Doreen Chen - International Human Rights Lawyer - Part Two
REIM, France - Doreen's shares her values, family life, her love of food and passion for Destination Justice with Dr Renee Ralph, Co-Founder, The Brilliant Foundation
1. What did you do as a child? What were your favourite past times? I had an idyllic suburban childhood. With an older brother close in age, I became a natural tomboy. We explored and experimented, filled in holes our dog dug up in the garden, rollerbladed, and watched cartoons. And since my older sister was a big reader who'd take us to the local library, I became and remain a proud bookworm. 2. Your favourite food? Recipe to share I live to eat and keep detailed lists of favourite foods, so it's impossible to choose one. My desert island list of food is dumplings, strong tea, mee goreng, Vegemite, and cherries. I cook Asian food more than anything else, partly as it's generally quite average in France, and also as it's emotionally resonant for me and my husband. My parents are Chinese by way of Indonesia, Taiwan, Myanmar, mainland China and Hong Kong; my husband's family is Cambodian-French; and my husband and I worked and travelled in Asia for years.
Through food, we transmit memory, culture, tolerance, and adventurousness to our kids, so it's a big priority for us.
Life with young kids is full, so we try to cook well, fresh, and fast. We adapt elaborate one-pot Asian meals that usually take hours so that they can be done in a pressure cooker in an hour or so.
Staple dishes we regularly cook this way include Hainan chicken rice, Vietnamese pho, Singapore style laksa, Cambodian num pachok, Fujian style la mian, Chinese egg drop corn soup, and Burmese oh no kauk swe. 3. Your special or favourite family moment? Food! Dumplings and spring rolls evoke memories of sitting around the dining table chatting with family as we wrapped them ourselves. Spending time together pouring our collective energy into our nourishment -- that's priceless. 4. How many languages do you speak? Do you play any musical instrument? I speak English and conversational French and Mandarin (though I can't read or write Chinese). I learned piano briefly as a child but my teacher gave up as she was frustrated that I squandered my talent by not practicing. It took me 15 more years to become willing to put full effort into something.
I used to coast by on talent and marginal effort, which I've since realised is the approach not only of the lazy but more importantly of those afraid to put it all on the line in case they fail. Allegedly, I also sing well enough for karaoke.
5. What is Destination Justice? Your role is extremely challenging - why do you feel the need to work in this area? Why human rights? How long have you been doing this? Destination Justice is an NGO focusing on advancing human rights and rule of law. My husband Rodolphe Prom and our friend and my LLM classmate Silvia Palomba and I established it back in 2011 and we've done a wide range of different work to create positive impact.
For example, we support human rights defenders across Asia who've been persecuted for their work.
We've mentored and supported many budding social changemakers, including through a Justice Café and Library we ran in Cambodia for several years. I've worked professionally in human rights for 20 years, and held leadership roles and did community service throughout primary and high school. Our parents and ancestors were all teachers, activists, community leaders, so the value of service and of human potential is hardwired for me and my siblings.
It makes intrinsic sense that we should devote our skills towards improving the lives of as many people as we can. Human rights happens to be the organising and intellectual framework that for me, fits best with this world view. 6. How do you manage your role as a mum and work in France? What do you tell your children what you do? What is their reaction? Since having kids, my husband and I have switched to primarily remote consulting practices, moved to a house with a home office in a more affordable area, and splurged on a nanny.
All of this is to maximise the time we spend with our kids while maintaining our careers. I also go on occasional work trips, and pre-COVID we would frequently go as a family to show our toddler the world.
Our kids are too young to understand what we do right now, but we are laying a foundation so that it will make sense in time.
For example, I spend time with our toddler reading books that explain the core values of service and human rights, including kindness, compassion and anti-discrimination and anti-racism.
7. How did you feel when you represent the vulnerable? Were you ever afraid of your job? Is your life at risk? I have worked with many different vulnerable populations, for example human rights defenders, youth, women, First Nations people, Rohingya.
Whenever I do, I am constantly reminded of how ill-fitting the term vulnerable often is -- how resilient and empowered people can be. Yes, there are some safety risks in my job, and it's important to me to evaluate those carefully, take the necessary precautions, and consult others (particularly my family) when the risks may extend beyond me.
At the same time, many of those with whom I work face far greater risks than I do, and I am privileged in this sense for many reasons, most obviously nationality and passport and the mobility these enable. 8. Could you tell me about the Khmer Rouge trials? (When you were working with Nuon Chea) What did you see? How did you feel? What was the outcome?
Working on the Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia was like participating in an historic moment on a daily basis, for six years straight. It was momentous and always felt like a privilege.
It was also enormous, both in terms of the sheer scale and the gravity of the events we were dealing with, namely allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
As you might imagine, this could be very heavy stuff that was sometimes difficult to process and required time away to reflect and recentre. Nuon Chea was convicted of the alleged crimes and died at the age of 91, while we were in the midst of working on his appeal. 9. How do you find your centre each day? Your balance? Peace, Calmness? Do you meditate? Exercise? Balance is essential to me. Unless it's a true emergency, I no longer work around the clock.
I devote several hours each day to non-professional pursuits: 100% family time, cooking, leisure time (books, movies, TV, music, podcasts) and exercise (Pilates, Yoga, Zumba). 10. What are the values that you hold dear? Justice, integrity, dignity, equity, courage.
11. Which organisations would you encourage students to volunteer in? I would strongly encourage students to reflect on what impact they might like to have in the world and then volunteer in any organisation which presents an opportunity to gain skills and experience that may be relevant to that.
I would also encourage students in particular to see whether there are any structured volunteering opportunities available to them, for example clinical/practical classes at school that enable them to volunteer in a guided way, with skills-based and reflective classes alongside the work. 12. What are the 5 tips to become a human rights lawyer? How do you relax????? Human rights law is a very diverse area. My main tip for people interested in a career in this field is to look at the job descriptions of potential dream roles down the line for them.
What skills and experience do those roles require? Make a list, and start to find ways to gain each of them.
Remember though that there is no one way to get to the destination, so don't stress and try to create a path that works for you.
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