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Prof. Paola Gaeta, PhD


"I believe that women have incredible resources since we are educated to try to excel
at everything we touch."

Professor Paola Gaeta shares what she most enjoyed while working at the ICTY,
how she pushes and supports her students, how to organise family if you commute internationally and how COVID-19 changed her approach to teaching.

Dear Paola, you are a professor in international law at the Graduate Institute Geneva. Initially, you were planning to become a diplomate or a journalist. Why did you choose to pursue a career in academia instead?

Concerning diplomacy, I realised very soon, by attending the courses to prepare in diplomacy, that this was not to the world I liked the most. I then started trying to pursue a career in different fields, but I did not get the relevant scholarships. In the end, I went down a different career path. At this point, I met an academic researcher, a lecturer in international law, who was my teacher. He suggested I apply for a PhD. Essentially, everything started by coincidence, when I did not succeed in some of my ideal career paths in the very beginning and this was perhaps my destiny.

However, I must say the magic encounter was Professor Antonio Cassese, who was my supervisor at a European University Institute, where I was pursuing my PhD. That was the most important initial step on my career path, because he was a generous man and a fantastic mentor. He helped me a lot in my academic career, and now I try to do the same with the young scholars that I meet now in Geneva, or anywhere else.

You were nominated as an ordinary professor within seven years after your PhD, an incredibly short time. How did having a mentor help you in pursuing your career?

Professor Cassese helped me a lot. He was pushing me to publish, to work extremely hard and to never stop during this very important time at the beginning of my career. I was working like mad, not taking any holidays or weekends. I had to get a good reputation by consolidating my list of publications. For Professor Cassese it was imperative that I publish in English – which I was not very good in back then – as opposed to Italian.

Often, I was very self-critical and thought articles were not yet perfect. This is the typical Cinderella complex many women have – thinking they are never (good) enough. In these times, Professor Cassese would convince me that my work was good and ready to publish. Luckily, he was right most of the times.

It is true that in Italy this was considered a very fast career since for each position (lecturer, associate professor, full professor) we have to pass public competitions and I did all these three steps within seven years. However, I would like to reiterate that I was working a lot.

You joined the ICTY as a legal assistant in the Appeals Chamber and Prof. Antonio Cassese, your mentor, was the president and judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). What is your most striking memory from that time?


I have a lot of memories of this incredibly enriching experience. Unfortunately, these were also sad years for me because my father passed away. Furthermore, I had to finish my PhD thesis, so I was working hard during the day for the Appeals Chambers, doing research and then in evening writing my thesis.

Since I was working for the ICTY as a legal assistant in the Appeals Chamber, President Cassese asked the Peace Palace library to give me a special permission, to search for the books directly on the shelves (which are not accessible directly to the public) without having to go through the librarian.

The library of the Peace Palace in the Hague is a heaven for every international lawyer, because it is one of the oldest libraries in international law in Europe. There are floors of books and journals, which were obviously even more important back in the time when we did not have much literature available on the internet. Basically, people had to go to the Hague to do the research.

I used this advantage of having access to the library for researching for my thesis from time to time. For me, the access to that heaven of books and journals was pure magic.

You were inter alia assigned to the Erdemovic case. Erdemović was a member of a unit of the Bosnian Serb Army. He participated, as part of a firing squad, in the shooting and killing of hundreds of unarmed Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica at the nearby Pilica collective farm.* How did you manage to be faced with such atrocities in your daily work life?

Working for the Appeals Chamber gave me the possibility to not necessarily work on the merits and stay in the court room where the actual trials were taking place, but rather reviewing the cases of the Trial Chamber.

I was therefore protecting myself from the atrocities that one had to listen to in the courtroom. Because – I must confess – that is something that I could not bear. I work on international criminal law and therefore am dealing with at all sorts of crimes as a researcher.

One example I vividly remember is when I once had to listen to the testimony of a Bosnian Serb – an old man – in a case where some young Bosnians Muslims were accused of having committed atrocities against the Serbs. And the testimony he gave was extremely moving. The Prosecutor asked this old man – the neighbours of whom had attempted to burn down his house and kill his family – who had committed all these atrocities. And the old man turned his head to the defendants and replied, “it was them, and I have known them since they were children. They were playing close to me – why did you do this to me?” He then started crying. After this day, I never put my foot in a courtroom again because you need to be very strong to do this job. I continued working in the Tribunal as a lawyer and therefore was dealing with this, but distant from the courtroom and with the protection of a deskwork on the law that applies in a case. However, I very much admire everyone who is much bolder and much stronger than I am and can work in this field in a more concrete manner.

I believe that everyone has to find an own place in the world. One has to ask oneself: how is my personality and what are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? If one answers these questions, it is easier to find that place in the world where one fits.

