17 Oct 2023
Podcast Ep 3: Dr. Helen Durham is balancing courage and compassion

Passionate, persistent, patient—these are three qualities Dr. Helen Durham AO says are essential for humanitarians. And whether she’s addressing the UN Security Council in New York or mediating with the military in times of conflict, Helen embodies them all—while staying true to her humanitarian imperative.  

A trailblazer in international humanitarian law, RedR Australia’s CEO Dr. Helen Durham has devoted her 30-year career to protecting people whose lives are affected by war and conflict. She was a key player in the drafting of an historic resolution to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons; she played an important role in clarifying rape as a war crime; and she played a key role in the creation of the International Criminal Court at The Hague. In 2017, Helen was awarded the prestigious Officer of the Order of Australia. 

In this episode, Helen and Sally chat about the power and importance of humanitarian work—from the impact it can have on individual lives, to the power of law to change entire nations, to the delicate balance of courage and compassion that all humanitarians must hold. 

Host: Sally Cunningham    

Producer, engineer and composer: Jill Farrar 

Join our conversations on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.   


SALLY: This Humanitarian Conversations podcast was recorded on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, also known as Melbourne, Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge and seek to champion the continued connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to land, waterways and skies, and we pay our respects to all First Nations people whose communities we work in across the world. Hello, and welcome to Humanitarian Conversations, a RedR Australia podcast which explores what it means to be humanitarian in today's world. I'm Sally Cunningham. Today, I'm pleased to be chatting with Dr. Helen Durham, a highly respected humanitarian leader, lawyer and academic. Helen has three decades' experience in diplomacy, policy and programmatic work. And her trailblazing achievements have seen her working across the world, from the Pacific, and Asia to Australia, and Europe. Helen is a humanitarian lawyer who has devoted her life to protecting people whose lives are affected by war and conflict. She was a key player in the drafting of an historic resolution to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons and she played a key role in the creation of the International Criminal Court at The Hague in 2007. Until last year, Helen was the director of international law and policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, the first woman and Australian to hold this position. Previously, she was director of international humanitarian law and strategy at Australian Red Cross, which is where I first worked with her. I'll be honest, Helen is top of my list of best bosses. So when I found out she would be the new CEO of RedR Australia, I was thrilled. To get to work with my favorite leader twice is very good fortune. You'll hear a lot about her achievements, which are many. But I can tell you that Helen is also a very productive, supportive and collaborative manager. She lifts people up, which is invaluable when facing crises and threats of violence or terror. Helen is also a scholar of humanitarian law, and is an honorary professorial Fellow at Melbourne Law School, where she teaches in the Masters of Law program, and is widely published in academic journals. Was there a moment in your career when you knew you wanted to work in the humanitarian sphere?  

HELEN: That's a big one. I think, in life we are evolutionary. So I lived in Thailand as a kid when I was about 10. And I did have my eyes opened to a world that was very different from the middle class life I was living up until then. I then went and worked in Bangkok when I finished my law degree. I worked in a big law firm during the day, but at nights I worked with a women's group, particularly looking at violence, sex workers, the range of ways women were being oppressed, and I really got to understand that there I was, with my law degree under my belt, ready to help. And in fact, they had many of the answers themselves. And what they wanted, was for me to listen to them, and find the pathways that were best for them. So that told me a lot back in the 90s. And then I was working as a lawyer and got very interested in supporting the gathering of evidence from the refugee population from the former Yugoslavia, to make sure we moved to the issue of sexual violence, and particularly rape, as a war crime. And in that process, I really came to fall in love with this idea of international humanitarian law, the fact that what unites us is deeper and more profound than what divides us. And also the humanitarian system; what does it mean to be neutral, impartial and independent? So I think those three elements really joined together to give me a direction that I followed for the rest of my times.    

SALLY: So you've now been involved in humanitarian law at the highest level. You played an important role in areas such as clarifying rape as a war crime, the establishment of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, and you were also involved in the creation of new norms, such as the new 'ban nuclear weapons' treaty. I mean, it's a lot. You've negotiated in complex diplomatic situations. What's it like to sit in such a critical negotiation seat?    

