March 23, 2012


Ryan, Annan and Liberian ambassador William Bull at a UNDP congressional briefing on Liberia in Washington, D.C.

International Law, UN-style: an Interview with Jordan Ryan

Nana Annan (’12) interviews Jordan Ryan—assistant administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and director of its Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery—about what it’s like to work with the UN, how his law degree has come in handy and what law students should do if they want to land a job like his.

NA: What exactly does your job entail and how did you get there?

JR: I began working in the UN Development Programme (UNDP) office in Beijing, China as a volunteer in the late 1980s and was eventually hired as a staff member.  My legal training was very useful from the beginning.  As it happens, I worked with Boston University Law Professor Robert Seidman, who was the lead consultant for an innovative project that focused on training Chinese lawyers and officials in legal drafting. Back then, China was at the early stages of its transformation.  It was great to have such a knowledgeable BU professor as a “mentor.” He and his wife—also a professor—were pioneers in helping frame legal training at a time when there were very few Chinese lawyers. Today, the country has thousands of lawyers.

Legal reform has been of continuing interest to me throughout my career, including when I worked for the UNDP in Vietnam (first as a deputy and then as a Resident Representative) and when I later served as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (and head of UNDP) in Liberia, where the rule of law was a fundamental need after a very long civil war. 

Currently I serve as the director of the UNDP’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR).  BCPR is responsible for advancing peace and development by strengthening countries’ capacities to prevent and recover from crises. The bureau also regenerates the wellbeing and livelihood of those affected by natural hazards or man-made conflicts and armed violence. We have a very large program that deals with trying to jumpstart or strengthen the rule of law in places affected by crises.  We help countries in transition move from rule by law to rule of law; this is an important way to put an end to conflict. So, to some extent, I still get to be involved with the law, even though I don’t practice per se.

NA: What’s been a highlight in your career?

quoteJR: One highlight was when I was working with the government of Vietnam on HIV. Our focus was on stigma and discrimination associated with the disease as a human rights issue.  We were able to convince the government for the first time to allow a woman who was HIV-positive to speak on live television on what it was like to live with the disease.  This young lady, in her mid-twenties, was from the countryside and had probably never been inside a television studio. The very idea of speaking to the nation about a taboo subject took an enormous amount of courage.  Her eloquence and the power of that statement had me in tears, and the fact that it was broadcast live made it even more moving.  Her courage changed the views of many about HIV and allowed a number of non-governmental organizations to come forward and do necessary work in that space.  The young lady was later recognized as one of TIME magazine’s “Heroes of Asia.”  Having the chance to influence public policy for the good is one of the great aspects of working for UNDP. But to be able to work alongside people who are so brave, strong and heroic is certainly the greatest privilege of my work.

NA: The definition of “International Law” is a bit ambiguous. What does it mean to you?

JR: International law has come to mean a great deal following the establishment of the International Criminal Court, a growing body of human rights law and an increasing understanding and agreement by many people around the world that gross violations of human rights and impunity are simply intolerable… However, international law is not confined to the public sphere. Think of how international business and finance law have grown dramatically. Today, many successful international lawyers have built careers based on knowledge of business practices around the world, from the Middle East and Latin America to China and Japan. The UN both develops and is developed by international law—particularly an array of conventions based on the principles of human rights law, such as humanitarian and refugee law.

NA: What are some specific skillsets you think students need to be successful international lawyers?

JR: As our world becomes increasingly interconnected, students will need to be flexible, nimble and comfortable with an international outlook.

According to Ryan, law students should…

Ryan, who in addition to his law degree holds a Masters in International and Public Affairs, also encourages students to pursue a second degree:

An advanced degree can help open additional doors and broaden and deepen one’s understanding of new fields, including development and international finance. While not having an additional degree might not weigh against students, they should keep in mind that they will be competing against more and more people who do have one.

NA: How are some ways students wishing to join the UN as lawyers can go about doing that?

JR: It all really depends on whether you want to be a “lawyer-lawyer”—advising a UN organization or preparing policy for it—or a lawyer practitioner, often at the country level, in a role as an advisor to client governments or communities. I am aware of a range of legal opportunities in…

These roles, though, are usually for people with more experience than those just graduating from law school may have. Students may want to build their skills first by working in…

Read more about Jordan Ryan here.

Reported by Nana Annan and Alia Wong


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