieve from the work you are doing?
There are some days when you see that you can achieve amazing things in this line of work and other days where you feel totally hopeless about the impact that you are able to make. I think that’s the nature of the vocation. I’ve learned that it is important to cherish the small victories that you have, as they will get you through the more difficult times when you question the value of the work you do.
I think that, fundamentally, I want my work to contribute towards improving people’s lives and allowing people freedom of thought, the freedom to express themselves and who they are. For me, this also includes the basic security to be able to build your life, so healthcare, education, and economic security, all of these are important aspects. In my career, this has taken form at both macro and micro levels, from helping to push through protective national legislation and writing UN reports to lobby for a road in a small village to be asphalted. It’s all important and can make a difference to someone.
Can you tell us some of your professional experiences that have left quite a mark on you personally?
A couple immediately come to mind.
Working with human rights defenders is incredibly rewarding. Being a human rights defender can be an extremely lonely and dangerous job, and it can mean a lot when they realise someone is following up on them and cares about their protection and security. There are some defenders that I only met in person after a year or more of professional contact, and it was like we had been close friends for years – big hugs, jokes, coffees, even gifts!
The other instance which comes to mind is a field visit I made with UN Women in the North East of Congo. There was a women’s organisation that we had been funding, who I had been helping to implement their project. The welcome when I arrived there was unbelievable and will stay with me forever. The women who benefitted from the project each came up to me and told me what a marked difference the project had made in their lives, and they brought crops from their fields and sang and danced to welcome us. Somehow my heart broke and was totally filled up at the same time. Those field visits are so important. You can get caught up in an office life of emails and Excel sheets, but seeing how they translate into making a difference in real people’s lives is unreal. It may sound like a trope to say making a difference to one person makes it all worth it, but it does.
You are working in Kosovo with the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Can you tell us about this work?
With OSCE I work in Mitrovicë/Mitrovica in Kosovo as a Human Rights Officer. Kosovo is a multi-ethnic state with many different communities and a rich texture of cultures and languages. The main part of my job is working with non-majority communities and following up on their security and access to social services such as education, healthcare, social assistance etc. Concretely, this translates into gathering information about the current state of affairs and political climate and reporting on it. We also do a lot of field visits, driving into communities and sitting down for coffee with community representatives to see how they are doing and find out what issues, if any, they are facing. Sometimes we implement projects or help to organise public fora where communities can meet, and discuss and resolve issues which are troubling them.
You have also worked in both Palestine and the DRC. Can you tell us about some of your experiences?
In Palestine, I worked with St. Yves Centre for Human Rights. It’s a great organisation that mainly provides legal support to Palestinians who have suffered from land requisition or property demolition as a result of the Israeli occupation. It also does a lot of good work on family reunification, for those who wish to reunite with their loved ones, mainly in Jerusalem, but can’t get the necessary permits. My work there was mainly advocacy related, I researched and wrote reports on the humanitarian law implications of occupation, and on freedom of movement in Palestine. I have too many crazy experiences from Palestine to list them all here, but suffice to say I made friends for life there and I am so looking forward to visiting them soon.
In DRC, I was a Women, Peace and Security Officer with UN Women, and I also covered gender coordination in DRC with other UN agencies, the government and the diplomatic corps. My work mainly related to implementing projects combatting gender-based violence and promoting the involvement of women in peace negotiations. I also worked on the development of the DRCs women, peace and security action plan, and on their action plan for the implementation of UN human rights recommendations. One of my most interesting initiatives there was coordinating a gender and human rights conflict analysis to inform the eventual withdrawal of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force.
What sort of cases have you been involved with that you would like to discuss?
I have worked on the cases of hundreds of human rights defenders who have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, attacked or killed as a result of their legitimate and praiseworthy activities promoting and protecting human rights the world over, and they are all important to me. Their vilification is, sadly, a pandemic. That said, there are some that hold a special place in my heart:
- Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja was sentenced to life in prison for his work with the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
- Narges Mohammadi was recently sentenced to 30 months in prison and 80 lashes in Iran for her work with the Defenders of Human Rights Centre.
- Human rights lawyer Eren Keskin was sentenced to six years and three months in prison in Turkey as a reprisal against her work.
- Mohammed Al-Otaibi just had his sentence increased from 14 to 17 years in Saudi Arabia for “forming an unlicensed organisation”.
- And not so long ago, my friend, Youssuf Al-Sharqawi, was arrested with 22 others by the Palestinian Authority for peacefully protesting the death in custody of another human rights defender, Nizar Banat, whose body allegedly showed signs of torture.
Why did you decide to work abroad?
During my first few months with UN Women DRC, I couldn’t enter the country due to Covid restrictions. Upon arriving, it confirmed my suspicions that there is no substitute for actually being in the country you are working on. So many aspects, from culture to simple logistics, can only be understood on the ground.
There are also significantly more opportunities in my line of work outside of Ireland. I enjoy working with international organisations also, so most often you end up either in a field or headquarters location. I choose the job and the location follows.
Jack Pope with the UN in DRC - Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"Is world peace too ambitious? Haha. No, as I said, it really comes down to building free and fair societies, and while these may be lofty objectives, I recognise my role as a cog in a system which is working to deliver that."
Your hopes working as you do?
It is about making a difference in individual people’s lives. But, I guess, to me it is also a belief in refining systems of law and governance to make these changes happen. There are some governments which have no desire to improve their human rights records, but there are many other governments that really do but need capacity-building support to do so, and I appreciate having the opportunity to provide that. Top-down and ground-up methods of improving human rights both have their values, and I’m really lucky to have gotten to work across that whole spectrum.
What sort of an impact would you like to make?
Is world peace too ambitious? Haha. No, as I said, it really comes down to building free and fair societies, and while these may be lofty objectives, I recognise my role as a cog in a system which is working to deliver that. At the same time, I am lucky to have the professional freedom to make individual change by how hard I work, how good I am at it, and how aspirational I can be. My sector is full of people that I really believe in, and people make change.
Your advice to young people entering the legal profession?
I think I can give some concrete advice to those interested in pursuing careers in human rights internationally at least, as I think that there are others better placed than me to provide advice on the legal profession domestically.
- You will probably have to do an internship. Some may be paid, some may not be, but likely none will totally cover your expenses. If you can only afford to do one, do it after your master’s, not beforehand.
- You will have to travel, and perhaps live in some not-so-desirable places. For me, I love this, but it is about the sacrifices you are willing to make for where you want to go in your career. You may be away from friends and loved ones for long periods of time, you may end up renting your whole life, you will probably get some rough gastro problems – but I guarantee you will have some amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
- This field is extremely competitive. Embrace rejection and use it to learn. You may send hundreds of job applications and only get one hit, but persistence is the name of the game.
- Figure out where you want to be and work out your steps to get there. What areas do you need experience in? What trainings can you take? How is the step that you are currently at contributing to your goal?
- Study for interviews like you study for an exam, and make your friends practice with you.
Anything else that you would like to add?
I would not change my career for any other one, I love it. Although it is competitive, job applications are a headache, and you end up in a different country almost every year, for me, it has been totally, unequivocally worth it.