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International Human Rights Lawyer at the United Nations

Apr 29, 2019
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Matt Hoisington explains his path to and through the United Nations. He talks about how he managed to obtain one of the most sought-after jobs in the law as an international human rights lawyer. He discusses his time doing law and policy at UN headquarters in New York City, and time abroad in Abyei and Darfur, Sudan. Matt is a graduate of Boston College Law School.

Transcript

Host:

From LawHub, this is I Am The Law, a podcast where we talk with lawyers about their jobs to shed light on how they fit into the larger legal ecosystem. In this episode, Debby Merritt interviews an international lawyer who discusses how he managed to get one of the most sought after jobs in law.

Debby Merritt:

We're joined today by Matt Hoisington, a 2009 graduate of Boston College Law School. He's a lawyer at the United Nations, currently on temporary assignment at UNICEF. Matt is on his way to a career as a UN civil servant. We'll talk to him about his movements through the UN's vast maze of initiatives, as well as how he managed to obtain one of the most sought after jobs in law. Matt, let's start by going back to your law school days. When you were in school, did you hope to work in the international field?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, certainly I did. I was always interested in taking the international law classes that were offered and my interest in international affairs actually goes back to my undergrad. I did a minor in government and I was always very interested in international organization going back through history and in particular the post World War II organization that happened and of course, culminated in the founding of the United Nations.

Debby Merritt:

So then you graduated from law school in 2009, which was unfortunately during the Great Recession. What did you do right after law school?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, that was a tough time. I mean, I was a paralegal actually in between my undergrad and my law school. So I had some experience working in private law firms and I had this very strong impulse not to go back to that kind of environment. Not that I didn't like some of the people that I worked with, but it wasn't really the work I wanted to do. So I didn't really avail myself of the opportunities to interview with the different private law firms, which is very much the well-traveled avenue coming out of law school. So right away I went back to the UN, I actually did an unpaid internship following law school, I moved down to New York with my then girlfriend and the idea there was to get my foot in the door and then see what might happen. And I also had this feeling that I might go back and do my LLM and specializing in international law. A lot of people in this area have that kind of specialization, so I knew maybe I might do this for a few months and then go back to school.

Debby Merritt:

Now I understand that the most common way for lawyers to enter the UN is what's now called the Young Professionals Program for the Office of Legal Affairs, but not everybody can apply to get into that program.

Matt Hoisington:

Yes, that's right. The test is given on an annual basis. It's a written exam, but it's only given to certain nationalities and for certain subject areas each year. So basically for me to be able to take it, the United States needed to be on the list of eligible countries and legal affairs needed to be on the list of available exams. So I was lucky actually in the fall of 2010 that the United States was on there and also the Legal Affairs exam was available to be taken.

Debby Merritt:

The stars really aligned for you back in 2010.

Matt Hoisington:

I definitely got fortunate and I don't know to what extent my prior internships might have helped or not, but I think it's a good way to get your foot in the door and get to know people. And also when you make an application to this kind of exam, you have a demonstrated history of being interested in working at the UN.

Debby Merritt:

And then you have to actually take the exam. Tell us what that exam was like.

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, so it's really a very broad public international law exam. It's based roughly on the different areas of work that the UN focuses on and the different offices that are part of the Office of Legal Affairs. So there's a question on, for instance, treaty law. There's a question on the law of the sea, question on use of force, question on internal administrative law at the UN. And these line up more or less with the way the work is split up at the Office of Legal Affairs at the UN. But it was a very hard exam. I mean it is about five hours I think, if I remember correctly. Definitely longer than exams I had in law school and very competitive, thousands of applicants and only, I think, 25 or so get through to the next round.

Debby Merritt:

Twenty-five out of thousands, that makes the bar exam look good.

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, it's tough, but it's the kind of thing that you can study for. I mean, I had some time doing my internship to really focus on international law and learning the different subject areas. The good thing about it is it's a very objective exam. If you do the work and you study, you can get through. It's not based on who your parents might be or anything like that, it's just about your own performance. So that's a good thing.

Debby Merritt:

So you made it through that first round and then what happened next?

Matt Hoisington:

This 25 or so candidates will be invited to sit in front of a panel of current legal officers at the UN and they will basically assess your fit for career at the United Nations, and they'll ask you some of public international law and also some stuff about my background and a few questions about current UN affairs that I would have to show that I was paying attention and following what the organization was doing. The passage rate on the oral exam is a bit higher. Usually out of 25, say let's say 20, we'll make it through. So once you pass the written exam, you're really well on your way to being part of the organization.

Debby Merritt:

And then if you pass the oral exam, does that guarantee you a position?

