As told to Paul Little.

In 2008 I'd been working in New Zealand as a junior barrister for two and a half years. The next logical step would have been to go out on my own, but I got accepted to do a masters degree at Oxford. While I was waiting to fly to England, I met a defence lawyer working for the Rwanda Tribunal. He said: "You should come over, we need a lawyer at the coalface." I'd gone into law in the first place to do human rights law.

I spent about three months as an intern then went to The Hague on a consultancy at the Yugoslavia Tribunal, then was offered a job as a lawyer for the Rwanda Tribunal.

So it was my year of international humanitarian law. For me it was almost cathartic, because as a child I had to escape mass crimes, essentially being committed by governments and based on prejudice.


When you get to look at the start of those things, you realise it's not that mysterious. The Rwandan genocide started from a lack of democracy and human rights and people scapegoating other groups. Politicians cash in on prejudice.

The mission was to individualise blame so groups don't keep going in a cycle of violence. The point was to leave a legacy of everyone being equal before the law and change the culture of impunity so you don't get to do whatever you want just because you're the president. The Iranian government did things to us with impunity.

And the rest of what you realise is poverty. We were living in Tanzania, in a well-funded UN institution with security all around it. We were in a big, flash complex, eating sanitised salads. We wouldn't get cholera if we drank the water, because we had water machines at every turn.

But at nights when we went to the village pub, it was a different world. And we weren't really helping with that.

And even with the UN, defence lawyers didn't have as many resources as the other side. To me it's important to have that fair process. No matter how guilty someone looks, guilt needs to be established. But the defence team didn't get paper for the photocopiers — it was like even the UN didn't really believe in it.

From back here, having worked in court, I know the defence gets about half the resources of the prosecution. That's really frightening — there's definitely demographics involved.

And when I finally went to Oxford to do my masters, I had all this beautiful space. I sat studying in beautiful libraries with no funding issues and with the privilege of time to study. To have that when you know these things are happening elsewhere was surreal.

I'd fly back and forth, interviewing people who said they'd been tortured, then go back to Oxford, where my room was cleaned every day.


It also made me appreciate my work in New Zealand. That's where I'd learnt to be a lawyer, and I was appreciated in the UN system as someone who'd worked in a functioning system and not just studied it.

It also made me appreciate having experience working in communities on the ground, where you have to solve problems for people who have very little. It made me realise we want people from those sectors in Parliament now — people who've had real-life experience and know what the problems are.

Golriz Ghahraman was elected as an MP for the Green Party this year.