Landing in Aceh, on the north-west tip of Sumatra, days after the catastrophic Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, Tirana Hassan was already beyond burnout.
She had spent months in Darfur, western Sudan, supporting people displaced by conflict with aid organisation Save the Children. As the crisis escalated, four colleagues had been killed, forcing the charity to close operations.
In Aceh, things were no less grim. “There were bulldozers being used to put bodies into mass graves,” she recalls. “We were setting up the operation — so you’re working 20-hour days — but you are compelled by the need to respond.”
The memory has stuck with Hassan, who was appointed executive director of Human Rights Watch, an international charity, in March. Her job means taking responsibility for more than 500 employees in some of the world’s most hostile environments.
It ranges from ensuring psychosocial support is available to balancing risks to employees. As executive director she tries to demonstrate that “it’s OK not to be OK” and knows from experience how much pressure is on staff.
“There are actual chemical imbalances that take place in this work when you operate with such urgency,” she says. “That has consequences.” When she returned to Europe from Aceh, she was desperate to shut herself off. But deep down, she knew she needed to reach out for help.
“I had seen way too many of my colleagues and friends in the humanitarian space turn to alcohol and isolate themselves and really struggle. I didn’t want to be there,” she says. “I wouldn’t even say it was depression . . . it was the need to heal.”
Hassan, who has also worked for Médecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund had big shoes to fill at HRW. Kenneth Roth, her predecessor, led the organisation for nearly 30 years.
Though still in the first months of her tenure Hassan is leading an organisation-wide review of HRW’s “investigate, expose, change” strategy. There is an internal view that uncovering abuses and naming and shaming perpetrators has little effect in some countries, and reticence about being another western organisation telling developing countries what to do. Staff expect the result could be a shift from blanket to refined approaches depending on each jurisdiction.
The understanding Hassan brings to the process draws on more than professional experience. Born in Singapore, her family was forced to move to Australia in the 1970s after her father, who had researched the city-state’s housing policies, was targeted in a crackdown on dissent.
After working as a social worker, she put herself on the front lines across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, including working with survivors of sexual violence. An immigrant herself, she is outraged as a worsening refugee crisis is met with hardening anti-migrant sentiment across the globe.
“It started with the Australians — who decided with the ‘Pacific solution’ to put refugees and asylum seekers on small Pacific islands,” she says. “It evolved into the EU-Turkey deal, and now we have this abhorrent proposal from the UK government about relocating refugees to Rwanda for processing.”
This “externalisation” trend, she says, is “not only impacting the most vulnerable people in the world, but it’s also just a blatant violation of international refugee obligations”.
HRW’s job is to document and expose these abuses. It also makes policy recommendations, including a 94-page report that in 2021 examined successful alternatives to detaining migrants.
It can feel like an uphill battle. While the response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis showed the international community is able to do better, it is usually slow to mobilise, says Hassan.
One challenge for her leadership is technological advances that allow governments to surveil and control groups in new ways. But the threat is also an opportunity, because HRW staff can use technology such as drones to operate in greater security while compiling evidence of abuse.
“We now operate in a way where we’re not just saying ‘that bad thing has happened’, and that we spoke to somebody or we saw it. We can back that up with 20 videos that we have done digital forensic analysis on, we can back it up with satellite imagery, which verifies what we heard from the eyewitnesses,” says Hassan.
She points to China’s repression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. “That is a perfect example where the facts were being dismissed and it wasn’t until you actually had satellite images of these re-education camps, showing that they were getting bigger and bigger, that you really saw a significant change.”
Still, she is quick to point out that conducting digital forensics takes its toll on staff — whether they are on the ground or monitoring material remotely. “To work in the most extreme settings where you are exposed to violence and human suffering . . . it’s not normal for anyone to absorb,” says Hassan.
With long personal experience of such atrocities, missed opportunities weigh heavily on Hassan’s shoulders. In 2017 she stood on the banks of the Naf River as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar fled burning villages for Bangladesh.
“That was truly biblical: people holding their babies and whatever they could grab, a few cooking pots and maybe a chicken, above their head as they waded across the river,” says Hassan.
Yet five years on, nearly 1mn are still held in Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp, and Myanmar’s military leaders are back in power. In July, HRW slammed Bangladeshi authorities for failing to protect Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar against surging violence from armed groups and criminal gangs. Hassan believes that if more had been done earlier, the current situation could have been prevented.
“The narrative was: there’s a refugee crisis in Bangladesh,” she says. “We knew full well that something very dark was happening on the other side.”
The child of a Malaysian-born Sri Lankan and Chinese mother and Pakistani father whose family left India during partition, Hassan has been surprised at the importance of her background in her role.
“I’ve received messages from a lot of people who have said that it means something to them to see people that they can relate to, with a background that resonates with them, and with a cultural perspective that they recognise, to be in a position like this,” she says.
“People from immigrant communities, women, women of colour, they’ve always been able to do these jobs. The only thing that’s changed is that societies and hiring committees have caught up with that reality.”
Leaders must wake up to a “global reckoning” demanding more equitable organisations, Hassan adds, though her own has stopped short of implementing quotas. HRW “hires qualified candidates for the jobs that they are in”, including language skills and local networks, she explains. “Our staff increasingly represent that diversity.”
She calls on her background, too, when striking a work-life balance. Though at an age when many of her friends — aid workers and journalists — are writing books, her diversions are less highbrow.
“I just like watching cooking shows,” she says. “I find them so therapeutic. I’m Asian, basically every conversation revolves around food.”