April 1, 2016
Becoming a human rights attorney takes risk, tenacity, and also some luck. Regina Fitzpatrick (HLS, 2008) had a little bit of everything to help launch her into the human rights field. Recognizing her passion for human rights early on, Regina set out to work within the field and lay the foundations for what has become a deeply meaningful career in public international law. Note: you can read another profile of Regina through a piece in Harvard Law Today from 2012.
Be in the right place and at the right time— this is the most important lesson United Nations Human Rights Officer Regina Fitzpatrick has learned about building a career in peacekeeping. “You can choose to be in the right place,” Regina advises, “Particularly in this line of work, there is always urgency and [the UN] often needs to hire immediately. They don’t always have time to go over the stack of resumes, so if you are right there and ready, that’s putting yourself in the right place.” Regina was hired in her first UN peacekeeping job in a similar way. In 2010, she asked herself what was happening in the world and decided to go to Sudan, where an independence referendum was planned as part of a peace deal to resolve decades of civil war. When South Sudan gained independence in 2011 and the UN started a new peacekeeping mission, she was there, qualified, and also knew an HLS alumnus who happened to be hiring. She was initially hired as a Judicial Affairs Officer in Juba, and then stayed with the mission more than three years as a Human Rights Officer.
It took a lot of tenacity and some risk for Regina to build a career in UN peacekeeping. Coming into law school, she already had a Masters’ degree in human rights and had worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and then she spent her summers working abroad in human rights protection and investigation roles. Through these experiences, she cemented her desire to become a UN human rights officer in conflict zones, protecting civilians and investigating atrocities. This career choice was uncommon and proved to be difficult to break into. “I had a false confidence that by focusing on my interests, I could come right out of law school and get the job I wanted,” she says. Instead, it required flexibility and risk to get her foot in the door. “I learned not to pass up opportunities while waiting for the perfect job, but to see that there were several avenues available to lead where I wanted to go,” Regina says. Regina spent two years after graduation in the U.S., clerking and teaching, before moving to Sudan on a fellowship to work with NGOs, Conflict Dynamics International and The Carter Center’s Democracy Program. It was only then that she got her dream job.
Her willingness to take risks has proved beneficial for Regina even after she joined the UN. When she was living in the U.S. after law school and trying to get back into international work, she decided to hop on a plane, fly to Nepal, and knock on the UN human rights doors in Kathmandu. Although this did not yield a job offer, the head of UN human rights there was someone whom she had reached out to previously as a law student. Years later, when Regina was in South Sudan, the same person arrived to lead the UN human rights team there, and remembered her. “Within a few months, I was his special assistant and working closely with him. We have a strong professional relationship now,” Regina says. As someone who is now on the receiving side of numerous networking emails, she advises students to always be concrete with what you’re asking for and nurture the mentor/mentee relationships you develop over time. “Nurturing and maintaining the relationship means following up and telling them how you’re doing,” Regina advises, “Stay in touch even when you don’t need anything from them. Also express an interest in what they’re doing.”
When asked about the compatibility of serious romantic relationships with a mobile career, Regina says, “What people always advised me was that if you want this kind of career, you’re more likely to find the right partner out there in the world rather than at home. You need to find someone who understands and supports you, which is more likely if he or she leads a similar lifestyle.” When she started her international career, she had no strings attached and was able to take the risks she did. Having flexibility has proven to be important in her line of work, and now, having a partner with a similar career means they’ve been able to make their professional and personal choices mutually.
Currently, Regina is stationed in Kandahar as a Human Rights Officer in the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, where her work focuses on the protection of civilians through monitoring and reporting on civilian casualties and advocating for the elimination of violence against women. In this role, she regularly meets with tribal elders, civil society members, and government officials. One of the most fulfilling parts of her job is working with Afghan women. “There aren’t many women in a UN field office, even among international staff. And it’s rare for Afghan women to be in the public sphere and speaking out,” Regina explains, “I find [working with them] rewarding because, sharing our experiences as women, we can have, I think, a valuable connection.”