I found mine. I could never work as a judge, as a prosecutor or as a defence lawyer for these crimes. But I can teach students about the law to be applied but also that they should never forget that behind the law, there are people who have suffered, not only the victims, but also the perpetrators. One shall never forget that behind a case and the courtroom there are human beings who have suffered and perhaps continue to suffer.

Do you have any recommendations for young legal professionals who are interested in working for international criminal tribunals?

First of all, not to consider that it is all shiny and fantastic, because it is hard work. Second, consider that one might not necessarily like to do this forever. Third, one has to be very much convinced that it is the career path that one wants to pursue.

The best advice I can give, is that one has to pursue one’s dreams and try to reach them. I often tell my students, who believe they are not good enough to pursue a specific career path, that nothing is too difficult if one really strives to reach it.

At the beginning of your career as a professor, you were working 50% in Florence and 50% in Geneva, while your husband and your daughter were living in Milan. How did you both tackle this challenge?

While not wanting to enforce gender biases, I believe that women have incredible resources since we are educated to try to excel at everything we touch. And this in every field of our life, not just professionally.

I think that women are taught to meet the expectations in a variety of fields, to work hard, to try to achieve many things at the same time, to always consider every aspect of what we do and to make sacrifices. I am not saying that men are not doing so. But according to my experience this is what I see in women around me and what I believe of myself. Many women around me achieve miracles. They combine academic work with childcare and family and many more things.

So, when the challenge arose of working in two different countries, I decided to try my best. Of course, I was relying on a fantastic husband. I remember my mother saying that my husband was a poor man because of everything he did and since he had to look after our daughter while I was in Geneva. We both had to be very organised. Furthermore, I believe I had a lot of energy.

However, working non-stop is not the advice I now give to my younger colleagues, I always tell them, on the contrary, to not to forget to take some weekends and holidays without a computer. Because we shall not forget that there is also something else besides finding meaning in work. We need to take the time for our beloved ones and ourselves.

Thereafter, you have been trying different models. For example, your daughter has lived with you while your husband commuted. All of you have also lived together in Milan. Any recommendations to young working parents on how to balance work and family in an international setting?

Organisation is the key. You must be ready to live with the choice you make, because, clearly, in academia there are not many opportunities. My husband is also an academic and, therefore, the universities at which we teach are not necessarily in the same place. Since my husband already had a job that he liked when I got the offer to work in Geneva, it was clear that one of us had to commute internationally if none of us wanted to give up the opportunities we had.

Sometimes, men who work in academia try to negotiate a job for their partner. I believe this is a good practice. I never thought about doing the same for my husband.

Luckily, I have a husband that agrees that just because I am a woman I do not need to stay at home or close to him and cook for him on a daily basis. At times when I was thinking about resigning to move back to Florence full time or find another job in Milan, he has been extremely supportive and reminded me that I would regret that choice further down the line since I am an international lawyer and Geneva is a very good environment for people working in international law. Geneva is a dream for many lawyers in this field.

We have been managing for 20 years. Of course, it is tiring but I have met younger and junior colleagues that do even longer distances. While I think this is extremely tiring, it is also enriching. Furthermore, I do not think it is a bad thing to have a break from each other as a couple from time to time. It gives both partners some space. However, as soon as children come into play it is important that they have stability, at least until they become young adults.

You have worked in the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland. Did you observe any differences in the balance of work and family and what could the three countries learn from each other in this respect?

That is a difficult question. In Italy, we very much rely on family and friends and our network.

Personally, I found it more difficult to work in Geneva, Switzerland, as a woman because of the school of my daughter. The schedules with time off during on Wednesdays and during lunch time are challenging. Therefore, as a parent, you have to decide whether or not to have the child attending the canteen and the so-called 'parascolaire'. This is a difficult choice since the other children usually have grandparents or the mother who take some time off or work part-time. For me, it was quite challenging to organise my work around the school schedule of my daughter. Adding to this, I had noticed that women working in the administration of the university usually did not work full time, but rather 60 or 80% in order to be able to take care of the children on Wednesdays for example. As a university professor, the school schedule did not make any sense to me since I have to work continuously. You are always answering emails of students and preparing classes, correcting papers, preparing your papers to be published, etc.

What I found difficult as well was the way society was expecting that I stay with my daughter on Wednesdays. When I newly arrived in Geneva, I did not want to leave her at school over lunch, so I moved heaven and earth to pick her up over lunch. I then had to make up the work at night to keep up with a variety of deadlines I had, not only as a professor, but as a director of the Geneva Academy. Furthermore, I wanted to spend time with my daughter and did not want to have a babysitter all while not having any family in Geneva that could have helped with looking after my daughter.

Luckily, I had (and still have) a very, very good daughter. She was used to see her mother in front of the laptop on Wednesdays and I on the other hand tried to do my best at organising my free time, but it was a big challenge.

Personally, I do not think that it is fair that women have to work part-time in order to accommodate around the school schedule. Men could do their fair share. That is where the next problem arises. In most cases, the men earn more and then it also becomes a financial decision for the family.

