Paul Dziatkowiec (MIntLaw ’05) has had a career that has taken him around the world in various roles since graduating in 2005. In this article, he reflects on his remarkable career in diplomacy and how his studies at the ANU College of Law served as the catalyst in his journey.
More than 15 years since leaving The Australian National University (ANU), I think back on my studies as the springboard that launched me into the captivating world of diplomacy and peace mediation.
That important bit of paper I received on my last day on campus – a Master of International Law – capped several years of learning how nations and other international actors deal with one another, and under what rules (or absence thereof). That knowledge has underpinned much of my work since – whether in helping Australia strengthen its relationships with other countries, negotiating resolutions at the United Nations (UN), or engaging with war criminals and human rights abusers in a mediation context.
Since my campus days, I’ve had the good fortune to work in several regions. Eleven years with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) gave me priceless grounding in the ‘official’ practice of diplomacy, and set me off as a peace monitor in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, then a diplomat to Israel during a time of upheaval in the Middle East - the second intifada and the Iraq War. During those years, I also regularly acted as Australia’s representative to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
On return to Canberra, I joined DFAT’s human rights section where I coordinated Australia’s approach to human rights discussions at the UN, which included negotiating resolutions, liaising with allied governments, and writing and delivering country statements.
Later I spent some years as deputy ambassador in Kenya (as well as Somalia, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi among others), where I also served as Australia’s deputy representative to the UN, and acted as Australia’s ambassador cumulatively for about a year. It was an exciting time to be in Africa; those were the years when Australia rediscovered its enthusiasm for multilateralism, and re-engaged with previously overlooked regions - our embassy quickly grew to over 70 people.
Among other things, I lobbied African governments on issues of importance to Australia, including human rights concerns and our campaign to join the UN Security Council (which was ultimately successful, thanks in part to strong African support).
After more than a decade in diplomacy, it dawned on me that my fundamental interest, perhaps subconsciously, was conflict. I wanted to deepen my understanding of why people fight, and to help them – in some small way – to find other options.
That led me to a somewhat mysterious organisation in Geneva, the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) whose core business is mediating – through unofficial, confidential dialogue and secret back-channels between armed actors – in the most violent places in the world. Most of what HD does isn’t on its website, for obvious reasons.
It’s a fascinating alternative universe; by necessity secretive, at times seedy, often exhilarating. I’ve focused on facilitating dialogue with armed groups, including in Myanmar, Nigeria, and more recently Ukraine. It’s ultimately about persuading people to see that they share common interests with the ‘other side’, and that there are alternative, non-violent ways to tackle their grievances.
Largely because it happens ‘in the shadows’, this work is not well understood. While in some ways comparable to other types of negotiations, one thing that sets it apart is the methods and personalities involved. In addition to more ‘orthodox’ actors – politicians, diplomats – the discussions involve characters straight out of a novel – warlords, traffickers, spies, human rights abusers. Some of those around the table have ruined countless lives, even countries. To engage with them, you have to leave your prejudices in the hotel room, keep an open mind, and sometimes hold your nose.
These talks require vast reserves of patience and diplomacy, a strong understanding of positions, interests, and fears, and a keen radar for opportunities. While one’s first instinct might be to lecture and castigate (and I certainly believe that those responsible for grave crimes ought to face severe consequences), the immediate priority is to save lives by stopping the bloodshed. Remember that most wars are not ended through military victory, but negotiated settlements.
Critics of our line of work might say it’s unconscionable to engage with people with blood on their hands, but the simple fact is that peace requires contact with the enemy. Armed groups can unleash war and misery, but they often also represent - or feed off - real grievances. Whether we like it or not, the worst of the worst often hold the key to peace. Sidelining them can prolong conflict. To point to just one example of many: without outreach to the Irish Republican Army, we may never have celebrated the Good Friday Agreement.
Where does an international law degree come in? Throughout. Whether in diplomacy, human rights advocacy, or mediation, it’s critical to understand the protocols of diplomacy; the norms governing international relations and human rights standards; mechanisms available for judicial recourse; and, perhaps most of all, the international legitimacy of the outcomes one is pursuing. A typical example in mediation is the issue of amnesty – a ‘safety blanket’ that belligerents often try to secure for themselves in peace negotiations – which in international practice is, rightly, considered unacceptable for serious crimes.
Mediation can take years, and since we operate in a high-risk, high-stakes environment, much can go wrong. Some groups talk endlessly, without really wanting peace. Others don’t represent anything one can really talk to – perhaps criminal interests, or an agenda so fanatical that accommodation is impossible. But it’s worth trying: guess wrongly, and little is lost; but getting it right can propel us peacewards.
The light that guides us is that no matter how gloomy the outlook, in war there can come a moment when interests, conditions, and balances of power can shift suddenly, producing fleeting opportunities for dialogue and breakthroughs. Peacemakers need to be there when that happens, to seize the chance and guide the parties through the narrow doorway. Mediation is often all that stands between peace and bloody carnage; as Winston Churchill, a man familiar with the consequences of conflict, put it: ‘to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war’.
Interested in international law? Make it your specialisation for your Master of Laws. Learn more here.