Matt Hoisington:

It doesn't actually. You go on what's called a roster of eligible candidates and any office who's looking to hire a legal affairs officer can pull you from that roster at the entry level and your name is on that roster for one year. The placement rate is pretty good. They don't offer the exam unless they have a pretty good idea that they're going to have to fill a certain number of positions. So the organization has become quite good at that.

Debby Merritt:

And once you're offered a position, what's the job security like?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, it's quite good. I mean, you go on a two-year probationary contract and then if you perform up to what's expected of an international civil servant for those two years, you get what's called a continuing contract. It's like a tenure type of system. The idea is that at that point they're investing in you, you're investing in them, and you're going to stay at the organization for a long period of time. For me, I look at my contract now and it says my retirement date's 2045 or something. So you have a pretty good idea that if you want to stay in the organization, that's going to be open to you.

Debby Merritt:

What about pay and other sorts of benefits?

Matt Hoisington:

Our pay reflects the same pay that the US State Department gets. So the pay is decent. In New York it's difficult obviously to afford... I mean, it's an expensive place to live, but the UN salary at the same time, but the benefits are quite fair and it's commensurate with public sector service and different governments around the world.

Debby Merritt:

Well that's great. So you got your job offer in 2011, I think, and then you deferred a year to go ahead and get that advanced degree in law and diplomacy, right?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, exactly. From the time you take the written exam until the time you go through the oral exam and are added to the roster, it's about six to nine months. So during that period of time, I did apply to the Fletcher School. I found out I was admitted to the Fletcher School about the same time I found out I was being offered a job at the Office of Legal Affairs. So I did decide to defer for one year so I could go study and get this LLM in public international law.

Debby Merritt:

And I'm sure they were pleased that you were adding that to your experience.

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, I don't think that me deferring was the best thing for them because they wanted someone to come in and start. But luckily I had people in that office who were also graduates of the Fletcher School. So certainly they were supportive of me going and further refining these skills.

Debby Merritt:

So then in June 2012, you started with the Office of Legal Affairs at the UN and started your trajectory there. Tell us about that first position. What did you do?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, so I started at the codification division of the Office of Legal Affairs. It's one of the subsections of the office. The codification division is the academic wing of the office. It focuses on these longer term public international law making projects. So it supports the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which is where a lot of the treaty consideration and drafting and adoption goes on at the UN. And it also supports the International Law Commission, which is a group of eminent experts who get together in Geneva and in New York and study pressing topics on international law. And they will also do the first drafts of a lot of the treaties that will eventually go before the Sixth Committee and then eventually be put up for adoption in front of the General Assembly.

Debby Merritt:

So were you working on drafting treaties and so forth?

Matt Hoisington:

Well, I was really doing the research behind the drafting of the instruments. So there's a topic for instance, on transboundary aquifers, which is how countries can share these water resources that might extend over both of their borders. And the International Law Commission was working on a first draft of a treaty, but as a member of the codification division, I'm not the one drafting the treaty myself, but I'm doing the research and supporting and giving precedents and things like that for the International Law Commission and also member states as they're considering what to put into the instrument. You need to go back and look at what is the current law and transboundary aquifers, how is this similar to other maybe environmental law issues that have come up in the past? What jurisprudence might there be? And all of that would go into the drafting process.

Debby Merritt:

So what did your daily work look like? Was it just you and a bunch of books and a computer? Did you get to interact with the people who were doing the drafting?

Matt Hoisington:

It's books and a computer and it's also lots of meetings of member states to discuss how hard they might want to push a certain instrument during a certain year, what the political will might be. Because we're also in charge of organizing the agenda for the Sixth Committee. So if a member state says, "I really think now this is ripe for a vote," or something like that, then we will organize that and shepherd it through the process. There's only so many instruments that General Assembly's going to adopt every year, so you have to find the right moment. And it could be that maybe there's a case that's going on and they want to see what the outcome is going to be first, and then they may might adopt an instrument. It really depends. When I was in the codification division, I also worked on this instrument to counter international terrorism.

Debby Merritt:

That sounds pretty interesting.

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, it's very interesting because it is often said that there's no international definition for terrorism, which it's not true necessarily. I mean there's no comprehensive instrument on international terrorism, but there have been a number of specific treaties adopted on terrorist bombings, on countering acts of terrorism using nuclear material. So there are definitions for what constitutes terrorism as context. But this general instrument's been announced since the 1970s and there just hasn't been a ripe "time" to adopt it. Coming out of 2001 where there was obviously a big push to counter international terrorism at the UN level, states weren't ready to adopt this kind of instrument.

