Expat New Zealander Miriam Cullen has just completed a PhD on the relationship between the United Nations and international criminal justice at the University of Copenhagen. That’s not bad going for someone who didn’t finish high school.
Although she was always interested in human rights, it took her a while to work out how to build a career around what is now her passion. Dr Cullen headed to Australia at the age of 17, and worked a variety of jobs before coming to law. “I went to law school when I was 22 having completed a useful adult education course,” she says.
Following her passion has taken her to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and to the United Nations, and into policy work in Australian politics. Dr Cullen says the key to her success has been applying for everything she’s interested in, even if at first glance she doesn’t meet all of the criteria.
“What women in particular do, is we tend not to apply for something unless we have every single one of the key selection criteria ticked off. I say apply if you’ve got 75% of them. You might have other skills they actually want but haven’t mentioned.”
Each new experience expanded her network and led to new opportunities. “It’s just having a little nous to, very politely and very humbly, ask people if they have space for you on something. Often they say yes.”
Miriam Cullen studied politics and law at Melbourne’s Monash University, which has a centre dedicated to human rights, gaining first class honours and a scholarship in politics. The scholarship took her to Leiden University in The Netherlands where she studied international criminal law and human rights and ended up assisting defence counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
“One of the things I learned there, and it was a really great lesson, is that human rights apply to everyone. Even people who have been accused of really terrible things have certain rights that need to be upheld.”
After the Leiden exchange, Dr Cullen took up an internship with Australia’s permanent mission at the United Nations where she negotiated on behalf of Australia on the human rights committee. “I was very lucky to have an ambassador who encouraged and trusted junior people to work on negotiating issues of the day. It was really incredible. I negotiated around 20 out of 60-odd human rights resolutions at the General Assembly that year.”
At this point she headed back to Melbourne to complete her law degree, and ended up working with a Melbourne-based academic who was working on human trafficking research. “I learned so much from her about the legal tensions between criminalising human trafficking and at the same time protecting its victims.”
Dr Cullen then sought another internship, this time with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). But when she arrived to start the internship, it turned out there was no room for her on the anti-trafficking project. Instead, she found herself working on a programme on surveillance on organised crime. “I worked so very hard on that project that, after the internship finished, they hired me as a consultant for the rest of the project.” This meant flying to places like Vienna and Seoul and chairing meetings with prosecutors, judges, the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Describing herself as “someone who has never really been sure what I want to do,” Miriam tried her hand at foreign affairs for a couple of years for the Australian government, and gained her Masters in International Law at the Australian National University.
State government role
Then followed a few years working for the New South Wales Government. “I ran some big inquiries on same-sex marriage and all sorts of other things. That was really interesting but I missed the international work.”
To fill that gap, she started volunteering with the Australian Red Cross, where she taught international humanitarian law. “I discovered I really love teaching. I just loved it, it was so much fun and it was great to share what I’d learned – things such as the law of armed conflict, why it’s important and how it works.”
Dr Cullen decided to combine her love of research and teaching by doing a PhD. “I started inquiring about where I could go to really investigate my area of interest. The University of Copenhagen’s Centre for International Law and Justice has not only a fine reputation in international law, they were advertising a PhD position to teach and to examine the relationship between the UN Security Council and international criminal law. I thought, well this is kismet. I applied and was lucky enough to get in.”
Miriam has managed to combine research for her PhD with consulting work, including six months as a visiting professional at the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.
She hopes to do more of the same now she has completed her PhD. “My dream is to do a mixture of everything, do a bit of consulting work, a bit of research and a bit of teaching. The only problem with that path is it doesn’t necessarily bring stability, but it certainly keeps life very interesting.”