Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Insights from Working in Afghanistan & Ukraine: Interview with Cristina Teleki, PhD
What does it look like to be an ICRC female Field Delegate in countries such as: Afghanistan, Ukraine, or Georgia? If you aspire towards a career in the humanitarian field or are curious to learn from the experiences of someone who chooses this honorable, important, and courageous life path, then the work and story of Dr. Cristina Teleki will greatly inspire you. Dr. Teleki is a legal scholar and a humanitarian professional whose academic research and practical work focus on international law and legal responses to crises. In this interview you will learn about Dr. Teleki’s: rationale for conducting doctoral level research on the topics of due process and fair trial in European competition law; insights about the overall work and mission of an ICRC Field Delegate; personal lessons learned from working in Afghanistan and Ukraine; views on how one may conduct humanitarian work while also staying engaged in academia; and much more. The article concludes with the interviewee’s valuable advice to junior scholars and practitioners who are interested in following a similar line of research and work as the one discussed in this interview.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Dr. Cristina Teleki is a Delegate at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a Research Associate at the Global Governance Centre (GGC).
Q1. You completed your Magna cum Laude PhD at University of Bern, in 2020, and your thesis title is: “Due Process and Fair Trial in EU Competition Law: The Impact of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” Could you please describe this project (i.e., what was the main goal of the project, what was the methodology, and what were the main findings)? And, would you like to share with our readers: When did you decide to pursue a PhD and why?
Answer: I have a special relationship with words and language. A brief visit to our family library might surprise the visitor with the number of books we have about language, language learning, and writing. One of my favorite books during adolescence has been the Dictionary of Synonyms, which I consistently brought with me and consulted during trips and holidays.
I have carried this reverence for the spoken and written word into all my professional endeavors. The doctoral studies that I have carried under the patient supervision of Professor Thomas Cottier have been an opportunity to continue exploring the world of language and mastering the written word. I have on purpose chosen an arid and technical field of study – due process and fair trial in European competition law – to be able to test my capacity to reason and write about a niche area of law. That work sprung from a strong commitment that I have to justice, both as an abstract concept and as a formal societal mechanism embodied by the trial. I started from the observation that large monopolies exercise what I like to call Bigness – that is market power that threatens democracy and human rights. These monopolies change how we behave, influence what we want and what we consume and account for important changes in our societies. In addition, they spend increasingly large sums of money to influence politics and regulation towards policies that favor their own monopoly power. This finding in itself is not new. What I found interesting though was the fact that when the parliaments, governments, and courts attempt to deal with monopoly power another form of Bigness is exercised – this is what I call bureaucratic/administrative Bigness. Competition or antitrust law offers a good example of this kind of Bigness. Competition law is used to regulate the conduct and organization of businesses to promote market competition and prevent unjustified monopolies. However, when governments and courts deploy competition law tools, they use legal processes that do not comply with procedural human rights. This is often done with the underlying belief that antitrust law is “special” or “exceptional”. I strongly disagree with this stance because I believe that it weakens both courts, procedures, and rights. It is for this reason that I have proposed in my doctoral dissertation a reform of the European system of competition law that would comply with the long-standing European tradition of human rights.
Q2. Currently, you are a Research Associate at the Global Governance Centre (GGC), at the Graduate Institute, in Geneva. Your research focuses on the regulation of digital markets, with a strong focus on competition law and human rights law. Could you please briefly explain to those not familiar with your work: How do human rights play into the regulation of digital markets and competition law?
Answer: Digital markets are a normal outgrowth in our increasingly digitalized world. Their regulation however is difficult to achieve due to the virtual nature of digital markets. They also pose what is known in literature as novel harms. Some of these harms – such as algorithmic collusion – distort the competition process, allowing monopolies to further increase their power and preventing new companies from entering markets. Other harms – such as disinformation, fake news, or hate speech – pose serious problems to human rights, rule of law, and democracy. Regulation and competition law are two of the legal tools that can be deployed to address these harms, and this is what I would like to focus on during the next few years relying on my previous experience with competition law and human rights. I will seek funding and institutional support for this project, leaving space for my entrepreneurial nature to develop.
Q3. Prior to joining the GGC, you amassed vast knowledge and expertise within the humanitarian field, due to your first-hand work experiences with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the European Court of Human Rights. For example, while working at the ICRC, you held several positions, such as: Field Delegate (in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Mariupol, Donetsk, Ukraine), Detention Delegate (in Kiev, Ukraine), and Delegate (in Tbilisi, Georgia). If possible, I would like to discuss one of these positions of great responsibility: Your work in Kabul, when you were responsible for providing humanitarian support to Afghanistan’s largest prison. Could you please explain what does having that responsibility imply (more precisely: what does the day-to-day work/life look like for an ICRC Field Delegate in Kabul)?
