Young lawyer poses at Peace Palace Gardens in The Hague, Netherlands

For Justice Will Travel

Sheila Paylan’s lifelong quest for human rights around the world


When we last spoke with Sheila Paylan, she was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, working in the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, focused on the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. This had followed her work on the Rwandan Genocide Tribunal in Tanzania, and the ex-Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. After moving to Armenia, the peripatetic international human rights attorney had most recently returned to Africa under the aegis of the United Nations Human Rights Council, this time to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she has been working with Congolese military prosecutors, and the Congolese police on crimes related to sexual violence. 

“At the tribunals, I was working on the adjudication of atrocities that had happened 20 years prior. But by the time the case reached an adjudicative stage, if evidence wasn’t wasn’t collected properly or a witness was not interviewed properly, sometimes our hands were tied. I wanted to get closer chronologically to when an atrocity or an event occurred; I wanted to be part of the investigation phase.” 

It was so fantastic to see that there was no bloodshed, there were no tanks in the streets, there’s no civil war; it was truly a free and fair election. I was so proud.

Paylan was appointed by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to a select team of international experts mandated by the UN Human Rights Council as its Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Specialist. And where many would find it difficult to maintain the dispassion needed in a career based on reading and reporting details of horrific war crimes, Paylan has in recent years sought to sharpen her lens on these human rights atrocities. Her experience in Cambodia had shown how beneficial it was for the local community to see a courtroom packed with witnesses every day and the effect those optics have on the reconciliation of society. Though she returned to international tribunals at The Hague, following her work in Cambodia, she missed that connection to the local affected population.  

Paylan explains that the trend now is to try to bring justice into domestic jurisdictions, rather than wait for trials to make their way through the International Criminal Court. Her work for the UN is focused on the continued empowerment of states to deal with these crimes internally first. Only when a state is either unwilling or unable to seek accountability for crimes that occur within its territory or jurisdiction, would it then turn to the international community for adjudication. So crimes and atrocities that happened decades earlier, and may have been poorly documented, inch their way through the court. In her current work, Paylan plays a key role on integrated teams that often include forensic pathologists and anthropologists, who may, for example, examine mass graves. Paylan’s work includes guiding state agents to recognize how to identify, prevent, and hold to account, atrocities perpetrated not only in the recent past, and how to recognize them if they occur in the future.  

“There are other human rights officers that monitor, document, report; but my role is specifically to lend technical assistance and capacity building to the government. My area of expertise is conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence. It’s very narrow, but it’s specific to ensuring justice and accountability for sexual and gender-based violent crimes, which are used as weapons of war. Unfortunately, in many states, these kinds of crimes are underreported, either because they’re not recognized culturally, or such heinous incidents are considered ‘spoils of war’.” 

She continues, “We address often intractable issues, for example, how can troops be expected to refrain from committing war crimes if they don’t even know what a war crime is? War inevitably entails killing, that’s part of war, but there are differences between killing one way or killing another that could end up being a war crime.” 

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Young lawyer speaks to a women on a United Nations mission in the interior of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Young lawyer speaks to a women on a United Nations mission in the interior of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Paylan on a United Nations mission in the interior of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Her work in international human rights is not limited to wielding her expertise in the crucial area of gender-based violence. In the aftermath of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Paylan provided expert advice to various departments and ministries of the Government of Armenia on matters of international law. She frequently is called upon to speak, write and participate on panels about the war and its aftermath, on the concept of remedial secession, and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and its application to the war, as she did in April on a panel for the University of California Los Angeles’ Promise Institute for Human Rights.  

For the University of Southern California Institute of Armenian Studies, Paylan addressed a variety of questions about the application of the instruments of justice in the aftermath of the Second Karabakh War. She discussed what conventions and statutes apply, and which accountability mechanisms can be triggered when war crimes are committed. As she noted, Armenia recently ratified the Convention of Use and Recruitment of Mercenaries, and has long been a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. In Paylan’s view, it is incumbent on the international community to form a transitional justice, truth and reconciliation commission with a victim-centered approach to address the most serious human rights violations of the war. As destructive as the war was to the region, Paylan notes, it is promising that despite the continued presence of Russian peacekeepers, the government of the Republic of Artsakh has managed to function as a state, even if its people live in limbo and precariousness. 

Most recently, she was invited to speak at a conference on International Religious Freedom and Peace at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, where she discussed the responsibility to protect cultural heritage and prevent or punish cultural genocide under international law. She argued that the doctrine of R2P should be extended to preserving cultural heritage, particularly as the destruction thereof usually goes hand-in-hand with mass atrocities against protected groups and populations, and showed that accountability before international courts for cultural crimes is possible.  

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Two panelists, man and woman at the International Religious Freedom and Peace Conference
Two panelists, man and woman at the International Religious Freedom and Peace Conference
Paylan served as a panelist at the International Religious Freedom and Peace Conference held at the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin on September 8-12, 2021.

Paylan also weighed in on the culpability of social media platforms in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Writing for the online journal Law.com, she points out that “social media was awash with anti-Armenian content throughout the war. In light of long-standing Azerbaijani state-sponsored anti-Armenian hatred that, despite having been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights, has continued to fuel the ongoing conflict, one could argue that Twitter and Facebook contributed to the crimes against ethnic Armenians by failing to sufficiently monitor and censor their platforms.” 

Yet, despite all she has witnessed in her global work, Paylan describes herself as an optimist. She sees progress in that there are more trials and more accountability across the world in combatting gross human rights violations. Lamenting that impunity for crimes that shock the conscience of mankind remains the norm rather than the exception, she believes that an increase in prosecutions and investigations is sign of progress, regardless of whether they result in convictions.  

Following her work in the Congo, Paylan plans to return to Armenia, where in Yerevan she has established her base. It is there that the Montreal-born Paylan feels most at home, having lived and travelled extensively for the past 15 years. After graduating from McGill University, first with an undergraduate degree in psychology, and then with common law and civil law degrees that piqued her interest in international criminal and humanitarian law, she pursued further studies in international refugee law, protection of human rights, the law of treaties and the law of the seas at University of London, obtaining her master’s degree there in Public International Law.  

With a career that by its very definition mandates extensive travel, Paylan has found living in her ancestral home provides the grounding so necessary to counterbalance her frequent-flyer profession. Paylan now deliberately seeks assignments that don’t separate her from Armenia for long stretches. She will also continue to provide expert legal advice as a consultant to a variety of international organizations, non-governmental organizations, think-tanks, and governments.

While not every region in which she has worked has shirked off the mantle of authoritative oppression, Paylan sees much hope and progress in Armenia today, enthusiastically declaring it “the best place!” Chief among the positive signs were the recent elections of June 2021.  

“It was so fantastic to see that there was no bloodshed, there were no tanks in the streets, there’s no civil war; it was truly a free and fair election. I was so proud,” Paylan adds, “My mother back in Canada was like, 'Don’t go outside!' and I assured her all was calm, and I was not even exaggerating to mollify her.”  

“Whatever everyone’s differences may have been,” she adds, “Armenia really stood up. To me, Armenia stands out in the region as a very mature democracy. It’s something we can all be proud of.” 

Banner photo by Jeroen Bouman.

Sheila Paylan is a proud alumna of AGBU Camp Nubar. 

Originally published in the 2021-12-01​ issue of AGBU Insider. end character

About the AGBU Insider

AGBU Insider profiles extraordinary AGBU program alumni across a diverse set of industries and passions. With exclusive interviews and photography, each issue reveals the Armenian impact on society, community, and industry.