A Decades-Long Commitment to Human Rights Advocacy

Elaine Pearson, (BA 1999 LLB 1999) has emerged as a formidable force on the frontlines of the global fight for human rights.

As the Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, Elaine oversees a team of researchers diligently documenting human rights violations in over 20 countries. Her role extends beyond documentation, as she provides strategic guidance to her team and engages in advocacy efforts with politicians and officials worldwide to put an end to human rights atrocities.

Elaine's journey in the realm of human rights began in 2007 when she joined Human Rights Watch. Before assuming her current role, she served as the Asia Deputy Director and played a pivotal role in establishing the Australian branch of Human Rights Watch, becoming its inaugural Australia Director. Her extensive background includes work with the United Nations and various non-governmental organisations in key global cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Kathmandu, and London.

A trusted international voice on human rights issues, Elaine has contributed thought-provoking articles to renowned publications including The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, and The Washington Post. Her writings reflect a deep understanding of the complex human rights landscape, drawing attention to issues ranging from human trafficking to unlawful killings and repression.

One of the focal points of Elaine's work has been the harrowing issue of human trafficking. Through on-the-ground research and interviews with sex workers and victims, she has delved into the heart of the problem in places like Bangkok and Amsterdam's red-light district. Her experiences in Nepal and Nigeria have shaped a nuanced perspective on the multifaceted drivers of trafficking, including poverty, corruption, and war. Elaine's comprehensive documentation of the hardships faced by trafficking victims has driven policy changes in some governments and brought to the fore the need to protect the rights of these vulnerable individuals.

In addition to her advocacy efforts on a global scale, Elaine has been a driving force behind shaping foreign and domestic policies in Australia to incorporate a human rights perspective. Her work involves regular briefings with journalists, politicians, and government officials, along with appearances on television and radio programs. Pearson's commitment to influencing policies extends to testifying before parliamentary committees and speaking at public events, ensuring that the discourse around human rights remains embedded in political agendas.

In 2022, Elaine Pearson unveiled her first book, "Chasing Wrongs and Rights." This human rights travelogue offers a glimpse into her early life in Perth and chronicles her global career documenting the worldwide struggle for human rights. The book serves as a testament to Elaine's dedication and the challenges faced in confronting issues such as war crimes, torture, police states, refugee abuse, deaths in custody, and prison conditions.

Her role requires exceptional fortitude, resilience, and courage under fire. Over two decades into her calling, she remains cognizant of the challenges. In her own words, "We don’t always get the result we want… But when human rights abusers know that someone is watching, recording, and exposing these violations, it raises the stakes, putting the threat of accountability into the calculus of their decisions." 


Q&A with Elaine

What are some of the key memories from your time at Murdoch?

I fondly remember Bush Court - sitting on the grass relaxing in-between classes. I also worked on campus – both in the library and in the Tav, so I was on campus a lot. Friday afternoons at the Tav were always busy, we often had live music and friends would pop by for drinks and a chat. I made a lot of good friends from my time at Murdoch – and they remain friends now. Back then, it felt like a time of endless possibilities and creativity. For example, some friends and I started a free electronic music magazine focused on Perth which was a fun way to learn some publishing skills and have a creative outlet during my final years of law school. As for classes, I remember Professor Frodsham in the literature department, always super passionate about literature, and who could recite Chinese poetry – his enthusiasm was infectious.  

If life had taken different turns and you weren’t working in human rights what do you think you would be doing?

I’d be a diving or yoga instructor – travelling and writing novels on the side. Narrative fiction with a bit of international political intrigue and of course some human rights themes – migration, surveillance, transnational repression etc.  

How do you keep an even keel mentally when dealing with suffering and some of the worst human behaviour on a daily basis?

I think having great colleagues and a supportive partner is key. At the end of a long day doing interviews in a stressful closed environment like a prison, it’s important to decompress and talk with a colleague or a friend about it, or get out into nature – go for a walk, a run, or a swim in the ocean. It can be hard sometimes when you are hearing a lot of traumatic stories, and you know you can’t always help people in the immediate term to improve their situation, but you hope that by working on systemic change you will eventually have an impact. To work in human rights long-term I think you need to have a positive outlook and believe in the best in people and what is possible. Taking regular breaks is key – you’ll be no use to anyone if you burn out. I like to cook and I find joy just in preparing meals and spending time with friends. 

What have been some of the most incredible outcomes during your career?

The things have had the greatest impact is work done in partnership with other allies and organizations. I’m proud of the work we did on human trafficking – the work with NGO partners really shaped how governments see victims as victims rather than as criminals – and as a result of our efforts, a number of governments introduced new laws and policies to protect victims of trafficking, especially to provide them with residence permits in countries of destination.

I’m also happy when we’ve successfully campaigned for the release of political prisoners or those arbitrarily detained and they are finally freed. Meeting the 88 Generation Students in Myanmar during the short period of democratic transition was a career highlight and it was fantastic to see them leading civil society organisations and making change. But sadly since the coup, some of those we met have been imprisoned again, or are in exile, and one was executed. 
We also were successful in getting the Australian government to pass a Magnitsky law to enable targeted sanctions on human rights abusers –- this is especially important step when other forms of accountability aren’t possible – it sends the message that you won’t be welcome in Australia if you commit human rights abuses. Now the challenge is getting the government to apply this law consistently – not just selectively against officials from governments where Australia has little strategic interest. 


Posted on:

27 Nov 2023

Share this article:

More in this series