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Interning at the United Nations, NYC

26 June 2019
What's it really like working at the forefront of international peace and security?
Master of Human Rights student Elizabeth Heath on the reality of working at one of the most popular global organisations.

Left to right: Dohun Richard Na, Mercy Kimanthi, Former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the UN Mahmoud Saikal (2015-2019), Dinesh Suryawanshi and Elizabeth Heath.

What does your role at the UN involve?

My role as an Advisor with the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations focuses on 3rd Committee issues, which include human rights issues, humanitarian affairs and social matters.

I work closely with the Ambassador’s office, diplomats and assist the Mission in a variety of ways. While a lot of my work involves attending meetings and writing summary reports I’ve also had the opportunity to be present at the 57th Session of the Commission for Social Development-Sustainable Development Goals, The 63rd Commission on the Status of Women, and the The 18th Substantive session on the Permanent forum on Indigenous issues, to name a few.

I also contribute research towards briefs, proposals, and statements for the delegation. Recently, I’ve developed country profiles and contributed to writing parts of the Ambassador’s speeches relating to sustainable development, climate financing, women’s rights, and issues relating to human rights in Afghanistan.

Do you feel that your studies prepared you for the role?

Definitely, the Master of Human Rights developed my skills in reporting, analyzing and advocating on issues to do with political, socio-economic and humanitarian issues.

I have used these skills throughout my internship at the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan when writing reports for the capital, researching states interests for the Ambassador and developing talking points on humanitarian issues in Afghanistan for the diplomats at the Mission.

University enabled me to become a fast and adaptable learner, able to confidently express my opinion and negotiate complex ideas. These skills are vital in diplomacy.

The degree also provided me with a foundational understanding of the structures of the United Nations and the major international human rights instruments, mechanisms, charters and treaties used in protecting people’s rights. 

What's been the biggest highlight?

My proudest moments include coordinating highlevel meetings for the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan, in particular the side-event “Women and Sustainable Development: Achievements, Opportunities and Challenges”.

I also had the opportunity to escort Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Education, Ms Mateen, around various NYC schools to meet with the State Education Department of New York and discuss curriculum development and teacher training to consider how Afghanistan’s educational system can be improved. 

What's been the biggest surprise?

There are so many, but the main two are the sheer passion and intelligence of the diplomats working for the UN and just how much comes together in the last possible moment!

Most diplomats I have met are willing to put in very long hours in order to pass a resolution, which may or may not be successfully implemented at State level.

I experienced this when I was part of the discussions on the Agreed Conclusions at the end of the Commission on the Status of Women. We were stuck in a conference room for 12 hours a day, often staying till 1am debating what concrete recommendations should be implemented by national, regional and local governments, intergovernmental bodies and civil society organizations on the topic of “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”.

I remember seeing one woman reading her child a bedtime story over Facetime during our 15 minute dinner break. They push themselves to these extremes because they believe in the work they’re doing and the benefit it can have for women around the world.

It’s also been a huge surprise to see how often everything comes together at the last possible moment. Whether it’s instructions from the capital, visas for state leaders to participate in summits, commissions, the General Assembly or even just fulfilling a mandate by passing a resolution or submitting a report, so often it all comes together at the last possible moment. Diplomats run on pure adrenaline. 

What do you enjoy most about NYC?

Everything. It’s loud, busy, aggressive, smelly and crowded but it’s also beautiful, artistic, charismatic and vibrant.

But perhaps the greatest part of all is Broadway. The talent and sheer volume of shows on offer is second to none. I’ve seen 18 shows and I plan on seeing more than 20 by the time I leave NYC. Some of my dearest friends I’ve made in NYC have been the people sitting next to me at Broadway shows. 

Do you have any advice for students interested in working at the UN?

If you're interested in pursuing a career at the UN then work hard at university and learn as much as you can about the UN systems and the six principal organs of the UN. I would highly recommend learning a second language and working on your public speaking skills – these are two very useful skills to possess at the UN which you’ll use daily. 

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