Answer: I would like to start by highlighting that the opinions shared here are my own.
Friends and family often ask me to describe what the job of a delegate implies. I usually say that being a delegate for the ICRC is a unique job that resembles being a preacher and a soldier at the same time. An ICRC delegate is like a preacher because she/he will constantly speak to all interlocutors about the importance of international humanitarian law (IHL), the Geneva Conventions, and the duty to protect the civilian population. The same message is being passed while crossing check points, meeting military commanders, or engaging with the community leaders. An ICRC delegate is also like a soldier because of the lifestyle that working for a humanitarian organization entails. Missions can last from a few months to a few years, with delegates moving from country to country, sometimes with their whole families. In countries with active military conflicts delegates live together in compounds, with limited or no access to the outside world.
The ICRC does not use weapons or armed guards for the protection of its staff, facilities, and operations. Instead, the ICRC operates with the underlying assumption that the protection of staff, facilities, and operations can result only from the acceptance of its presence and work in the country/region at issue. The main task of a field delegate thus is to gain or maintain acceptance from all the parties to a military conflict. This means identifying the gatekeepers and the powerbrokers and initiating or continuing the dialogue about the ICRC and its mandate at all levels of the power chain. This acceptance is essential for the provision of protection and assistance services to the civilian population because, if acceptance from the weapon bearers is not guaranteed, humanitarian convoys cannot pass, and assistance cannot be delivered.
Field delegates are often responsible for a geographic area. Their job is – if you allow me a metaphor – to become the field. They must immerse themselves in that particular area, understand it, understand the needs of the civilian population and provide humanitarian services that match those needs. If a detention facility exists in that region the field delegate will visit it. The ICRC delegates attempt to visit all individuals who are arrested due to a military conflict. A visit consists of (1) confidential meetings with the detained persons in order to understand their needs and to help them gain or maintain family links and (2) a confidential dialogue with the detaining authorities about their own duties and obligations.
Detention visits have been my most favorite part of working for the ICRC. I have met people accused and sentenced for the most atrocious crimes imaginable. Still, I was deeply touched by their humanity and dignity. It was in Afghanistan, in a cramped and soiled prison cell that detainees brewed me tea with the best water they could find and shared with me the best thing they had – their time and candy. I understood there that humanity is always the same, everywhere the same – despite the madness that sometimes results from being a human being.
Q4. It would be fascinating to further elaborate on your aforementioned work experience in Kabul. Given that Afghanistan is a patriarchal society, could you share with our readers: How do you perceive that your work for the ICRC has been helped, or potentially impeded, by the fact that you were a female delegate?
Answer: I grew up in a family where women and men worked together, rested together, and played together. In addition, women in my family were very much encouraged, or pushed by life, to decide for themselves what success meant. Successful womanhood in my family thus stretched from driving tractors during harvest time to building successful medical practices. I was thus raised to expect merit-based and equal treatment from the world around me and I think this is what I have received most of the times.
I think that my work for the ICRC has neither been helped, nor impeded by the fact that I am a female delegate. What helped however was to focus less on myself and my expectations and more on the people with whom I work. What also helped was the intention to become culturally dexterous, no matter where I worked. Speaking about cultural dexterity, it is good to remember the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski who wrote in Imperium about his travels in the Soviet Union. He recounts there the sober attitude of the Soviet people about the simple act of smiling. Whereas in some cultures smiling is an expected sign of friendliness, Soviet authorities were suspicious of it. Cultural dexterity makes one curious about and respectful of these cultural differences.
My Afghan colleagues in Kabul – most of them men – have been some of the most respectful and kind people I have met in my life, and I would return to work in Afghanistan with much pleasure in the future. Although I cannot be sure, I think this was due to two factors. First, we attempted to create a safe environment in the office. Most of my Afghan colleagues lived with no running water or heating, in a city with numerous explosions and unimaginable suffering. I took time with them each morning to share a cup of tea, discuss traffic jams, or learn a new Afghan proverb. The second thing that helped my mission there was that I allowed myself to be coachable and took every piece of feedback from my Afghan colleagues as an opportunity to learn about the local customs and traditions. It is in this way that I have learned how to wear a veil correctly, how to speak with community elders, and how to ask embarrassing questions.
Q5. As addressed in your previous answers, over the years, you amassed valuable and extensive practical work experiences within the humanitarian field, while at the same time, you devoted several years towards gaining a PhD in international law. At this stage in your career, how have your previous work experiences and academic life inspired you to join the GGC as a Research Affiliate?
Answer: The Global Governance Centre (GGC) was attractive to me for a few reasons. First, the GGC brings together scholars from various fields of study. I find interdisciplinarity very appealing because my own research is placed at the intersection of economics, law, and global governance. Second, I salute and admire the GGC’s capacity to bring together academics, businesses, and policy makers. Lastly, I have recently written more about human rights protection during war and about the nexus between sustainability and human rights. I find that all these topics are very much at home at the GGC, and I am looking forward to new exchanges and collaborations.
