International and Public Law – Interview with Elizabeth Bakibinga-Gaswaga, Legal Adviser (Rule of Law) – Commonwealth Secretariat

Written by Lauren Chaplin for Women in Foreign Policy.

ELIZABETH BAKIBINGAWhat do you do as Legal Adviser in International Development Law at the Commonwealth Secretariat?

That involves working with the 52-member countries of the Commonwealth to develop platforms and frameworks for the intersection between law and development. Now that we have the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it’s important to ensure that law enables development. I work with law ministers, Attorneys General, judges, law schools, and any other rule of law actors working in and with governments.

What would a normal day at the Commonwealth Secretariat look like?

My normal day would involve phone calls and meetings, both internal and external. The target for assistance is on the 31 small Commonwealth States and all the Commonwealth developing countries, which are in Africa, Asia Pacific, and the Caribbean, so I do a lot of travelling and teleconferencing. I observe international conferences with organisations where we have observer status, like the United Nations.

On any given day, I would definitely do a lot of reading, because I’ll need to contextualise a request for technical assistance. I will have to read the enabling laws and the constitution. I’ll also have to read about if elections have recently taken place, whether there’s an active opposition, and whether there is an institution of higher learning. So, I do a lot of research. I need to understand if there are other development partners on the ground in a particular country, what they are doing, what they are not doing, where the vacuum is and how I can assist.

I also do a lot of networking. Here in London I get to meet the High Commissioners, and the heads of other organisations like the British Council, so it’s quite an active day for me.

Do you have to be very aware of politics as well as law in your job?

Every day. Before I joined the international community, I was a legislative counsel within the Parliament of Uganda, which is where I’m from. From day one of my career, I’ve engaged with politics. I’ve never known legal practice outside of politics, apart from when I was fresh out of law school and drafted agreements and contracts.

Did you always know you wanted to end up working in international law and politics? 

Yes. My father was involved in politics, so from a tender age I was very aware of politics and could comprehend what was going on around me. My father was a technocrat but at very high levels, one time acting as a Cabinet Secretary. So, I was exposed to politics quite early, and I also had an interest in life outside my country. I always wanted to know what lay beyond, and as I progressed through school and university, I kept my eye on the international platform. I went through the civil service of my country, well knowing that eventually I would be involved at the highest level of global governance. Also, my husband (whom I met when we were both law students) and I shared a dream of working internationally, in his case as a magistrate and later as judge.

What made you choose to study law at university instead of politics or international relations?

This is quite interesting. It came from reading the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. I read the abridged version when I was 9, and I was so amazed by Portia’s impersonation of Bellario, the Doctor of Laws which helped her save Antonio. I remember walking up to my mother and telling her I wanted to be a Doctor of Laws. She said ‘You’ll have to be a lawyer then’ – but I was very certain that I didn’t want to be a lawyer – I wanted to be a Doctor of Laws. I didn’t understand that I’d have to become a lawyer first.

From then, it was always in the back of my mind, and when I came to selecting my university course, law was my first choice. I also loved English Literature, Economics and History, which I did for my A-Levels. I believe History is one of the most relevant subjects, especially if one is going to be involved in politics, in governance, in administration, because history brings together so many different things: the understanding of a community, the development of a community, the evolution of a community. Before you solve any problem at a political level, you have to get the history right. Has it happened before? How was it handled?

Did you do any studying after your undergraduate degree at Makerere University? 

I was required to do a postgraduate diploma in law to be able to practice. It was part of my qualification for admission to the Bar, so as soon as I completed my postgraduate diploma, I immediately enrolled for a Master’s degree programme at the same institution, Makerere University, which is the leading public university in Uganda. The masters focused on international aspects of law: international environmental law, international humanitarian law, international business transactions, the law of treaties, and so on. It built on the foundation of public international law at undergraduate level.

Immediately thereafter, I got work in the Uganda Parliament, but continued with the masters. I completed my research when I was working in Parliament, and I think it was perfect timing, because my research was on the legal aspects of regional integration. I was able to analyse the development of the East African Legislative Assembly, which is the law-making body for the East African Community of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

Thereafter, I got a scholarship to the University of Oslo, where I did an LLM in Information Communication Technology. Even then, I focused on the international legal aspects of ICT, looking at the EU, data protection, intellectual property, electronic transactions, and policing. My research was on regulating telecoms in the East African Community. I wanted it to be relevant to my region, but not at the national level, so I wrote about the wider community.

What was the application process for your current job at the Commonwealth Secretariat like? 

It was very extensive and rigorous. I follow developments of international organisations, checking websites of the ones I’m interested in, like the United Nations, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO). I always want to know what’s happening in the market, the kind of skills being required. Even when I’m not actively looking through jobs, I look through vacancy announcements, just so I can package myself better. I saw this job, and recognised it as an opportunity. I’d done peacekeeping for seven years and I’d been in the field, so it was an opportunity to work in another international organisation, and this time at the headquarters.

