Lawyers like to say they go to “battle” in the courtroom and the boardroom. Here’s a lawyer that goes to battle — literally — the kind with bullets, drones and rockets. Meet Anna Neistat. She crosses borders under cover of darkness, engages in car chases with militants and gets interrogated by corrupt armed forces — and that’s just a Tuesday. I first met Anna when she was Associate Director for Program and Emergencies at Human Rights Watch; she has since joined Amnesty International as a Senior Director of Research, in Paris. E-Team, a feature-length documentary in which she stars, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to widespread acclaim. As I sat enthralled at the New York premiere, I was also meditating on the little I do each day to change the world like Anna does. Many of us go to law school with lofty ideals, but corporate practice has a way of grinding those altruistic notions to dust. During our talk, Anna was quick to point out that her job is not for everyone. To wit: She was five months pregnant when she went to investigate atrocities in Syria in 2012. That’s the mark of a true professional.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Anna Neistat: I grew up in Moscow in the ’80s, when it was still part of the Soviet Union, so I got a glimpse of what it means to live in a totalitarian country. Being a teenager at that time was the most amazing experience. The whole world was changing around us and we were all very, very political. We talked politics all the time. It was fascinating to compare what was written in our Soviet history books with what was said about the same events elsewhere. The experience gave me a sense that change is possible and that I could be a part of it. This affected my entire life and career.
At the time, my mom was a university professor, teaching chemistry and physics. My father’s a sculptor. I always called them quiet dissidents. They were never involved in active protest, but they never joined the Communist Party, which was difficult; it meant they couldn’t travel.
I went to a very elite school — in the eighties, “elite” meant being in-line with the Soviet establishment. At a very young age, students became members of the Young Pioneers. Think North Korea: We marched with banners, drums and trumpets; sang Soviet songs; competed in ridiculous exercises; and sat through hours of “political information” lectures. We had pioneer scarves and pins, but only wore them when somebody showed up to check. I encouraged my entire class to quit and almost got kicked out of school. Eventually, I was allowed to stay because I was a very good student.
When I go back, [my old teachers] are not surprised by what I do right now. I had a very acute sense of justice from a young age.
Law school was not my plan. My bachelor’s and master’s were in history and literature. While I pursued my studies, I worked on radio. My first assignment at the station was book reviews, but soon after, I fortuitously — like everything in this life — ran into a pretty incredible dissident. He had been a political prisoner and had an organization that dealt with prison issues. We decided to do a radio show on legal matters and human rights. So, at the age of 19, I had my first radio show called Mazes of Law (when I knew nothing about law or human rights).
Through the show, I met judges, lawyers, human rights activists and, eventually, Paulina Lupinskaya, the author of criminal procedure reform in Russia. She said, “You have to get a law degree; you can’t just continue talking about law.” So, I got my law degree, and started working on my Ph.D., in law and literature. My dissertation was on how literature was used in the early Soviet years to indoctrinate the public.
I never studied human rights law. I was always interested in criminal law and criminal procedure. My overall plan was to work in law enforcement, at least for a couple of years.
It never happened. I could never overcome my moral objections. In Russia, the system is incurably corrupt; in the U.S., it seemed that your level of independence vis-à-vis specific cases largely depended on the bosses’ political ambitions.
I got in to Harvard, and they were nice enough to offer me a full academic scholarship. But Harvard was, for me at least, a big disappointment. The academic program was not very strong, at least not in the area I specialized in. I probably would have been better off at NYU or Columbia, which had stronger criminal law programs. I expected something completely different from an LL.M. program. At Harvard, it was oriented towards foreign lawyers who needed to get 20 credits and pass the Bar exam. I didn’t have any plans to practice law in the U.S., especially not corporate law. But the program did teach me to write my résumé on one page. So much time was devoted to résumé writing and how to dress for interviews — a light grey suit was not acceptable, I had to wear dark blue. Look, Harvard was useful. It gave me a different approach to legal thinking — the Russian legal system and way of teaching is very different — it just was not the right choice for me. But it looks good on your résumé.
I’d never heard of the Bar exam before I went to Harvard. It was an excruciating and humiliating experience. But I did pass it, and that counted for a lot. I remember the director who hired me at Human Rights Watch introduced me to everybody, saying, “This is Anna, and she did this, and she just passed the Bar exam” — that was the moment when everyone’s eyes lit up. I have no idea why, because, for me, it was the world’s stupid exam. But clearly, in the U.S., it’s a stamp of being smart.