HELEN: Well, a couple of words always come to mind. Terrifying, exhilarating, privileged, difficult, long. So you know, it's an incredible journey. The first thing I'd say is, to me, you've got to always centre it around people. And what I've loved about my humanitarian career to date is the balance between what I call 'the boots and the suits'. So remembering when I was a delegate in the field, doing detention visits, the suffering and the reality and the intensity when you stop at a checkpoint, there's lots of guns; and taking that knowledge, understanding that what you're doing is important, but it's difficult. I mean, making the world a better place, that we all do in the humanitarian sector--it's inconvenient and it's difficult and you fail all the time. But the moments you get through are extraordinary. And so I think there's something that I've always felt, whether I'm sitting facing a group of diplomats, some Russian military, or if I'm in New York, addressing the Security Council on issues such as the protection of women. Number one, you harness the people behind it to give you the energy and move you forward. You have in your head all the stories or the narratives that give you the courage to keep moving. The second thing is, particularly in negotiations I've been involved in at a diplomatic level, you find the common ground, and you move backwards from that. So you don't start at the edges where there's controversy. I've had a lot of situations that are very, very tense diplomatically. You find a solid understanding, and you walk it slowly backwards. And you work out when to be courageous, and you work out when to let go. So that's some of the experiences. The others are practical: when you're doing long negotiations, wear airline socks. If you're sitting still for 15 hours, your feet can get really sore. And the final thing I'd say--you use your whole self. It's not just intellectual. Use the pauses in the breaks; you understand the dynamics in the room. So it's almost a whole-person experience. But it always comes back to the people and the aims you're trying to get.    

SALLY: From the socks to the pauses with the Russian military--that's a big picture that you've drawn for us. So when you're talking about referring back to the people, you mean, the affected population?    

HELEN: Absolutely. I love it today in the humanitarian sector, we are more articulate about understanding, that we are serving and learning. We're not going to teach. We're doing things with people, not to people. And because of my very early experience back in Thailand in the early 90s, that's always been a big part of my understanding. I have not ever gone on one mission, whether it's in Mogadishu, whether it's in Gaza, whether it's in the refugee camps in Jordan, where I haven't learned much more than I've been there to frame. And I have stories in my head. I mean, I have the individual...I remember visiting a young boy in a particular country. In those days I had to be neutral so I won't talk about it. But a country in Asia, and he had been a porter in the conflicts. He'd had to carry heavy equipment and had been thrown off the back of a truck. So he had a dislocated hip. And he was still in chains doing hard labor. And I was visiting him as an ICRC delegate. And there were things I could do to help him. I had an interpreter there, I could take messages to his family, we could improve his nutrition. The one thing I really wanted to do, which was get him to the hospital to get a hip fixed up, I couldn't. And you have to hold both the fact that you did something to help people at an individual, small level, as well as negotiating treaties. You have to hold the pleasure and the pain and the fact that it's never good enough. As humanitarians, the status quo, whatever you do, is never good enough. But you have to be at peace with that. So they're the sort of people stories I have in my head, when I'm engaged at a high level negotiating, to remember those balances you're trying to keep.  

SALLY: Being a humanitarian has really tested you from time to time, which I can appreciate. Are you able to share an example perhaps in the field, or in the context of a really important meeting, where your humanitarian beliefs or your own self has been tested?    

