Hannah Tonkin Profile

Hannah Tonkin (South Australia & Balliol 2005) is an international lawyer at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York, where she specializes in international humanitarian law and policy. She also teaches international law at the University of Oxford and she is a barrister at Garden Court Chambers in London. Her book, ‘State Control Over Private Military and Security Companies in Armed Conflict’, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011.  Hannah holds a DPhil in public international law and a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) from the University of Oxford, and a first class honours LLB and BSc from the University of Adelaide.

Rhodes Project: How would you describe your time at Oxford as a graduate student? What experiences were significant for you?

Hannah Tonkin: I loved my time at Oxford – that’s why I stayed on to do a doctorate after finishing the master’s programme. Of course the teachers and students in the law faculty were first class, but most of my learning took place in other settings such as dining halls, pubs and Rhodes House, and often with people working outside my field. I’m not sure I’ll ever have so many stimulating conversations on such a diverse range of topics in the future! It was remarkable. There’s very little divide between the scholarly and personal sides of life at Oxford. While this level of intensity was sometimes challenging, it certainly made for an enriching experience. I have no doubt that many of the friends I made at Oxford will be friends for the rest of my life. 

Rhodes Project: In your current role at the United Nations, your work focuses on international humanitarian law and policy. What drew you to this area of work as an academic passion and a career path?

Hannah Tonkin: It was a combination of several different factors. My family has always been very focused on social justice. My grandmother, for example, spent a lot of time fighting for causes ranging from East Timorese independence to Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia. I remember wanting to be a lawyer from a fairly young age. Like many teenagers I had a glamorous image of standing up in court and arguing my case, but on a deeper level I considered law to be a powerful tool for addressing injustice. As a law student I found that international law incorporated elements of global politics as well as law – a fascinating combination. During my final year of law school I worked as an intern at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. That was really the key experience cementing my interest in this area. Later, as a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, international law was the primary focus of my studies, and that led me to my current career path.

Rhodes Project: What legal and policy issues within your work are top-of-mind for you at the moment?

Hannah Tonkin: My role at OCHA focuses primarily on assisting and protecting civilians in armed conflict. At the moment we’re really grappling with how to strengthen compliance with the laws of war and how to promote accountability when those laws are violated. We’re also working on measures to prevent forced displacement and better address the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The humanitarian system is far from perfect, but even small improvements can have a huge impact in alleviating human suffering, particularly when they are implemented at a global level from UNHQ.

Rhodes Project: Over the course of your career, what experiences have stood out for you? Can you tell me about your experiences working as a lawyer for the UN International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and for the Special Court for Sierra Leone?

Hannah Tonkin: These international criminal courts and tribunals dealt with murder and cruelty on an unimaginable scale. What stood out the most when I was working as an international criminal lawyer was the strength of the human spirit and the desire for justice. Seeing people who had lost their entire families find the courage to testify in court was both inspiring and humbling. And while I would be one of the first to criticise these courts and tribunals as painfully slow and expensive, I do believe they have played an important role in achieving justice and promoting reconciliation in each of these countries.

Rhodes Project: What does good leadership look like to you in the context of international humanitarian law and policy?

Hannah Tonkin: Armed conflicts are inherently chaotic and unpredictable. No two conflicts are the same, so the humanitarian response must always be context specific. I think good humanitarian leaders have to understand broad contexts and trends, but they must also be able to adapt, innovate and learn from mistakes. This requires flexibility and courage. Another key element is that humanitarian leaders must be accountable – to their organisations, to their donors, and most importantly to the communities they are trying to assist. It’s certainly not easy, but I have seen many brilliant leaders in the humanitarian field, both inside and outside the UN.

Rhodes Project: Who have been your mentors and role models, professionally and personally? How have they shaped your thinking? Is there any particular advice that stands out?

Hannah Tonkin: Mentors have played a key role at every stage of my life. From family members and schoolteachers to university professors and senior leaders in my profession, I have always sought advice from people I admire. Some of my most important mentors have not been academically related, but have provided key insight through their experiences in different aspects of life. It’s perhaps a bit of a cliché, but the most important advice has always been to aim high, believe in myself and do work that I enjoy.

Rhodes Project: Reflecting back on your experiences, what advice would you give to women who are in the early stages of their careers in law?

Hannah Tonkin: Don’t be afraid to pursue your passion. It’s easy for law students to think that corporate law is the only possible career path, but there are plenty of other options if the corporate path doesn’t appeal to you. Be proactive – ask questions, seek out mentors and follow your heart. And it’s okay not to have everything figured out at once. Life is not always a straight line.

Rhodes Project: Beyond your professional work, what activities or experiences are important to you?

Hannah Tonkin: I read a lot for pleasure, both fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes I go through phases where I’m reading a lot for work and I stop reading for pleasure, and then it’s always a joy to start again. Keeping fit is also crucial for me to stay healthy and balanced. I love going for long runs outside, and I’ve been doing a lot of yoga lately. I used to fill up my days with constant activities, but now I’m getting better at carving out time to relax.

© 2017