Graduate Brings Two UConn Law Degrees and Clinical Experience to U.N. Job

Knowledge acquired through the Human Rights and Social Justice LLM program and training in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic prepared Fatimata Belem for a tough job with the United Nations.

Fatimata Belem is a joint operations officer with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, West Africa. (Contributed photo)

Twice a month, UConn Law graduate Fatimata Belem boards a helicopter with her colleagues and flies a few hundred kilometers from their United Nations mission base in Timbutku, Mali, to a remote town or city for peacekeeping activities.

One of her most recent trips was led by the mission’s Justice and Corrections Division to provide security and support for a judge to safely conduct a public hearing. With the aid of the U.N. Police and the military, escorts were provided to civilians and the hearing commenced. While the main purpose of the trip was to support judicial activities, other divisions of the mission, such as Human Rights and Civil Affairs, used the opportunity to conduct other activities, such as assessing the environment on the ground.

Before joining the United Nations staff, Belem completed two LLM degrees at the UConn School of Law, one in Human Rights and Social Justice in 2017 and another in U.S. Legal Studies in 2018.

Now a joint operations officer with the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, Belem spends most of her time preparing for peacekeeping and fact-finding trips, coordinating with civilians, military and police to ensure that they run smoothly. She also provides situational awareness to U.N. leadership, relaying information to the Bamako and New York offices regarding political, security, human rights, humanitarian and operational concerns. And she  plays a key role in crisis management, organizing and implementing communication between offices so that leadership can make informed decisions when a crisis occurs.

“It’s a tough working environment but a very good field experience,” Belem  said, explaining that Mali is a hot spot for violence against civilians and requires a U.N. presence.

Belem is originally from Burkina Faso, adjacent to Mali in West Africa, and her education has taken her all over the globe. She received her first degree, a bachelor’s in law, from the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. She then earned a master’s degree in European Studies from the University of Geneva in Switzerland before moving to New York for work and then to Connecticut to attend UConn Law.

Before starting her current staff position, Belem volunteered for the U.N. Mission in Bamako, Mali, as a human rights reporting officer. She monitored the human rights and international humanitarian law situation there, creating internal and public reports and occasionally investigating on the ground.

Belem credits her international experience with preparing her for the multinational environment that she now lives and works in.

“You’ve got colleagues from everywhere,” she said. “Our colleague from Bhutan, I was telling him, this is my first time seeing someone from Bhutan. Others are from the U.S., Canada, Pakistan, Jordan, South Sudan — all over the place.”

Belem said she chose to study at UConn Law for the training offered through  the Human Rights and Social Justice LLM program and the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, which offers students the opportunity to represent people fleeing persecution in their home countries. During her time at UConn, Belem participated in the clinic and took courses, such as international criminal law and international human rights law, that she has used in her roles with the United Nations.

“I think these are extremely helpful to me, especially when I was working at the Human Rights and Protection Division in Bamako,” Belem said. “You really have to have a good command of international humanitarian law authority and the international human rights law, which is a class I took with Professor Molly Land.”

After graduation, Belem did immigration work in Connecticut while applying to positions with the United Nations. She credits the LLM program, along with her fluency in other languages, as a great advantage in landing her initial volunteer position and ultimately the full-time job she now holds.

Acknowledging that the application process is difficult, she advises LLM students to persevere.

“You just have to be determined, keep applying, applying and applying,” she said.