Debby Merritt:

And then when you were in the office, there was some interest and was this actually adopted?

Matt Hoisington:

It hasn't been adopted yet. I mean there's always interest from some states to push it through and some states will say, "Look, maybe we need to study the issue further." There's been a long-standing disagreement about what is excluded from definition of terrorism under this particular instrument. If you have a conflict that's going on within state, for instance, and you have a non-state actor that's using asymmetric means to counter the state forces, does that constitute terrorism or not? And there's disagreement about that. It continued to be on the agenda of the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, but it hasn't been adopted yet. And I'm not sure when it will be because you need to have the requisite political will to get something like that done.

Debby Merritt:

Let's talk now about your next position, which was in the Office of Legal Council. What sort of work were you doing there?

Matt Hoisington:

So the Office of Legal Council is much more about the day-to-day operations of the organization, and there I was supporting the peacekeeping missions. There's a number of peacekeeping missions deployed throughout the world, and the Office of Legal Council supports those missions in terms of its mandate and its status of forces agreements and other practical issues that may come up in its operations. I was also working to support these sanctions investigative bodies. So the security council will impose sanctions and then will appoint a group of experts to go and investigate and determine who should be subject to those sanctions. Office of Legal Counsel also supports them, guides them in the drafting of their reports, how to make a case, those kinds of things.

Debby Merritt:

What kind of work were you doing to support this?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, I was really drafting legal opinions at that point. So a question will come from headquarters via cable, a legal question that needs advice, and I would work as part of a team to draft the legal opinion in response. So it could be something like, "We were carrying out a patrol in this area and we had to detain someone because they attacked our forces. How should we go about handing that person over to the national authorities? What assurances might we need to obtain in return before we hand that person over about fair treatment?" Things like that.

Debby Merritt:

What kind of team did you work on? Was it all a lawyer team or were there other investigators or political actors involved?

Matt Hoisington:

That team within the Office of Legal Council is all lawyers. But of course we would consult across the organization with members of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations as we needed. I mean, peacekeeping often doesn't have clear legal answers, so you might have certain principles around which you're orienting yourself, but oftentimes the questions themselves will come in gray areas. So it's a mixture of law and politics and policy. So of course the lawyers might have their answer, but it has to be put in context. So we would also consult with political actors.

Debby Merritt:

Now these jobs were all in New York, but I understand you had an opportunity to go abroad with the UN.

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, so I spent about a year and a half I think at the Office of Legal Council, and then I went abroad to work in Abyei with the UN Interim Security Force. So Abyei is a little piece of territory. It's about the size of Jamaica in between Sudan and South Sudan, and it's a disputed territory. So when Sudan and South Sudan broke apart in 2011, Abyei remained an area that they agreed they would deal with at a subsequent point. It's very rich in oil, so it's an important economic area for both the north and the south. But yeah, it's this very small area. Landlocked, very swampy, has a long rainy season, very muddy, which I got to experience when I was there. Also, very hot, very, very hot.

Debby Merritt:

What's the role of the UN in Abyei?

Matt Hoisington:

So the interim security force is there to maintain the security of the area pending this referendum. It has interim in its name, so it was meant to go there for maybe a year and they would secure the area because it had also been a place where they'd been fighting during the long civil war between the north and the south. And then it would allow the north and the south to bring in their own police and administrative actors, take over governance pending the eventual referendum.

Now the problem is the north and the south haven't been able to agree who would participate in the referendums. Those negotiations are ongoing and they also haven't deployed police or administrative actors to Abyei govern the territory. So the UN is essentially with its 4,000 troops that are located there, providing security for the entire area and serving as a defacto governance actor, setting up markets and organizing the life for the people who live in Abyei, which is about 350,000 people who are permanent residents there.

Debby Merritt:

So it sounds like you landed in the middle of a pretty messy situation. What kind of work were you doing there?

Matt Hoisington:

It was definitely pretty messy, and the mandate that the mission has given is not really reflected in the reality on the ground. When I was there, I was the legal advisor for the mission. So the mission had had a lawyer early on, but that lawyer had been sent elsewhere. So I was sent to reestablish the legal office, work on some of these long-standing legal issues about eligibility to vote in the referendum and also advising the mission just on its day-to-day operations. And that can be anything from technical issues, how do we get a visa, how do we get to this place, how do we get supplies here to questions about the use of force and when our troops could engage with forces that might be looking to destabilize the area.

