New Zealand Law Society - Memories of civil war ignite passion for Sri Lankan-Kiwi lawyer

Memories of civil war ignite passion for Sri Lankan-Kiwi lawyer

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Ashiq Hamid
Ashiq Hamid

Ashiq's first impressions of law formed in the midst of a civil war that had seen the Sri Lankan government enact legislation that he says marginalised ethnic minorities, breached international conventions and abused human rights.

As a young ethnic Muslim growing up in the 90s, at the height of the Sri Lankan Civil War between the Singhalese Government in Colombo and Tamil rebels in the north, he feared speaking Tamil in public for the risk of being bullied, or worse interrogated by police as he walked to school.

"That period was bad. My parents were worried for our safety. As an ethnic Muslim family we were caught in the middle, because our spoken language was Tamil but we lived in Singhalese controlled areas".

It was a similar bleak story for many other minorities in Sri Lanka.

At the height of the Civil War in 1999, Ashiq's parents were selected for immigration to New Zealand.

"Looking back now, getting those visas was a really big moment for our family.

They were one of the "lucky ones", he says.

Fast forward to 2015 and Ashiq Hamid is back at his home in Auckland considering his options.

A 2014 Fulbright scholar, Ashiq earlier this year gained a Masters in Law from esteemed Columbia University, which he chose for its reputation in human rights and financial regulatory law. Just for fun, before returning to New Zealand, he sat the 17 topic closed-book New York state bar exam – the "hardest exam in the universe".

And now he can add the 2015 Cleary Memorial Prize to his growing list of accolades.

"I am very honoured and humbled to jointly receive this great prize," Ashiq says.

"There are so many outstanding people who have won it previously, and it's quite surreal to be recognised in that way."

A passionate advocate for increasing cultural diversity in the profession he hopes to use the award to encourage more minorities to enter the legal profession and raise awareness of the issues they face.

"Law sometimes is perceived as an Anglo-Saxon profession and that needs to change in my community," he says.

But law was not Ashiq's first calling. He entered university as a science student reading for a BSc in cell biology and biotechnology. At Melbourne University, where Ashiq was invited on scholarship after completing secondary school, he explored and questioned the natural world. But before long, he says, he was distracted by a series disturbing events in Australian society, particularly the Howard government's detention of asylum seekers – "boat people" – from countries such as his native Sri Lanka, and so he began to also question and explore the nature of law and the legal rules that he says were designed to protect the human rights of all people equally.

A stint volunteering with Amnesty International was inspiration enough.

"I could relate to many of these people fleeing their homes in search of a better shot at life. I really wanted to be able to change things, to help them, but I felt helpless. I thought, I'd better find a law school and read for a law degree". So Ashiq returned to New Zealand, and enrolled at the University of Waikato.

In his second year Ashiq placed top of his class. A year later he won an Australian National University Research scholarship and worked alongside Professor Peter Bailey, an eminent human rights and constitutional academic, to develop a paper on how law could constrain the growth of the Howard government's executive power, with emphasis on preserving the rights of asylum seekers.

By the end of his time at Waikato, Ashiq had been elected President of the law school's student association, a promotion from his first tertiary leadership role as Education Officer, and had tallied an impressive number of prestigious scholarships and awards.

He gained an internship as a judge's clerk in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka in 2010. His first, rather negative, impressions of the law had formed here, but returning to his country of origin Ashiq was this time around armed with the knowledge and inspiration he needed to make a positive difference through the law.

He says that this experience, of helping amidst a difficult and dangerous political climate to uphold Constitutional rights against an Executive bent on expanding its powers, further fuelled his passion for the power of law, and particularly its ability to regulate the corporate market.

Returning to New Zealand, Ashiq took employment at the Takeovers Panel where he found regulatory work that "protected mum and dad investors" to be a perfect niche for his varied skills and interests.

Ashiq says that Columbia Law School was transformational. He was taught by some of the world's most prominent professors in the areas of human rights and financial regulation. He marched with his classmates "against police brutality". He advocated for civil rights, and volunteered to teach underprivileged children in Harlem, New York City.

Perhaps Ashiq's proudest achievement in the USA, however, was founding the Columbia Law Students Negotiation Association, a group that promotes the delicate art of dispute settlement with the ultimate ambition of avoiding conflict and achieving nothing short of world peace between nations – the mission of the Fulbright.

The Association has since hosted notable speakers including the UN Ambassador for New Zealand Jim McLay.

"I thought this was the best way I could contribute to Columbia, because Americans love to sue each other. I wanted to showcase other ways of solving disputes".

"I think negotiation and alternative dispute resolution has amazing capacity for the peaceful resolution of legal conflicts," he says.

"I left Sri Lanka in '99 in the middle of a civil war, so I had seen some of the worst of what can happen when agreements fall apart."

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