Harvard registers you for interviews, and you have to go, so I went a couple of times. During an interview with White & Case, the interviewer looked at my résumé and said to me, “You realize you’ll be extremely bored in our firm.” At that point, I said, “You know, you’re so right.” The salary numbers looked good, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t have any school debt, so there wasn’t an immediate need. Plus, that’s an advantage of growing up in a Communist country. Money was never an issue. My parents were never very well-to-do, but we were okay. They couldn’t even spend the money that they had. They couldn’t buy a car because there was no way to buy a car unless you had connections. They couldn’t buy furniture or, for God’s sake, shoes for their daughters, because there was nothing to buy. I guess that’s why my parents have a very easy attitude toward money. My sister and I grew up feeling like money was never an issue. My parents instilled in us the importance of having a job you love. You have to be happy to go to work, because if you don’t, you’re going to be miserable.
While I was still in Russia, I was an expert for the Open Society Institute. The institute was funding hundreds of human rights organizations in Russia; I was hired to analyze proposals and make funding recommendations. That gave me a good perspective on the human rights world — which organizations exist and what they do. I also started an NGO. This came about through my radio show. It dealt with pardon procedures in Russia and radio lectures on human rights and legal issues for prison inmates. The problem was that it was a smashing success — the rate of pardons skyrocketed, and as a result, the commission reviewing prisoners’ pardons was closed.
International human rights work was not part of my plans. I interviewed with the Department of Justice, the FBI, the World Bank and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. When an acquaintance sent me a Human Rights Watch ad for a Moscow director, I lazily looked at it because, first of all, I was not going to go back to Moscow. Also, I was trying to get away from human rights work, not get deeper into it. But when I read the job description, it read as if it was copied from my résumé. So I thought, “Why not!” I applied, and got the job — which was a big surprise. That was 13 years ago. I was 25. My Deputy Director was twice my age. They took a leap of faith.
Human Rights Watch loves hiring lawyers. Not everybody is a lawyer, but many people studied at Ivy League law schools. On average, they get 800 applications for every open position, which is fantastic, but that makes it very difficult to get into this field. It’s interesting, because HRW’s salary is fine, but it’s nothing compared to what all these people, myself included, could have made.
Knowledge of criminal law and criminal procedure helped me enormously. When drafting a letter or meeting with a prosecutor — in Chechnya, for example — I knew what to ask and how to ask it. Forensics, of course, was crucial. Knowing how to analyze a crime scene — photographs, witness testimony, material evidence — trains you to ask relevant, useful questions. Also, despite all my criticism of Harvard, my American legal training taught me legal analysis (what constitutes a legal violation, how to decipher and organize information to make your case and to how anticipate your opponent’s case), as well as legal writing.
Field research is crucial. Human Rights Watch compiles hours of meticulous interviews with witnesses, victims and perpetrators. It analyzes material evidence — traces from bullets, bullet marks, ammunition and weaponry. Sometimes, it includes forensic analysis — looking at a body or analyzing photographs of injuries. That’s how we built a case. Photographs and videos, collected by others, are used now, which creates a new challenge of authentication and verification. HRW also uses satellite imagery. For example, we looked into demolitions of neighborhoods in Syria. The next step is exposure — making sure that the results of these investigations are known to the public, working with the media, and, increasingly, social media. But the most important part is advocacy — building the strategy, identifying the key players and pushing for real change.
In addition to what I already mentioned, a law degree prepares you for when you get stopped or arrested [on the job] and need to talk your way out of the situation. You have to decide whether to use your female charm or your legal training, but, one way or the other, you have to get out of it.
I think you need to be cut in a particular way to do this work. You need to be able to keep your calm and keep your distance. But once you stop being emotionally affected by what you see, that is the time to quit. You need to establish an emotional connection. I’m there to collect testimony and show compassion because most of the people I speak to lived through some really horrible things. If you want to bring a human voice to the stories, you have to feel it in the first place.
Yes, but it’s not emotion. I have several male colleagues who are much more emotional and sensitive than I am. I think I’m maybe a little bit colder. But as a woman, it’s much easier to do this work in many ways — you can get to places where men can’t. You can hide under a burqa. Your access to witnesses is generally greater. For example, in a situation of sexual violence, it is basically impossible for a man. And women make the best witnesses.
