Filling a human rights gap
12 July 2021 at 6:57 pm
Rawan Arraf is the executive director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, an organisation that works with and represents victims and survivors of serious human rights violations and their families. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
After working in refugee protection, administrative law and international human rights law for over a decade, Rawan Arraf saw there was gap in services for survivors of human rights violations such as torture, war crimes, and genocide.
While lawyers in Australia did this kind of work sporadically, there was no dedicated advocacy and research centre to address these issues and help victim-survivors and their families access justice and hold the perpetrators to account.
So in 2018, Arraf established the Australian Centre for International Justice (ACIJ).
The centre addresses this gap by providing legal advice and representation before Australian domestic investigative and prosecutorial authorities, international bodies, courts or tribunals – working closely with communities and partners to achieve impact, justice and accountability.
The centre’s work includes partnering with the Rohingya community in Australia to fight the human rights abuses and cultural genocide that the Rohingyas face in Myanmar; achieving accountability for Australian war crimes in Afghanistan; and structurally reforming the way international issues are handled in Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker, Arraf discusses how she carved out space for an organisation like ACIJ, how she stays grounded, and the importance of thinking before acting.
What led you to setting up the ACIJ?
There was a gap that we saw in the legal services available in Australia. We have this legal framework where one can be the subject of prosecution and investigation if there are allegations of international crimes, but there was no centre doing this kind of work in this area compared to the ground-breaking work that’s happening overseas.
One of the things that I often say is that to do this kind of work, you really need a civil society push because although there were lawyers here doing work really sporadically on an ad hoc basis, you could probably count on your hand the number of attempts that have been made to bring referrals.
In those instances, there’s never been a civil society voice to push this forward and advocate for changes to the structural impediments, which I believe are the missing pieces of the puzzle. When you have a civil society that’s pushing Australian authorities to do this kind of work, change can be achieved.
And how did you create space for something like the ACIJ in Australia?
I looked at other organisations that I really admire that do this kind of work abroad, and at legal centres here in Australia. I come from the community legal sector, and there are amazing lawyers here in Australia. Doing this made me look into what was necessary, how other centres carried out legal advocacy work and strategic legal action here in Australia, such as the wonderful work being done at the Human Rights Law Centre that uses legal advocacy to push for structural change.
There is a growing movement abroad about how lawyers can use radical lawyering and join with social movements and communities and people directly affected to push for structural change. My aim is to be part of a broader movement for global justice, where we work with communities that are fighting for justice, that are fighting for accountability, that are fighting for truth, and work with them and a broader movement to bring about change and to end the impunity of perpetrators that commit these crimes.
You’re dealing with incredibly large and heavy issues on a daily basis. How do you remain grounded?
It’s really difficult. I worked in the refugee legal space before this and I’ve heard terribly harrowing stories from people who have survived sexual violence and torture in war and conflict, so it’s really important to stay grounded. I do that by trying to maintain some sort of balance in life.
I also think it’s about recognising that the reason that we do this kind of work is that we’re really pushed to find ways to hold perpetrators to account. That recognition pushes you in a way that makes you really angry because you see impunity everywhere and you think, well, how are these people able to continue to enjoy freedoms wherever they are in the world and enjoy what the survivors and communities that you’re working with don’t have? And so I think you always have to think about if people are fighting for justice, then how can we help? There’s always the concern about vicarious trauma, and you’re taught as a lawyer to be really careful and attuned to making sure that you don’t fall into that trap. It’s about making sure you take time out to relax and spend time with your family and friends and broader network, and that you’re able to do things other than just working on the issues that are really confronting.
What have some of your major learnings been throughout your career?
I’m still so young to be honest with you. I’ve only had about 10 years of experience. When I started the ACIJ, I didn’t think that this was where my career was heading. I thought that it was time for me to put my head down and really work on my technical skills as a lawyer. But I pushed myself because I saw the need and the gap in services to do this kind of work.
I still think there’s a lot for me to learn, and since starting the organisation, I gained so many skills that I never thought I would have. A lot of the time I am learning as I go. I hope that at the same time, when I’m doing that, I’m always reflecting and taking on the right advice and talking to the right people.
And what kind of advice do you have for someone wanting to set up their own organisation?
My advice would be to think really clearly about whether you want to set up an organisation, because it’s so much work, and there are so many administrative and bureaucratic issues that you have to deal with. You have to really question whether or not your work can be a part of another organisation, or whether it’s such a niche and specific issue that it does warrant its own organisation. It’s important to do your research, and talk to people about what you’re trying to do.
Before I started the ACIJ, I talked to so many people, so I think talk to somebody who’s been in this position before because you encounter so many things that you wouldn’t have known about at the start. I think if you’re really determined and if you have the right support and you really believe in your project, then you should definitely go all the way. When I look back at where I was two and a half years ago, I honestly didn’t know that we would be in this position today. It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, but I’m really proud of all the work we’ve achieved.
And when you’re not at the ACIJ, how do you like to spend your time?
When it’s not COVID times, my husband and I really like to travel. A couple of years ago we got into scuba diving, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to do much of that lately. Otherwise I like baking, hanging out with my family and friends, and amateur photography.