Alumni newsletter - Where hope springs
An unexpected revolution marked the start of a new era for one former associate…
In 2010, Elham Saudi left us to pursue her dream of improving human rights in Libya.
Co-founding the Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) non-government organisation, she duly enrolled for an LLM in International Law from SOAS at the University of London.
Little did she realise that just months later, she would be taking her place on the front line.
"To be honest, I just assumed I would be looking to improve human rights within the constraints of the existing Gaddafi regime," she says. "But then the Arab Spring took place and everything was turned on its head."
Elham will never forget that time. "Even after the events in Tunisia and Egypt, it came as a big surprise," she says. "What you have to remember is that 67 percent of Libyans had been born under Gaddafi's rule, so it never really felt as though such a thing could happen to us. Trying to finish my LLM and reacting to events meant that I found myself drafting my dissertation in lobbies whilst waiting to meet state representatives on behalf of LFJL at the UN."
While the 2011 revolution may have come as a shock, Elham is no stranger to war. Leaving Libya with her parents at the age of two, the family initially settled in Bahrain before the Gulf War soon forced them to London. Having fallen in love with the UK capital, 12-year-old Elham asked her parents for permission to remain at school there instead of accompanying them back to Bahrain.
Making it count
In spite of this, Elham's home country was never far from her mind. "I was very much raised as a Libyan," she explains, "although that wasn't such a positive thing if you were living in London during the early '90s. We were very much seen as the enemy after the Lockerbie air disaster, so I spent a lot of time trying to show people I was different. That's why the Arab Spring was so exciting: it felt like an opportunity for people to see another side to Libya."
After graduating from the American School in London, Elham headed to Oxford to undertake a degree in Arabic and Modern Middle Eastern Studies before making a return to the capital in 2003 as a trainee with Slaughter and May.
Although happily focused on her legal career with the firm, which saw her practising corporate and commercial law for clients including Arsenal Football Club and Cadbury, Elham had long dreamed of righting the wrongs of the world. "Law was a natural step for me, but deep down I knew that simply trying to help Libya from the sidelines wasn't going to be enough for me."
She continues: "I loved the firm and loved the work, so ended up staying much longer than I had originally planned. Eventually, I reached that make or break moment as an associate where I either had to commit to going for partnership – or leave.
It wasn't an easy decision by any means, but something former partner, Christopher Smith said at the time had a profound effect on me: 'It's at moments like these, that we realise we hired the right people, because even though you're leaving, you're doing it for all the right reasons.' Those words have stayed with me ever since."
Eight years on and Elham continues to enjoy very close ties with her colleagues at Slaughter and May. "I'm like that annoying child who just won't leave home," she laughs. "However hard they try they just can't seem to shake me off! In all seriousness though, the firm is like my legal family and has been vital to LFJL's survival.
"To this day, my former colleagues continue to lend their minds to a range of organisational issues such as leases, employment contracts and the switch from company to charitable status – all on a pro bono basis. Retired partner, Andrew Balfour (who is now Chairman of the firm's Africa Practice Group) is also the chair of our board of trustees, so in a lot of ways I truly feel as though I haven't lost the best part of the firm, its people and the collegiate support it provides."
While the substance of law may be different in the field of human rights, Elham reveals she has stayed true to her training. "I was very much inspired by the partnership approach at Slaughter and May, which put the client at the heart of everything – so if you look at the way I pitch things, talk about my clients or run meetings, it's all very much the same. The only difference is that I've replaced a client with a victim."
The realities of war
Coping with threats to her personal safety was something the firm could not prepare Elham for, however. After practising out of Libya between 2011 and 2014, she found herself among 20 women targeted for assassination. To date, two of the women on the list have been killed, with many more of LFJL's partners kidnapped or killed. Elham has not travelled back to her home country since.
"Seeing yourself on a list like that is a very surreal feeling," she says, "and all your brain can really do to try and protect you is to downplay the threat. Absurdly, I was fixated on the superficial aspect of it, complaining to my husband about the picture they used. I made him promise that if something did happen to me, he would only release a more flattering picture I had personally authorised!"
She continues: "It's fair to say my family's feelings about all this go up and down, with everyone obviously caring far more about me than any cause. But on a day-to-day basis, the work I do at LFJL just feels like any other job – albeit without the stability. I do have a child now though, so the stakes are much higher, which is one of the main reasons I haven't returned."
Given the current climate, does Elham feel that things can ever improve in Libya?
"It takes a lot to undo 42 years of dictatorship," she says. "Right now, the situation is awful. The treatment of migrants is one of the biggest issues we face, with almost a million of them still in the country and many subject to the most heinous human rights abuses, including slavery, torture and rape, so our #routestojustice initiative is working to bring cases on their behalf.
"But I'm endlessly optimistic that we're just at the start of the transition and that things will get better, because a lot of people are putting everything into it and won't give up. I don't expect that to be in my lifetime, but I would hope change will happen during my daughter’s."
Elham Saudi is the co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya (libyanjustice.org). She is also an Associate Fellow in the International Law Programme at Chatham House.