As an expert in public international law, you also work as a legal advisor in international disputes from time to time and pro-bono. What are the reasons for your engagement on top of your work as a professor?

This is an ethical commitment. My approach to law is not to make money. Teaching and academic research is a vocation. To me law can be the means to achieve a better world and make progress in our societies. Therefore, whenever I have the opportunity to offer my services to the community, I take it.

The kind of legal advice I give pro bono would concern cases of torture or, just recently, I have been providing pro bono legal advice in relation to the assertion of Italian jurisdiction over crimes committed in the high sea by the so-called Libyan coast guards against a boat with migrants who tried to reach the Italian coasts. These are cases where I can put my knowledge to use for the good.

Back to your day-to-day work as a professor. What did you learn from teaching remote as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic?

My style of teaching changed enormously. Before, I felt that when I went in front of a class, I had to teach them. It felt like a responsibility to perform which actually gave me some anxiety. This led to me not being relaxed.

However, by teaching students online, I felt like I invited them to my home through the screen. At the same time, we had to arrange many small group meetings, helping the students to do presentations, which led to me working more continuously with them then I could ever have in person.

It is much harder to establish a real relationship with students if you have to go home or somewhere else after class. I also realised that students who would not take the floor in class are easier to encourage to take the floor online.

I want to take these lessons learnt into the physical classroom. I will try to regularly interact with my students in smaller groups between the classes and give them smaller assignments so I can mentor them.

Nowadays, the students do not have any difficulty to access knowledge, having the internet and many other valuable resources. The challenge is for them to learn how to use the knowledge they can acquire from these sources, how to structure reasoning, how to write a paper, how to express oneself, how to make a good argument, how to enhance their soft skills, etc. Basically, they have to learn to present a reflection of the knowledge they have acquired. This is something that you can achieve, I have learned, by mentoring them and make sure they have interactions with the other students. In short, I believe that the role of a professor is now more to advise on the use of knowledge then to transfer knowledge.

My classes have become much more interactive, even though I never believed my classes were not interactive enough.

I strongly believe that fresh minds are very important. I continue to learn immensely from students – it is incredible. They always ask the good questions that make me think – which is nice.

What are the challenges that you encounter(ed) as a female professor?

I always thought that I had to demonstrate that I was just as good as a male colleague. I do not know whether this was a challenge I had imposed on myself. However, I had no female role model back in the days. Ever professor I had and knew was a man.

I had to learn along the way, but nowadays I do not feel like I have to prove myself anymore to anyone and I can be myself. Which is also a message that I try to pass to my students. I feel much more fulfilled and happier this way since I am more in contact with my true nature. The fact that times have changed and that I now also have female colleagues must have helped as well.

What do you think still needs to be done in academia to better promote female students and professors?

That is a difficult question. I think it is not only in academia but in our society and academia is merely the mirror of society. If we want change, change must happen in our daily lives.

Finding the way for oneself, how to do one’s part is important. Myself, I do it by encouraging and helping, in particular, young female academic professionals in their career path as much as I can. One example is our new podcast “Lethal autonomous weapons: 10 things we want to know”. We are mainly women co-hosting the podcast and appearing in the episodes.

The game will only change when everyone takes responsibility to not feel envy of others and to contribute whatever they love to do. This will help with all the issues, gender, parity, no gender, human rights, and government.

What advice would you give to young female students and in particular those who want to pursue an academic career?

They do not necessarily have to behave the same as men. But this, I am not saying that man do not behave in a good way. I have fantastic colleagues who are men. It’s just that some female colleagues do not like to show during lectures that they have academic power and that they are intelligent. It is a different attitude.

As I said, some women may have a bit of the Cinderella complex. They think that they do not enough and are not enough. Unfortunately, female students I meet sometimes show these complexes. As I mentioned before, I also felt like I needed to work harder than my male colleagues when I was younger. Again, this needs to change in society.

We have to be proud to be women and to be different.

Which female lawyer would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and for which reasons?

Louise Arbour, who is a Canadian and wonderful jurist. She has been the first female prosecutor of the ICTY.

Another fantastic lawyer is the lovely Mona Rishmawi who works as a prominent senior legal officer at the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She's fantastic. I like her very much for what she does and how she works within the UN in a difficult role which also include the ability to speak to political power and understand the political context.

I really adore Gabriella Citroni as well. She has been recently nominated as a member of the UN Commission for Enforced Disappearances, a field she specialises in. She is a fantastic activist, as well as a researcher and lecturer in Milan. Furthermore, she has a really big heart.

Cecile Aptel who also has worked as a senior legal advisor for the High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has also been working for international tribunals and worked in Ruanda for many years. She is another exceptional lawyer.

All of the above are really wonderful women.

Thank you very much for your time and this interview!

Geneva/Morges, 25th of August 2021. The interview was conducted by Audrey Canova.

* Ed. Note:

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