University researcher takes on International Red Cross directorship

June 14 / 139

Dr Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy, ICRC. Photo: Peter Casamento.
Dr Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy, ICRC. Photo: Peter Casamento.

Melbourne Law School Senior Fellow Helen Durham has been appointed Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva.

Dr Durham is both the first woman and the first Australian to be appointed to the top-level role. 

She was previously Director of International Humanitarian Law, Strategy, Planning and Research at Australian Red Cross.

The ICRC works to protect lives, prevent suffering and give humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed conflict through its global influence and impartial, neutral and independent negotiation.

Dr Durham said that in her work she was focussed on the Red Cross' principle of humanity and the mandate granted to ICRC within international humanitarian law (often known as the laws of war). 

“Dealing with issues such as the protection of civilians and the access of health care workers during armed conflict means having to constantly remind all sides of their obligations under international law,” she said.

This approach has helped Dr Durham in her dealings with those accused of brutal war crimes.

“It’s similar to criminal lawyers in a way – you focus on the task at hand and suspend your emotional response,” she said.

Dr Durham said such impartiality was important to the Red Cross’ ability to influence governments and other bodies to make change.

“If you genuinely want to make change, you have to influence people,” she said. 

“To influence people you have to have their trust. 

“Sometimes that means withholding judgement, knowing there are other organisations and institutions that can take that up.”

While Dr Durham will be based in Geneva for her four-year term, she will also take field mission roles. The first will be to Somalia, then Sudan and Nairobi.

ICRC director-general Yves Daccord said the organisation would need to expand its operations to address complex and violent emergencies in South Sudan, Syria, Iraq and the Central African Republic.

“Adapting to a fast evolving world, the ICRC will explore new partnerships with other organisations, including with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, to obtain greater and quicker access to people who need help,” he said.

Dr Durham gained her Bachelor of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science degrees from the University.

She was involved in ICRC field work in Burma, Aceh, the Philippines and the Pacific, and worked on negotiations for international treaties in New York, Geneva and Rome.

Prior to working with the Red Cross, she ran programs for Asialink at the University.

She has received numerous awards – most recently she was inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

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