BY REBECCA AGULE
American law students have long puzzled over access to one of the most coveted – yet elusive – public interest career paths: a post at the United Nations. The most recent guest of theBernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising’s Lunch Speaker Series, Kaoru Okuizumi, recently arrived at Harvard Law School to change that.
Okuizumi is a Judicial Officer in the Criminal Law and Judicial Advisory Section (CLJAS) of the Department of Peace Keeping Operations (DPKO) at UN Headquarters. CLJAS contributes to the UN’s overall rule of law strategy, often by advising the DPKO on issues related to the judicial and corrections aspects of peacekeeping operations, many of which are conducted in the world’s most volatile areas. When analyzing and shaping policies to deal with justice from the perspective of peacekeeping operations, Ms. Okuizumi must consider the UN’s major mission, as well as the immediate goals and local legal structures and norms.
A 1995 graduate of NYU Law School, Ms. Okuizumi provided those in attendance with general advice on working in international human rights, as well as information regarding some the less traditional means of gaining access to the UN. As a veteran of the United Nations system, she is well versed in the organization’s often mystifying practices and explained some of the various hiring streams.
A short exchange between Ms. Okuizumi and several audience members underlined the complexity of the UN’s human resources system, which funnels applicants down several different avenues, depending on the agency or function in question. In addition to the traditional Galaxy staffing system, which recruits for the Secretariat, many of the specialized agencies handle hiring internally. Merely determining where to seek out positions or submit applications seems daunting, and the hurdles of the actual hiring process further exacerbate this unruly task. Impediments highlighted by audience members included positions that seemed too specified, strict experience requirements, and a lack of lower level positions. Okuizumi confirmed some of these difficulties, but recommended alternative points of entry, such as the UN Volunteers program, as means of entering the system for those who might not otherwise have UN connections.
Okuizumi also made clear that the value of language skills should not be understated and suggested using time at a university to take such courses, especially French. She further remarked that one must be willing and able to function with little training or guidance.
“It’s very much about learning on the job,” she said.
Having worked for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a D.C.-based think tank, prior to law school, Okuizumi had already narrowed her focus to international human rights. It only took one split summer, divided between the International Human Rights Law Group (now known as Global Rights) and a law firm, to confirm her career path.
Of her time with the firm, Okuizumi said, “I knew I didn’t want to do this!”
Following completion of her J.D., Okuizumi went on to a Masters in Public Administration at the Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She found the policy degree quite useful as a means of balancing out her legal education, in terms of both theory and practical skill sets. “It’s not just about international law and human rights, but also policy and international affairs.”
While at Princeton, she met Michael W. Doyle, a professor who had recently created a young professionals group to develop careers in peacekeeping operations. He asked Okuizumi to take part. This led to her first post-graduate position as a Human Rights Officer with the UN Transitional Authority in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Sirmium (UNTAES), where she worked on projects to promote the peaceful reintegration of the region into Croatia.
Okuizumi acknowledged the roles played by fortune and chance in building her career. “I was very lucky, [and] feel very lucky still,” she said.
The development of such relationships played an integral role in her career trajectory. “It’s a pretty small community, international human rights and criminal law,” she said.
Okuizumi outlined the rather nomadic lifestyle of a UN employee. In explaining some of her frequent moves, Okuizumi said, “There aren’t that many opportunities within the UN, so when a position opens up…apply for it.”
While some students seemed visibly dismayed by such frequent moves, others clearly relished the idea of swapping duty stations every 18 months to two years. After moving to Bosnia in 1998, Okuizumi worked with a group of judges and lawyers, both national and international, at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finding herself nostalgic for the UN, she transferred to the Human Rights Investigations Desk for the UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (UNMIBH). Other duty stations included Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal.
Having spent most of her career in the field, Okuizumi experienced the other side of the fence from 2000-2002, when she joined the Registry Legal Advisory Section of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Netherlands. While initially reluctant to leave the field, Okuizumi appreciated to opportunity afforded by her time at The Hague, where she negotiated sentence enforcement agreements with states parties; developed internal rules and regulations, and crafted policy relating to victims and witness protection.
Married to a fellow UN employee, and now with a young child, Okuizumi expressed both the joys and frustrations inherent in her line of work. Her continued career seemed to suggest that the satisfactions outweigh the difficulties.
One student in attendance – who asked to remain anonymous – was “amazed her marriage has lasted!”