Q6. Based on your previous work experiences with ICRC in Ukraine, is there a specific question (or questions) that you would like to answer about the time you spent working in that country? Additionally, is there something that you believe that the people living outside that geographical area do not get to see or understand about Ukraine, unless they have lived and/or worked in that country? Any views you would like to share will be greatly appreciated.
There is one issue that has surprised me at the beginning of the war against Ukraine. Both experts and laypeople appeared surprised about the invasion of Ukraine and the brutality of fighting. However, one should not be surprised about this invasion if historical facts are understood. Ever since Vladimir Putin was appointed Prime Minister of the Russian Federation by President Boris Yeltsin, he has used force domestically and abroad. His campaigns during the Chechen War, the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, the annexation of Crimea and the military conflict against Ukraine in 2014 – not to mention other military conflicts, such as Syria, during which the Russian Army was suspect of war crimes – show a trend of external aggression. At the same time, the assassinations of Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Nemtsov, and the attempted assassination of Alexey Navalny show a trend of crushing one’s opponents domestically. In light of these events, the policy makers’ surprise at the war against Ukraine is rather foolish and proof of bad judgement on their side.
Another issue that has been on my mind recently concerns the limits of policy-making in a fragile, multi-crisis world. For example, sanctions are being hailed as a tool for coercing the Russian government to cease hostilities against Ukraine and many experts step in to support this idea. However, the same sanctions will partially bear the blame for the expected food catastrophe as Russia – one of the largest exporters of grains in the world – will have its agricultural exports and imports curtailed. Analyzing this policy, I have a strong sense that we often forget how interconnected and globalized our world is. In addition, I feel that policy-makers might be ill-prepared for the multi-crisis world ahead of us since most of them specialize in one small issue and are unable to foresee the consequences their policies will have on the world at large.
Q7: Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young scholars and/or practitioners who are interested in following a similar line of research and work such as yours?
Answer: I am not adept at providing advice because I think that the best advice should be personal and based on a person’s unique history and aspirations. However, I am adept at self-reflection and self-coaching especially with wisdom drawn from books. Thus, if I were to coach my younger self, I would highlight some of the following ideas:
1) “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” – wrote Virginia Wolf in A Room of One’s Own – this advice applies to writing any form of non-fiction as well, including academic writing. To be able to do research and write one needs a desk and a room to work. This is often overlooked by management gurus who invite readers to focus on big dreams and productivity. In my experience though, what I find essential for research and writing is having a room with a door that I can close.
2) Reverend Evans is an amateur astronomer who holds the record for visual discoveries of supernovae. He has spent many nights simply observing the, otherwise, uneventful sky. I often think about Reverend Evans’ wife who must have spent many nights without his supernova-hunting husband. Their example reminds me how important the choice of the life partner is. Research and writing involve lengthy periods of solitary work and require a life partner who understands and is able to respect a closed door, procrastination, or suddenly jumping off the dinner table to end a paragraph or an argument. They can also push you to apply for that job you think is out of your league or pull you out – sometimes with the smell of a freshly baked dish – of a phrase that should have been finished hours earlier.
3) I think coaching should accompany every academic career. I don’t mean here the coaching offered by our mentors, family, and friends. I mean the coaching offered by a professional who can objectively assess, evaluate, and guide you on a weekly or monthly basis. I think this kind of accompaniment would result in less stressful and more productive academic lives.
Thank you for reading.
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Cristina Teleki, PhD
International Committee of the Red Cross
Global Governance Centre | Switzerland
Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Teleki’s work?
You may follow Dr. Teleki’s work on LinkedIn.
To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult the following publications.
Cristina Teleki, Prisoners of War and Other Detainees in the Peace Settlement in Ukraine, upcoming in Opinio Juris.
Cristina Teleki, The Future of Humanitarian Work in Light of Digitalisation, April 2022, https://www.inside-it.ch/dsi-insights-die-zukunft-der-humanitaeren-arbeit-in-einer-digitalen-welt-20220408
Cristina Teleki, Detainee Operations in Ukraine – Risk or Opportunity for International Law?, Journal of International Humanitarian Legal Studies, Volume 12, Issue 1, 2021, https://brill.com/view/journals/ihls/12/1/article-p111_111.xml
Cristina Teleki, The Right to a Fair Trial in European Competition Law: The Influence of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Brill Nijhoff, 2021, https://brill.com/view/title/59494
Illustrations by: The main article photo is by DDP, downloaded from Unsplash, courtesy of Wix.com photo gallery. The profile photo included on this page was made available by the interviewee.
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