HELEN: There's many of those. I mean, I think, there's many great things that you do, and you end up succeeding, but there's many things that you don't. I have memories, if we start say in the field, of places of detention and bringing to the attention of authorities really desperate need. I remember visiting once a woman who was breastfeeding. She'd given birth in place of detention in a in a country in Africa, and she desperately needed more nutrition. You could very clearly see that the child was not thriving, and maybe not surviving, and she was neither. And really trying to explain to the guards and the authorities that even down to one egg a week would make her life, if not better, would allow her to survive. And hearing her stories--she was in detention because her husband had written a book. And she was in there for 80 years because of her husband had written a book. And I couldn't get it over the line. We were able to, of course, while we were there, provide more nutrition. But you walk away knowing that you weren't able to do that. And you have to live with that. At the same time, you have to remind yourself that you've done something, and that you've made a difference, and that you've brought it to the mind of the authorities. And sometimes you do find later when colleagues revisit that actually, they did do something. At that point, we'd gone to buy a chicken that could lay the egg that could provide the survival, but then you hear maybe the chicken's been eaten by the guards or something. So there are stories where you're tested because you wonder whether you've even made a difference and is it worth bothering. And then you remember other instances. I remember speaking to a group of women, they were called 'comfort women' which is an awful term, but it was women who was deeply and horrifically sexually abused during World War Two. They were used as sex slaves. And I was in the Philippines and I went to visit a group of the 'comfort women'. It was really heartbreaking; they were in a women's refuge because they'd spoken out about it and their families had disowned them for lack of honor. And I was talking to them about the fact that I was working very, very hard with the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to get rape deemed a war crime. And I had to look at all these extraordinary, elegant, poised, beautiful ladies who had terrible lives, and then were kicked out of their families when they spoke about it in their old age. And I remember thinking 'I feel so embarrassed, I can't help them'. But as I told them the stories of the evidence we're gathering to provide to the tribunal to make sure and to be part of many people's work to get clear jurisprudence that sexual violence is unacceptable and illegal during times of war, they were so happy. They were so happy, that whilst they understood that this wouldn't help them, that something that had happened to them was going to be deemed illegal, immoral and unacceptable. And you know, it's funny, sometimes you tested in a moment and think, I'm really uncomfortable going here and talking about the sort of work I'm doing at the diplomatic level when they've suffered like this. But in fact, they were full of joy to see that movement. So it's give with one hand take with another, but it's also being able to step back and see the wider picture.   

SALLY: I think I might say thank you every day for that work that you've done. I mean, for someone like me, hearing that rape is a war crime seems pretty straightforward. But knowing that the work had to be done to make it that way: thank you. The relief.   

HELEN: Yeah. And many, many people worked on that. But it was during the time years ago in the 90s when I was doing voluntary work, where actually at an international legal level the tribunals of the Former Yugoslavia were starting up. But you know, if you look back at Nuremberg and Tokyo--in Nuremberg, there were no cases of sexual violence. And at Tokyo, there was one. And it was a little bit like, I remember being outraged; there's more prosecution of the destruction of cultural property than the destruction of women's bodies over the years. And it was almost like this idea of 'rape and pillage' sort of rolls off people's tongue. 'Oh, it's an inevitable consequence of armed conflict'. Or in fact, it needed a lot of people working a lot of heart and, you know, the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In fact, the Akayesu judgment—I won't get all legal on you—but there were some extraordinary judgments that just took it over the edge and said, not only is it a war crime, but in certain circumstances, it can be crime against humanity and genocide. But then I had the amazing privilege experience of working backwards with that, and then taking it to people who had been victims. And then today, we know horrifically, sexual violence continues across the world. So we've got some small progress to push it further and to say it's unacceptable. So yes, some of these things have been a real privilege. As a humanitarian, sometimes that was tested in the field. But sometimes you're tested when you're when you're leading negotiations, but they're important. And then you get breakthroughs, like new treaties on nuclear weapons, or you get clarification of particular issues, like jurisprudence that rape's a war crime. And you know, that it hasn't really revolutionised human behaviour, but it's taken us to the next step of moving towards a world that just has more dignity. And I think it's really critical that none of the work I've done, and hopefully I framed that at the start, it's never about the individual. Nowhere in the...I don't think any human endeavor is about one person. We tell stories, we like to have one person to clarify our mind. But it's always with teams. It's always with groups. I look at the other way around, I've been so lucky to be always surrounded by fabulous teams, that we've been able to achieve stuff.   

SALLY: Yeah, well said. So for people who might be interested in pursuing this kind of work, what qualities are you looking for in humanitarian?   