Because they pay more attention to details, and they don’t try to make everything about themselves. [Laugh.]
It took me some time to be accepted, and I wonder whether it would have taken the same time if I were a guy. At a couple of security meetings, one of the bosses would say, “There is no way I would let this girl go in there.” I know he said it because he didn’t want me to get hurt, but it’s very difficult for me to imagine him saying something like that to a male researcher.
I went to Syria when I was five or six months pregnant. When I was seven months pregnant, my boss said, “There is no way you are going to Syria.” So I went to Lebanon instead. They didn’t want me to go to the camps in Jordan, because it was so hot. I was very pissed. Hundreds of pregnant women live in those camps! But in hindsight, it was probably a good idea.
My biggest problem was how to fit into a flak jacket.
That wasn’t very scary. It was very unpleasant, but I knew they were not going to kill us; they were not going to kidnap us. Most likely, they were not even going to beat us up, although some of them were drunk. I knew sooner or later we would get out of there. My main concern was that we were wasting time when we could be working.
We were subjects. The filmmakers had full creative control, and it was not an easy decision for HRW to make. But we eventually agreed, and I think it went very well — both in terms of process and outcome.
Editor’s Note: One of the cameramen on this documentary was James Foley, who was brutally murdered by the terrorist group ISIS. This was the final project he worked on before being kidnapped by ISIS in Syria.
I think it is an excellent way of showing the public — potentially millions of people, now that the film is on Netflix — what our work is all about, who does it and how and why we do it. The filmmakers managed to capture it in an exciting, human and relatable way.
There is a personal toll, no question. But there is also an incredible reward that is hard to get anywhere else: In these situations, you are exposed to some of the worst suffering and injustice, but also to the extraordinary resilience and courage of ordinary people. That is what you bring back — a lesson in how to live with dignity and purpose, regardless of what life throws at you.
No. When I think that is when I go to The Hague or the UN and try to convince people to do something, [and nobody takes action,] that’s when I feel weak.
Uzbekistan in 2005. There was a massacre — the government shot down a peaceful protest and many people, including many women and children, were killed. About 500 people managed to flee across the border to a refugee camp in Kyrgyzstan. I managed to sneak into Uzbekistan to complete an investigation. It was the first big exposé about what happened. We spent two months in those camps trying to convince the UN and some European countries to take the refugees, because Kyrgyzstan was not a safe location. After, it was one of those champagne moments — British Airways airplanes landed and got almost everyone out; 439 people got on those planes.
Sri Lanka was one of the most frustrating cases. In the last months of the war, in 2009, the country was completely closed to journalists and human rights organizations. When we managed to get into this war zone and realized that we were dealing with murder on a massive scale and had it documented. I had this feeling, if only we could bring it out, if only we could get it to the UN, to the countries that could do something, surely they would do something. I had multiple meetings at the UN, I testified before Congress, I wrote lots of articles, gave lots of interviews, and in the face of all this information, nothing was done. Seeing what the UN was doing — a combination of complicity and cover-up — was so frustrating and very disappointing. This job can be frustrating. It can be difficult, it can be challenging, and yet, there is nothing more rewarding.
Realizing that if I can help just one person, if I can change how people think about what they’re entitled to, if I can get through the veil of darkness that all perpetrators rely on and get to this person — someone being abused who thinks that nobody cares — if I can make at least one person understand that somebody does care, why would I do anything else?
Amnesty International is a massive grassroots movement, unlike Human Rights Watch. I am interested in looking into the potential of popular mobilization. At the same time, I think Amnesty can benefit from my research experience. It is a huge job and a huge challenge, but it is exciting and promising.
I travel more than the average parent, but I make the most of the time that I am at home. It’s difficult to be away from my kids, but I also love my job. Half of my scheduling issues are, “How can I make it back 12 hours earlier so I can go to a recital?” And I hope to give my children the most important thing my parents gave me: the understanding that people are happiest doing what they love. I’m hoping that if my kids can get the same from me, it will compensate for all the dinners that I didn’t make them at home.
He’s funny. He complains sometimes that, you know, “These other mothers, they’re home to make lunch and you’re not.” But at the same time, I think he would be the first one to brag about what his mom does. He does say, “I kind of do have the coolest parents in the world.”