Of course, I had an appreciation of life at the Secretariat, because at that time I was a Vice President of the Commonwealth Association Legislative Council, which brings together about 1,500 legislative counsel across 52 countries of the Commonwealth. When the vacancy came up, I submitted my application. I had to do a written test, and was then invited to do an oral interview via Skype. At that time, I was based in South Sudan, and due to travel to Norway for an engagement at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. The interview couldn’t be rescheduled, so when I got to the Institute, I asked one of the PhD students for their office. I excused myself from a seminar, sat in that office, and did my interview.

It was a competency-based interview, so you’re not talking so much about what you plan to do. You have to give examples of what you’ve done in the past, in the different competency areas. This I was very familiar with, because for the United Nations you have to do competency based interviews. I’m very familiar with the process, because I believe in practice, so I used to subject myself to interviews to build capacity. I’ve sat on interview panels and heard candidates say the line is not clear and hung up, just because they’re so nervous. I think it takes time to build that skill, and if I’m to give tips to anybody seeking to work for international organisations, I think it’s that they have to build capacity. You have to learn to speak with confidence over the phone and give it your best, especially because you can’t read your interviewers’ faces or even make eye contact.

Beyond confidence, what traits do you look for when hiring someone? 

I look for somebody with diversity in their CV. Somebody who believes in building their capacity, continuous learning, and diversifying their skill set. For example, if they’re a lawyer but they’ve done training in management or languages or accountancy, I think that’s the kind of person I’ll be looking for. I want to see a person who brings much more than the law. Someone who will bring some world experience. Somebody who appears trainable, because if they’ve gone out of their way to do so much before, they can adjust quickly to a new organisation, because it will be just another learning experience for them.

What have been the biggest challenges of your career? 

Challenges arise from being deployed in different areas of the world. When I worked for the United Nations as a peacekeeper, I was deployed to Darfur, South Sudan, and Kosovo – all settings with different ethnic backgrounds and religions. Working in those different places, the challenge (although I must say it wasn’t very significant) was to be aware of the fact that first and foremost I was a woman. For example, in Darfur, when going to meet a team or the state governor, the chances were very high that I’d be the only woman in the room. I’d have to manage that situation, aware of the socio-cultural dynamics. I would have to make sure I had the opportunity to deliver my message without creating an opportunity to take the conversation to something else, so I would dress up in a decent way. It’s important not to be offensive to the community you’re working in, especially if you’ve come in as an international development worker or a peacekeeper.

In Kosovo, the conflict is an ethnic one, so I’d have to make sure that in meetings I didn’t use language that would compromise my neutrality. Part of my preparation for going to Kosovo was understanding the nature of the conflict and ensuring that at each and every point in time I did not create a situation where my neutrality was in question.

Those are challenges no one told me about in law school, even when I prepared for the Bar programme in my country, because it was designed for a legal practitioner at a national level and not for such a diversified workplace. Nobody said to me I might have to engage with people who don’t see Africans regularly or people who are not used to women speaking from a position of authority, representing an international organisation. There have been challenges, but I must say I think I’ve been well prepared in starting from a national level and working with the Parliament. Working in those environments increased my ability to work diplomatically.

Another issue would be about achieving a work-life balance while on deployment and also maintaining a dependable support system.

What are you proudest of having achieved in your career?

As a lawyer, one of the greatest achievements has been to engage with associations or governments, give a suggestion, and see that suggestion adopted. It’s an achievement to be able to speak to a body that represents millions, or hundreds of millions of people, and market a position. This happened especially at conferences after the 2030 Agenda was adopted in September 2015, when I promoted a focus on Sustainable Development Goal 16 in the development of national work plans.

At a personal level, it has been when peacekeeping, when I’ve had the opportunity to engage one-on-one and assess the privileges and immunities of the organisation, and also when I’ve been able to resolve a situation which, if not well handled, might result in an international crisis. This would be when staff of the international organisation have been detained and arrested, and you’re able to negotiate with a host government for their release.

Another good takeaway is where I see international policy work in individual lives. In peacekeeping, I was able to see internally displaced persons get to safety, or get access to clean water and medical facilities. I don’t think many international lawyers have had the privilege of actually meeting the beneficiaries of what they do.

What advice would you give to young people reading this blog aspiring to a career like yours? 

First and foremost, I would say it’s important for them to find themselves, and to reflect on what makes them happy, what inspires them, because at international level you don’t have many safety nets. If you go into international practice without the right motives, without doing some soul searching and asking what you can put up with, you may suffer from a breakdown.

I know people who have gone into international careers for the opportunities and the benefits, and some of them cannot take the challenges that the field throws at them. Some of them have mental health issues and breakdowns as a result of that exposure. It’s important to know what you can take.

From the professional point of view, it’s important to know what the market is looking for. It’s good to look through vacancy announcements. When I wanted to go international, I printed out the vacancy announcement for Legal Officer of the United Nations, and had it in my top drawer at the office. I used to look at it, and that sent me back to language school, to do French, to brush up my French skills. Then I took a short course in management, because I realised management skills were also necessary. Reading vacancy announcements and the person specifications helps you understand what kinds of people they’re looking for.

It’s good to read biographies of people in your particular field of interest. What worked out well for them? What didn’t work out well for them? I think it’s important to reflect, and if you’re not sure, start with six-month opportunities. If you feel you cannot take it, respect that. I think that that would help in deciding on whether or not this is the path for you.

Sign-up to the WIFP newsletter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s