HELEN: So I've often said this, my requirement as a starting point is what I call the three P's. You need to be passionate, because I can tell you, whatever you believe in, it's going to be tested. So you have to start at 100% belief, commitment and passion, because it gets worn away. So passionate, but you also need to be patient. And those two elements often are in conflict. Because when you're passionate you want to go go go. But what you realise, if you actually want to make an impact, some things you can do today, and some things you lay the groundwork to doing five years, 10 years. So you need to be passionate, you need to be patient, and you need to be persistent. Because you'll get you're heart broken and you get up again and you go on and one day you do get someone to...you connect a family member together. I mean, some of the stuff that just, you know, still could make me weep, is when you take a small message and you reunite families together. It's just extraordinary. So some days you do it. And then you look at the file and you go, there's 1000s more, you're not going to. So patient, persistent and passionate are the three P's. But I think under cutting all of that is a good sense of self awareness. You're tested hard. Don't be how I was when I first left law school and I rocked up in Thailand, and I said 'I'm here to help you'. And they're like, well, we just need you to do this and this. So I think something about being very humble, and then having a massive sense of humor and a joy in life. So that's probably a snapshot, I could go on a lot longer. Passionate, persistent, patient, humble, and a sense of humour.   

SALLY: And a little bit of perspective.   

HELEN: The perspective is the big one.   

SALLY: So given the context that you've just played out for us, what would you say makes a really good leader in humanitarian space?   

HELEN: It's understanding people. I think any leader, but particularly in the humanitarian sector, that we have to be leaders that balance compassion and courage. If you're too compassionate, you don't take hard decisions. But if you're too courageous, often you just steamroll over people. So I'm constantly, in fact my mantra is often as a leader, how to balance courage and compassion? People need to be seen. People who work with you need to be acknowledged as people and not just told what to do. I've always really valued different opinions. And at a certain point, as a leader, or as a decision maker, you have to land on a position. But I prefer to take a lot of time in understanding, exposing and hearing new ideas; a lot of time in doing that, and then quickly make the decision. I find it very odd. This is another topic, but sometimes in the humanitarian sector, we're actually harsher with each other than in my experience in the commercial sector and others because we're so value driven. We're so looking at where we're going and how we're going to serve people that we forget to be kind and listen to each other. So I think to be a good leader anywhere, but particularly in this sector, listen carefully your people, make the tough decisions, but do it with inputs of a diversity of voices.   

SALLY: Can you take us back to the start? How did you go from being a law student to Director at ICRC and CEO of RedR Australia?   

HELEN: Yes, my current role, which is such a fabulous position, I'm so lucky. When I did my law degree, I always saw law as a tool for social change. I wasn't sure exactly what it was. I cut my teeth as a lawyer working in the unions. But I saw it as something you could use to carve out a difference in society. I was able to do a range of voluntary work, I always worked with community groups as well as my full-time job, and I was able to step through and have the opportunity to see the capacity to use law in gathering evidence for rape as a war crime. I then did my PhD at New York University, which was wonderful. And it was from there that I got very interested in the work of the Australian Red Cross and started back then. So it was fortuitous. But I also think that in life; life's not linear in relation to our careers. We often move in and out, we find a passion and we follow it. So I sort of moved through from being a student, to having a domestic lawyer role, to many years with Australian Red Cross, which I loved, and I loved working with you, Sally, then playing a role as the Legal Adviser for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Pacific, working with authorities and governments to get the treaties ratified, and really understanding how to work at a diplomatic legal level. I had a bit of time teaching, I do love academia. I think I've been very fortunate to be able to utilise and move from being a practitioner to be an academic. And in the current role with RedR Australia, I'm really keen that with all the amazing deployments in the work that we do, that we start harnessing even more clearly some of our learnings. Now we don't have to write being PhDs in academia. But I think one of the great things about RedR that I'm excited about is our role in people. We send people to places. We haven't got all the heavy infrastructure of the big UN agencies or other organisations. So I think that moving from my role at Australian Red Cross, then the extraordinary time with the ICRC, was a wonderful move. But now being with RedR Australia, I really feel I can bring to bear all the learnings I've had, and find opportunities for this organisation. And we're such an agile organisation, we are so advanced in areas around gender, inclusion, disability, and also localisation. So I feel the journey has led me to here, Sally. One of the things that really grabbed me about RedR was that it's all about people. We are about helping individuals, and their skill sets, to play a bigger role in a broader humanitarian system. And that's super exciting. We're not divided between whether it's a crisis, or conflict. We don't sort of, and everyone hates that word 'nexus', but we, we don't worry about those things. We are about getting the right people in places where they're needed. People who can support communities become more resilient, but also people, I think, who can learn and understand their environments. So that to me was very exciting. We're small enough that we can try things. We can be the organisation in the humanitarian sector that tests things. We can try these things that others are doing. But we can do it in a particular agile role. So I was very excited by that. And, of course, it's about the people we work with. We have fabulous colleagues, we have a lot of fun. I mean, we don't need to tell everyone that sometimes we have bring your dog to work day to day. We don't need to tell everyone that sometimes, during school holidays, there's a few kids hanging around, there's a few jigsaw puzzles done. We work very hard, we really focus on what we're doing. People are very smart. But I think we have that beautiful balance of also being a group of people that care for each other.   

