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She’s an expert in international humanitarian law, with her name immortalised in a pop song. Helen Durham is also arguably the most influential Australian woman you’ve never heard of. By Leigh Sales.

Our lady of laws, Helen Durham

International Committee of the Red Cross director Helen Durham.
Credit: COURTESY RED CROSS

This year, Helen Durham was the first female appointed a director of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva. She is one of the world’s foremost experts on the laws of war and played an instrumental role in having rape listed as a war crime. She is also the famous Helen of the 1990s top-10 pop hit “Happy Birthday Helen” by the Australian band Things of Stone and Wood. Her husband, musician Greg Arnold, with whom she has two children, wrote the song. 

Leigh Sales Helen, congratulations on being the first Australian and the first woman to be a director of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Helen Durham Thank you very much. It’s such a masculine paradigm, the laws of war, so it’s an honour.

LS What do you do in your job?

HD I work with about 40 brilliant lawyers on issues relating to armed conflict, conduct of hostilities and the laws of war. That might be looking at issues that come to us from our colleagues in the field, who are out there in the war zones. So, for example, at the moment we’re very, very focused on explosive weapons in highly urban areas. The way warfare is fought nowadays, you can see it across the globe, is very much in urban areas so the use of particular weapons has a devastating impact on civilians. We look into that legally and engage with governments and non-state actors about these situations. My job also involves policy, which is relatively new to the ICRC, because traditionally the way the ICRC influences is bilaterally in a confidential dialogue. So my job, being international law and policy, is to work out what we need to say to the world to make sure that the principle of humanity remains a key priority during times of armed conflict. 

LS One of the major achievements of your career was having rape declared a war crime. Tell me how that happened.

HD I was very passionate and focused when I was a lot younger about the fact there wasn’t clarity in the law that the destruction of women’s bodies was a crime. It was patchy to say the least in the ’90s. So, working with many, many other individuals who were highly motivated, I got involved in gathering evidence on that matter to provide it to the war crimes prosecution and then I worked with the ICRC for the negotiations before the International Criminal Court, once again with many others, to make sure that rape and sexual violence were clearly located as a very serious crime.

LS Having spent a whole career studying war crimes, do you believe in things such as good and evil?

HD I think on the extremes, there are people who are extremely bad and people who are extremely good. But I think the vast majority of us are somewhere in between and the thing that really engages me and keeps me very focused on doing my job on days where I think, “Really, there are other things I could do; I could be a florist and look at beautiful flowers”, is the fact that despair so often becomes a consequence of armed conflict but then it becomes a cause of continuing armed conflict. So you have a vicious circle and if we don’t try to inject humanity somewhere along the spectrum and appeal to the need for limitations during times of armed conflict, we keep this circle going. I think there are extremes but the majority of the world lives somewhere in between. We have to have that optimism and energy that we can shift it, albeit a tiny step along, towards better nature.

LS So does that mean that things such as despair can drive ordinary people, the vast bulk of us as you say, towards evil behaviour? Can you be a good person who becomes evil because of circumstances?

HD I think human history tells us that good people either at times get driven to do terrible things or good people ignore the steps they should take to stop terrible things happening. To me, the reason I get so excited about international humanitarian law or the law of war is that it does ask and demand that we reflect on our humanity and the fact that at the end of the day what unites us is bigger and deeper than what divides us. Irrespective of the technicalities of the law, that principle is really precious if one believes that people aren’t born good or bad but that they make choices and have agency in their decisions.

LS Does your work involve you having to go to front-line conflicts and disaster zones?

HD Absolutely and it’s always a balance between staying in the office and doing the work you need to do engaging with governments and then going into what we call the field to feel the reality. The most important thing being an international lawyer is to never get isolated and look at principles without understanding the reality. So next week I’ll be going to Iraq to visit my colleagues there in a range of areas. I feel that for myself and for my intellectual integrity, I need to read the books in a quiet place but I also need to go and speak to people who are dealing with these matters, trying to pass through checkpoints, trying to deal with non-state armed groups every day.

LS Are you scared to go to those places?

HD Not at all, which is a bit odd. Sometimes I get more nervous about my children starting school next week than I do about my work. I think there is sometimes that capacity to be very focused when you’re doing your work. Also, at my sort of area and level there is a lot more security than for some of my colleagues. I have found it a real shock, being here in Geneva, in the last couple of months, there’s been one death of a colleague in the field and a number of kidnappings, so I never take lightly the genuine reality. 

LS Is it difficult to wrench your heart and head out of some of these places when you leave? Is normal life a difficult adjustment?

HD It takes a lot of focused attention to shift from engaging on matters that are life and death in an at times very tense and complex environment and then move out and become a normal civilian so to speak, to go shopping with your daughter, to talk about new pencils and to try to find joy in those little things as well as understand that you’ve got some serious issues on weapons to negotiate the day after. I think it’s really important and I don’t think any of us professionally do any good if we don’t live in the moment and celebrate the good things as well as the difficult things we have to encounter.

LS The scale of human suffering is so vast. Do you feel that you make a difference?

HD You do, around the edges at the periphery. I think it’s really, really important that we celebrate when we do take a step forward. For example, whenever one of my colleagues at work has got a state to ratify a treaty in this area, it’s really important to have a clap and a glass of champagne because you also know how often this is not going to happen. So yes, slowly around the edges, there are days when one feels one is making a difference but one is naive to think that the overall paradigm shifts because of small things. But small things do add up. 

LS You’re the subject of a hit pop song, the Helen in “Happy Birthday Helen” by Things of Stone and Wood. How did that come about?

HD Well, Greg and I, my husband, well my then-boyfriend, were travelling around India and we really gave away a lot of our money, did a lot of fun things and engaged with some community groups. And so when we returned to Australia, he actually didn’t have enough money to buy me a birthday present. So he wrote the song “Happy Birthday Helen” and it was a beautiful present and it’s very strange how it keeps echoing in my life, even today. It was a very authentic, personal message to me that I now have found for many years in the public arena.

LS What’s it like when you’re in a shopping centre or a bar and the song comes on and you think, “That’s me!”?

HD Well it never gets less strange. I always find it gives me a little smile inside. 

LS Greg must have the best leave pass of all time: “Damn it, Greg, I told you to unstack the dishwasher.” “But honey, I wrote a famous song for you.”

HD I know, I know! And I do at times have to give him that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 20, 2014 as "Our lady of laws". Subscribe here.

Leigh Sales
is the anchor of the ABC’s flagship current affairs program 7.30 and the author of two books.