While Tasmania can feel quite isolated from the rest of the world, tucked away at the far ends of the earth, it has a track record of exporting remarkable talent whose work has international ramifications.
Dr Alice Edwards is one such graduate of the island, taking her Bachelor of Arts and Law with honours in law from Hobart to the United Nations, Geneva and beyond.
She was the youngest woman to be appointed the Chief of Protection Policy and Legal Advice for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and is now the Head of the Secretariat for the Convention Against Torture Initiative in Geneva.
The word ‘champion’ can be bandied about too easily, but Dr Edwards work has impacted the fates of refugees, the protections of the vulnerable exposed to torture and inhumane treatment, and led the UNHCR’s global strategy on the detention of asylum seekers.
She has worked in the aid communities across Bosnia, Herzegovina, Morocco, Mozambique, Rwanda, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, as well as holding academic placements at the universities of Oxford and Nottingham.
Graduating in 1997, Dr Edwards knew she had a drive to do more than simply practice law, but it wasn’t until her first trip to Mozambique that her international vision was confirmed.
On Thursday, Dr Edwards presented the 2017 Red Cross Oration in Hobart, a partnership between the University of Tasmania and the Red Cross, addressing the challenges and questions involved around the value of international treaties and their impacts on society, both nationally and internationally.
She was also named the university’s Foundation Graduate for 2017, an honour bestowed upon UTAS graduates who have “made a significant difference” in the world.
While in Hobart, Dr Edwards took the time to meet with law students who hope to follow in her footsteps.
“I think it is important that UTAS graduates think essentially the world is open to them,” she said.
“I’ve worked in academia and hired quite a number of lawyers, and I still rate UTAS and Australian lawyers as amongst the best in the world.”
While Tasmania can feel far away from the rest of the world, the advent of technology means doors are open that were previously closed, and students have a far better idea of what could be ahead of them if they step out into the international aid community.
“They do have a lot of opportunities, access to information now is so much greater than it was,” Dr Edwards said.
“I also caution them … that this is not misery tourism. These are people’s real lives and they really only should apply for jobs that they would be qualified to do in Australia.”
Dr Edwards said her own view as a young graduate evolved from discovery, to an aware of the realities and needs of people in dire circumstances.
“The first time I travelled to be honest I did view the world much more in an inquisitive mind, that everything was very fascinating, more through the lense of … a travel magazine, in a way,” she said.
“Later when I came to work in the exact same places I had travelled, I had an appreciation of the fact that these are people living in poverty and they’re struggling to survive and send their children to school.”
An example of Western influence treating the needs of a community with sensitivity, she said, was a survey conducted in Mozambique on child health, which revealed the population believed tying a string around a child’s stomach cured diarrhea.
“You saw all of these children running around with string around their bellies, but the community did not know that the reason the children had diarrhea was because of the poor water source,” Dr Edwards said.
“The number one killer of children in Mozambique at the time was diarrhea.
“You can see the positives of interventions but also making sure there’s a gradual process of bringing in views from outside.”
As the youngest woman to attain her former role at the UNHCR, Dr Edwards said there was often an element of gender in the challenges she had faced through her career.
While male mentors might be happy to champion a high-flying young woman to a certain level, she said she had often experienced resistance once those mentors realised she was moving on.
“The last stage of sexism is when mentors who have always been above you realise you potentially have a capacity to move beyond where they were,” she said.
“It just seems to be an unfortunate subconscious reaction.”
Regardless of resistance, her work as the Head of the Secretariat for the Convention Against Torture has been instrumental in working with states to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture.
The end target is universal ratification, whether it’s a small, developing island state or a world-shaping Western nation.
That work is quiet, patient, and away from the public eye, often involving the people not necessarily at the top, but somewhere down the ranks.
And despite the titles, and her crucial diplomatic position, she said the basic truth remains: every person is important, regardless of situation.
“The approach I always take is everybody is equally as valuable as anybody else,” she said.
“As a person, and as a contact.”
I still rate UTAS and Australian lawyers as amongst the best in the world.Dr Alice Edwards