SALLY: What do you think is at the core of humanitarian work? What does it mean to you to be a humanitarian?   

HELEN: The core of humanitarian work is about using your skills, your skill set, in a respectful way, to move society into a better space. So at the core of it, that is the fundamental principles, I would say, which is, we do it for humanity, we do it in an impartial way. We are independent, we're not there for political purposes. To me, it's about--you have decided to play a role to try and do a little bit to make the world a better place. Now, it can sound pompous when it's framed like that. But I think if you don't come back to it, the motivation of why you're doing it, you often lose yourself. Early on, when I was a delegate years ago, I remember going into some detention visits. And it was pretty awful. We were living in poor conditions during the day ourselves. Nowhere near as bad as people in detention were living in. But it was, you know, you're in places where there's no running water, and there's no electricity. And I remember one day, for one of the people I was visiting in detention was very angry at me because they thought that we were going in there to help them be released. Whereas in fact, we were going in there for other purposes. And he got really, really angry. And I remember, a bit of me thought, mate, what are you doing? I'm here to help, you should be thanking me. And I remember going back to the place I was staying, and really heavily having to look at myself and say, so you're doing this work for thanks and congratulations? You are not going to survive. You are not going to survive as humanitarian. So I've had many stages where I have evolved. And you don't do it for congratulations, you don't do it for thanks. But you do it because you have a belief that perhaps some of your energies could make the world a little better than the one that was before. The most strategic intelligent, focused, efficient, people I've worked with in my life are humanitarians, because we don't have the option, very often, to not be very clear headed, understanding with gravitas the situation around us. So I think there's something also very intellectually challenging in being a humanitarian today. Sometimes I've found it's not so much the the difficulty of adjusting when you go away to do a mission. It's the difficulty adjusting when you come home. And to come back and to be very adaptable, very at ease when people talk about their challenges. And to really have compassion in your heart. I remember, I was working a lot on nuclear weapons. And I'd been in Hiroshima, because we were talking to the Japanese Red Cross, and I went to the hospitals to visit all the grandchildren, the children of survivors of the use of the atom bomb. And the horror and the distress of seeing young kids born with terrible cancers. And it was quite intense. And I got straight off the plane back in Melbourne, and went to pick my son up at school. And some people were talking about something. They said 'Oh, it's a real crisis, it's really difficult'. And I'm thinking in my head, what's a crisis? And it was trying to get the cricket whites white, you know, because they were playing cricket and the cricket whites weren't white. My son always, I apologise to him now, he had pretty shoddy cricket whites. More cricket browns, cricket greens, or whatever. And I remember, just going once again, it's a bit like before, being really self aware and holding in my heart the fact that for them that was really difficult. It was really difficult. That was what they were struggling with, you know.   

SALLY: Well, what can I say? It's been a wonderful journey today. I'm so grateful for your time and even more grateful that you're our new head honcho. Thanks so much, Helen. It's been great chatting.   

HELEN: I've really enjoyed it. Thank you. And I need that t-shirt that says 'head honcho'. Thanks a lot.