Debby Merritt:

So you were the only lawyer on the ground?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, I was the only lawyer. It's a primarily military mission. So like I said, there there's 4,000 troops and about 100 or so civilian staff. And yeah, I was the one lawyer. I mean, of course we're being backstopped by New York, so if I ever got to a point where I didn't know the answer to a question, I could write back to my colleagues in New York. But yeah, I was the only lawyer on the ground, which is actually quite an empowering situation because you're forced to take responsibility for the decisions that you take. You're on the ground, you're talking to the head of the mission. For me, it was great. It was a great experience.

Debby Merritt:

What about the other assignment abroad?

Matt Hoisington:

So after Abyei, I came back to New York again for about a year and a half, and I'd always wanted to go back into the field again. And I think I may still go back into the field. My supervisor in New York had gotten the job as the chief of staff for the mission in Darfur, so he brought me with him to Darfur and I worked as his special assistant.

Debby Merritt:

And what were the challenges in that position?

Matt Hoisington:

So there, it's a much bigger mission. The UN mission in Darfur at one point was about 20,000 troops. It's covering an area as big as France where there's been lots of fighting. The war that broke out in 2003 originally killed about 200,000 or so people. There's still a lot of unresolved issues. And there I was working not strictly as a lawyer, the chief of staff's office oversees the office of Legal Affairs, but we don't do the same drafting of legal opinions and technical legal advice that I was doing before. I was more involved in policy and the strategy of the mission and also discussing how legal might contribute to the objectives of the mission.

Debby Merritt:

Did you like that moving into policy and strategy or are you more comfortable with the technical legal side?

Matt Hoisington:

I did like it. I liked it actually a lot. I got to use my legal training, so you get to use the way you organize your thoughts and the way you deduce and use logical reasoning. But at the same time, I wasn't doing the repetitive tasks that often accompany legal work. I was also dealing with the reorganization of the mission. The mission is downsizing right now, so there's a lot of policy decisions that have to be made about where to allocate our resources, what footprint the mission should have on the ground. Yeah, I like that a lot.

Debby Merritt:

You said that you might want to go back into the field again. If you did, is there a particular place you'd like to go?

Matt Hoisington:

I think if the UN were to establish a mission in Yemen or in Syria, I think that could be a very important place to go. There's obviously a lot of work that has to be done following these conflicts. Hopefully they're going to be ending soon. But in the post-conflict phase, the rebuilding of those societies will be a big job and the UN I think would have an important role on the humanitarian and also on the political side. So I could see myself potentially going there.

I have a friend who's going to be taking over as a legal advisor for the special envoy in Cyprus. That's also a longstanding political issue between residents of Cyprus about how they want to organize themselves politically. He wants to be there for a year. Maybe after he goes, I would go back and do something like that. The good thing about being in the field is you just feel the impact of the decisions that are taken a lot more and you get to meet the people on the ground, UN is there to help. It's a much more salient type of work.

Debby Merritt:

When you go into the field. Do you worry about your personal safety?

Matt Hoisington:

It depends. I haven't been in a place where there's been a lot of active fighting right around our camp yet, but certainly some of these locations, it can be dangerous. The UN does a pretty good job taking care of the security of its staff. It doesn't put them in places that they're at risk very often. We're also there with the consent of the national authorities. The national authorities have a big role in maintaining the safety and security of UN staff. So far I haven't had an experience where I've been put at personal risk and I wouldn't necessarily be looking to do that. But at the same time, sometimes these places where the most important work has to happen are the ones that are the most broken. So I'm not against going to these places trying to see what I can do to help.

Debby Merritt:

Matt, you've had quite a number of assignments in just a short time at the UN, is that common?

Matt Hoisington:

It actually is quite common to move around the organization. I think it's also a very healthy way to go about career at the United Nations, particularly this movement from the fields to headquarters because there's this longstanding dynamic that headquarters doesn't appreciate what's going on in the field and it gives its advice but doesn't appreciate the difficulties sometimes that missions will have in implementing that advice and that leads to frustration on both sides. And I think for me, that's certainly been the case, but the more you can go into the field and have an understanding of how certain things just are very difficult, even just the day-to-day life can be very difficult and how that impacts on the work and what might be possible, I think the better off both sides are. Here at headquarters at UNICEF, it'll help me appreciate some of the challenges that folks face.

Debby Merritt:

You just mentioned headquarters at UNICEF. Is that where you're located now?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, so after I came back from Darfur, I decided to join the UNICEF legal office here in New York. It was promotion for me, but I also wanted to get involved in some of the work of UNICEF as an agency of the UN. UNICEF is heavily involved in children, but also development activities around the world, not so much on the peace and security side, which is what I've been doing before.

Our Secretary General has started to focus more and more on the work of agencies and preventing conflict. So the UN is deployed after conflict and during conflict to maintain the peace, but perhaps what it's best at is humanitarian relief and development.

