5 Minutes With Tirana Hassan, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

Tirana Hassan

Tirana Hassan, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, is a former Adelaide social worker, an Oxford-educated lawyer and a decades-long boundaries-pusher.

My first placement was in West Los Angeles while I was studying social work at the University of South Australia. It was 1995, violence was escalating between rival gangs and we had projects working with children who were in gangs or at risk because their parents were incarcerated. I learnt a lot about race and power and urbanisation. Developers were pushing established but poorer communities out of certain areas, which was intensifying the violence. It also taught me about the power of community – how people are able to organise, shape dreams and break cycles.

The first lesson I learnt the hard way was when I started managing large teams in human rights organisations. [Hassan has previously worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, UNICEF and Amnesty International.] I was making decisions too quickly, based on what was in front of me and how I saw other people reacting. I made mistakes and cut myself off from some opportunities. Then somebody asked me, “And what else is true?” I stop and ask myself this question all the time. It makes you more confident in decision-making if you consider all the perspectives. When you take decisions that you know are going to impact people’s lives, you have to be really clear on your mission and centre yourself in integrity so that you can justify those decisions.

The first time I was truly tested as a leader was in 2004, working with Save the Children in Darfur. As the only woman on the leadership team, I had to tell a colleague’s wife that her husband had died; men and women were seated in different parts of her house. There was a translator – I didn’t speak Arabic – but she had already heard the news. Her distress and grief didn’t need words. I remember feeling so helpless and responsible but needing to be present and honour her husband’s contribution to life-saving work. It’s a moment where you realise it’s not about you. Leadership is not about you.

Right from the start, people have made assumptions about my abilities based on my gender, ethnicity or physical demeanour. Working as a humanitarian aid worker in active conflict and then as a human rights investigator, I can list multiple moments when I knew I was being underestimated. When I took on dangerous and complex roles, I was often told, “We are going to take a chance on you.” Or sometimes, “You are a step-up candidate.” It is patronising and a form of obstruction and I see this happen to women often. But I was able to do so many things the men couldn’t. When you’re trying to get through a checkpoint to document war crimes, nobody sees the Asian woman in the car as a threat.

Defining moment

Around 2002, after I finished my legal training in Adelaide, I heard a lawyer on the Tampa case [in 2001, the Howard government prevented a ship carrying rescued asylum seekers from docking in Australia] describe watching the events unfold on TV and thinking, “Somebody will do something.” Then he thought, “But what if they don’t?” That’s when he put a call in. We aren’t passive recipients in life. Within our own realm of power, we all have something to contribute.

SEE ALSO: 5 Minutes With Managing Director of Microsoft Steven Worrall

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Image credit: Laura Barisonzi

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