Meet the new Director of the International Human Rights Program

Rona Ghanbari (2L)

Samer Muscati | Photo by Rona Ghanbari (3L)

Samer Muscati is the new Director of U of T Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP). Ultra Vires sat down to talk with him about his prior experience and plans for the role.

Let’s start by talking about your background and your work at Human Rights Watch.

I’ve been with Human Rights Watch for the past seven years. I initially started off as a researcher for Iraq and the UAE, and recently—for the past three and a half years—I’ve been working for the Women’s Rights division as an emergencies researcher. I go on missions to conflict and post-conflict countries, documenting and investigating abuses but also making sure that we end these abuses by advocacy and by other mechanisms. It’s been a great few years, and I think we’ve had a lot of impact. I’ve been very lucky to be working for them for so long.

And before Human Rights Watch?

Before Human Rights Watch, actually before law school, I was a journalist at the Globe and Mail in Toronto for a few years. I decided that I was more interested in making the news than reporting on it. I was still young—in my early 20s—and back then once you were at the Globe it was kind of a permanent position. I had this great job, but I didn’t want to be stuck there forever, so I applied to law school.

After that I worked in corporate law for a bit before doing my masters in law. I then worked briefly for the UN in East Timor in the Serious Crimes Unit, investigating war crimes during the referendum in East Timor. After that, I went to work in Iraq as a consultant for the government. I was an advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office. From there, I worked on a book in Rwanda looking at sexual violence fifteen years after the genocide, before starting at the Human Rights Watch as the Iraq researcher.

That’s an incredible career path. How do you think it led you to this point?

(Laughs.) Well, as you can tell, I never really planned my career. I sort of took opportunities as they came. Students always ask me, “How did you get your job at Human Rights Watch?” and I tell them I don’t know because it wasn’t really a plan. As lawyers we are all sort of risk averse, but when you are young it’s great to seize these opportunities as they come your way, and it’s funny how one thing leads to another. It really hasn’t been a smooth or logical flow. Hodge-podge may be the best way to describe it. (Laughs).

I’ve always had social justice and human rights in mind in terms of most of my career opportunities, but at the same time, I haven’t just focused on that. When I was at the Globe I was working as a reporter for the Business section even though I was an environmental studies major. Right after law school I was in Boston as a corporate lawyer even though my heart was in social justice. I think it’s great to have a varied experience—it’s nice to be able to experiment. If you work hard and you’re committed to the work that you do, then opportunities arise. The most difficult thing is getting that first job, and after that it sort of just snowballs. It’s been a fun ride.

You are a U of T Law alumni. What is your relationship with the law school, and what it is like to be back?

Yes! I started in 2000 so it’s been 15 years since I’ve been on campus. It was a great place to go to law school. I was actually a transfer student from U Vic—I transferred here my second year. This is the place where I got the confidence and the skills to launch my human rights career, so it’s amazing to be back and see some of the faculty. It’s a top-notch school, and it’s great to be around such amazing ideas and people again.

What excites you the most about your new position at the IHRP?

I’m really excited to be working with students. It’s something that I’ve tangentially done as a researcher at Human Rights Watch, but just having that energy and drive that I’ve seen from students so far is incredible. It’s great to be helping students figure out projects, and to be doing advocacy on so many different fronts. I think we are a powerhouse here at U of T, and there’s so much room for impact. Hopefully now that I’ve been doing this type of work for a few years I have some skills and knowledge to impart. I think it’s going to be a great experience for me!

I know this is a little pre-emptive, but do you have any changes in mind so far for the program?

Of course I want to be thorough and think things through before making any changes to the program. It’s such an excellent program already, and I think the main goals are to maintain the excellence of our products, make sure the reports that we put out are at the highest levels, and try to determine the places that we can have the most impact. One thing I would like to do is to expand on some of our areas of interest—I’m particularly interested in women’s rights and Indigenous issues. I think there’s scope there to think of new projects.

Another idea I’m really keen on is trying to expand our reach, and using social media and other media to showcase the work the IHRP is doing. I think more people outside of U of T need to know about the wonderful things students do with the program. We have so many people writing excellent pieces, and I think there is a lot of potential to reach more people.

Ultimately I hope to continue to grow the program, making sure that we are responsive to students’ needs, and giving students a fantastic experience and a platform to launch their human rights career.

Has anything stood out to you so far in your short time here?

It is a bit difficult jumping right in—it’s amazing how much there has been to do to catch up and get up to speed. I was lucky that I had some transition time before Renu left. Renu is also probably the most organized person I’ve ever met. The way that she left everything meant that it was easy to pick it up. I think the funniest thing for me has been my family. For years they had been encouraging me to find “a real job.” (Laughs.) They saw my job as Human Rights Watch as volunteering. They didn’t see how someone could have a career doing what I did there, so they are happy that I actually have a grown-up job now where I’m responsible and not venturing off into crazy places. Especially since I have young kids.

The great thing about working at Human Rights Watch was that you would have intense periods when you’re on a mission, but otherwise you could work from home, and I would just have to wear a dress shirt on Skype but it would otherwise be pretty casual. Battling the TTC every day has been a huge change! It’s been a while since I’ve had a 9-5 job, so that’s been a bit of an adjustment.

Also, coming in at a time when all the leaves are changing—even though it’s been 15 years I still have that anxiety of exams being around the corner. That seems to still be deep in my psyche! Even though I’ve survived places like Iraq and Somalia, the trauma of exams still seems to haunt me! (Laughs.) I have to remind myself that I’m no longer a student, so the changing leaves mean something different now!

What advice do you have for students who aspire to have an international human rights career?

The first step is getting involved in the International Human Rights Program! It is an amazing experience. There’s so much to offer with internships and with the clinic. It’s a great place to learn the practical side of human rights not only in terms of investigation, but also in terms of advocacy. We’ve developed some amazing partners over the years, and we have a great network of alumni who have come through the program and are now doing really interesting things.

Students should feel free to get in touch with me and see how they can fit in with the program. We are lucky to be at an institution with a program like this, so take full advantage of it! That’s really the first step. When I worked in East Timor, that was my first human rights job, and it was through the IHRP. It was an informal internship that they helped me get. It can be difficult to find social justice jobs as law students, so it’s great that we have this resource.