Debby Merritt:

What kind of work specifically are you doing for UNICEF?

Matt Hoisington:

I've only been there for three weeks, so I'm not quite sure what exactly my portfolio will be, but so far it's been about building relationships between UNICEF and other actors. So it can be UNICEF and private companies, UNICEF and states, UNICEF and other international organizations to leverage our comparative advantages and undertake projects in certain locations.

So UNICEF is entirely voluntarily funded and it raises about $6B per year from states and from private sources. And the legal office is instrumental in organizing how those donations happen and then also what projects are selected in the field and how they're organized. In the future I'll also be looking at how those projects are going and what legal advice I might be able to give on actually doing the work on the ground.

Debby Merritt:

Do you see this as a position that also will involve a lot of policy and strategy, or will it move back more to the technical legal advice?

Matt Hoisington:

I mean, I'm hoping it's also some policy and strategy because the legal office here is based in the office of the executive director. So you're very close to the people that are making the policy decisions. And UNICEF operates according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child so its whole operations are based around a legal instrument, how to implement that legal instrument. So I think certainly there's room for policy and strategy and also this technical legal advice and that that's common throughout the UN system.

If you look at all these agencies that might have a specific mandate like the High Commissioner for Refugees or the High Commissioner for Human Rights, they're all based around legal instruments at the outset. The strategy is how to best ensure that those rights are realized on the ground and certainly that has a major legal component. But in my career what I'm looking to do is be both, be able to do all the technical legal work, but also be able to serve as this more flexible advisor. I think the risk of being a legal officer, being branded a legal officers, that might be seen as being limited to the technical legal advice instead of welcomed as a broader policy advisor. And the way to counter that is just to show the value you can bring as an advisor as opposed to strictly a technical legal advisor to whatever operation you're in.

Debby Merritt:

As you've worked with all of these different types of people, military, peacekeepers, civilians, all different types, are there particular strengths that you think you bring to this work?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, I think people that I have seen that are successful at the UN, one, they're very principled. So you have your operating principles and for the UN that's the principles and purposes set forth in the charter. And these are quite broad, but they're important that you keep those. And then within the principles you have to be action oriented. So it's very easy at the UN to get caught in the bureaucracy of needing approvals or going through certain hoops. And certainly that's all important, but at the end of the day, I think it's important to keep your mind also on what the organization is in the end trying to accomplish, which is providing services in the most needed way to the most desperate people in the world.

As I've gone through and had this opportunity to work in the field, I've seen the value in that. And I think I've also been able to, in my own work, use that mindset and be effective. And for me, where I've been most successful is where I've had the best relationships with my principals, my bosses, and I've shown to them, "Look, this may not be a strictly legal question, but it has legal aspects and I can think in a way that's not just technically legal, but also policy and strategy."

Debby Merritt:

At the beginning of our talk, Matt, you described the incredibly arduous process you had to undergo to reach this position. Are there other sorts of tracks that people can follow?

Matt Hoisington:

Yeah, I think actually, I might have put too many eggs in this basket because I didn't open myself up to working in the private sector. If you're going to embark on a career like this, you need to know it's going to take a year at least and most likely longer. And that's true of the US government too, because they'll have security clearance processes and things that will take a very long time. And for me, it was the exam and then going on the roster and being hired.

So especially given the cost of law school, what I would tell people is keep everything on the table. If you really want to work at the UN, by all means start that process. But don't foreclose working at a law firm necessarily because the two are not incompatible with each other. So if you want to go and work at the United Nations, start that process, try to take the exam, but in the meantime, you can gain skills that'll be valuable to your work at the organization. You just need to keep working towards it. You need to keep making contacts, you need to be going to academic conferences to the extent you can write about international affairs and try to publish something that can be helpful and just stay involved in this area and understand that it might not be something that happens in a year or two years, but if you focus on it for a longer period of time, eventually you're going to get an opportunity. And then it's about seizing that opportunity and doing the best that you can with it.

Debby Merritt:

And don't forget all of the other government agencies and nonprofits that are working in this space. Everyone says the world is getting flatter.

Matt Hoisington:

There's all kinds of opportunities out there and there are lots of ways to do important work. The biggest areas are going to be the government offices, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the Department of State in the US. Some of the big human rights organizations will also hire legal advisors. So Amnesty International, for instance, is one. There's also the specialized agencies of the UN, so the World Health Organization, the IMF, World Bank, these kinds of organizations that also have legal offices and offer this opportunity for work. So it's not a huge field, but there are opportunities if you want to get into this area.

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