My career with the United Nations has been diverse and deeply enriching. Over the last two decades, I have worked with the Organization as an Electoral Observer in Liberia and in the Central African Republic, as a Political Affairs Officer in Kosovo, a Gender Adviser in Sierra Leone, and as a Human Rights Officer in the United States, Guyana, Uganda and Switzerland. In fact, I have had the privilege of working in more than ten countries spanning three continents. This has only been possible due to the unrivalled capacity and mandate of the United Nations. It is a truly unique organisation to work for, and I definitely recommend it.
Currently, I am stationed in Yaoundé, Cameroon, where I am the Regional Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Central Africa. As the title suggests, I oversee and monitor the human rights situation in eleven countries across the central African region. As part of this position, I also serve as the Director of the United Nations Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Central Africa. These are challenging roles, and every day brings new obstacles, new opportunities, new headaches and new successes. A typical day for me might involve chairing a meeting with my colleagues about an upcoming event, followed by phone calls to Geneva about funding for our projects. I might then catch a plane to a neighbouring country to meet with representatives of the indigenous community and strategise with them about how best to pressure their Government to adopt indigenous rights legislation. This might be followed by a meeting with the Prime Minister of that country to voice the needs and rights of the groups we are trying to support.
Many things motivate me to continue my work. There are the indigenous people of the Congo, who said that it was the first time they had been able to meet and speak directly with their Government as a result of my team’s work. There was the 83-year-old former sex slave from the Republic of Korea who thanked me for believing that she was forcibly abducted and had not betrayed her community. Then there is the incredible strength of the Rwandan woman who barely survived mass genocide and rape, or the gratitude of the old man in an internally displaced people’s camp in northern Uganda who appreciated that we asked him what he needed, instead of deciding for him. In other words, it is the many victims of human rights violations around the world that inspire me daily. Through my work at the United Nations, I have had the privilege of meeting incredible individuals who have overcome unbelievable adversity in their lives, and that continue to fight for peace and justice. I love working with the United Nations because it gives me an opportunity to support individuals and communities.
In fact, ever since I was a child I dreamed of working for the United Nations, because both of my parents worked for the Organization at some point in their lives. I remember following my parents throughout Asia when my father was the representative of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos. Now, I not only work for the Organization, but I am married to a Liberian United Nations employee as well. Clearly, the United Nations has and will continue to be an integral part of my life.
Though my parents introduced me to the United Nations at a very young age, my path to reach it was an unusual one. In fact, my United Nations career began as a temporary manual worker at the Vienna offices. During my summer university holidays, I emptied ashtrays in the interpreters’ booths, cleaned air conditioners, refilled water jugs and picked weeds from the cafeteria terrace. The following summer I was promoted to registering and distributing documents to conference participants. Today, I help manage and oversee human rights across the whole of central Africa. Talk about knowing the Organization from the bottom up!
Based on my experience, I would advise prospective applicants to be persistent. In Finland, we say “sisu”, which means “where there is a will, there is a way.” To be an effective member of the United Nations team, you need to be committed to the ideals, objectives and principles of the Organization. Prospective applicants should understand what the United Nations is about so that they can truly represent it. You need to be ready to discover new sides of yourself, that you would never know about if you didn’t work in such interesting and diverse places. In this sense, working for the United Nations is not only about the professional experience; it also shapes your life intellectually, socially and culturally. Building a career with the United Nations is therefore a lifelong experience, not just a job.