“Deeply rewarding” career for Law alumna—Victoria Hallum

Is it any surprise for a well-travelled Kiwi who once called home an island in Canada’s immense Hudson Bay to be high up in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT)?

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Faculty of Law alumna Victoria Hallum is Chief International Legal Advisor at MFAT, a barrister and solicitor of the High Court, and has worked on high-profile cases that have made a huge difference to New Zealand’s global standing. These include the International Court of Justice’s “Nuclear Tests” case challenging France’s underground nuclear tests in the Pacific, the New Zealand-China Free-Trade Agreement, and the “Christchurch Call” on online terrorist content in the wake of the March 2019 mosque attacks. Victoria, who completed her Master of Laws (LLM) at the University in 2003, followed the road to MFAT after an itinerant childhood. “There’s a connection, I think. Those of us who grew up moving around feel quite normal with the foreign affairs rotational cycle where you are constantly changing.

“I was a New Zealander, but didn’t really live in New Zealand until I was 14. My parents were school teachers and they moved around a lot—for no particular reason other than inclination.

“We lived in various places in Canada, ranging from the big city of Toronto, to the Belcher Islands (Sanikiluaq) in the middle of Hudson Bay, in the Inuit part of Canada. And also Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick, in the eastern provinces. We had time in Spain too.”

She says she hasn’t come across many other Kiwis who lived in Hudson Bay.

After completing law and arts degrees at the University of Canterbury, and a few years in a large law firm, she got a job at MFAT in 1995.

“My association with the University happened because Foreign Affairs was nice enough to give me a job without me knowing anything about international law. The head of the division said you might like to go up to the University and do the stage 3 paper. Then I continued and started my Master’s part-time while working full-time.

I had to get an extension for my LLM because I was posted on my first posting, to New York, to New Zealand’s mission to the United Nations (UN). At the end of that I did a Master’s at the LSE (London School of Economics), and then eventually finished the Victoria Master’s.”

Working as a diplomat and international lawyer at MFAT has made for a deeply rewarding and varied career.

Going to the World Court in 1995 and “standing alongside others with wig and gown at The Hague at the Peace Palace” was an early highlight.

“We didn’t actually win that case, as there were some complex legal issues to establish our standing to take the case. And those didn’t succeed. But the mere taking of the case helped advance New Zealand’s commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons.”

France stopped its nuclear tests shortly after.

Her time at the UN from 1998 to 2001 was “fantastically interesting and rewarding”, and involved work on the formation of the International Criminal Court, the first permanent court with the mandate to prosecute for war crimes and other serious crimes against humanity, as well as work on oceans and the law of the sea.

From 2004 to 2008 she was the legal advisor on the team negotiating the China Free-Trade Agreement.

“New Zealand was China’s first FTA with a developed country. One of the things I really appreciated about this was how we got to know the negotiators on the other side so well over the three years of negotiations.

“We might be going hammer and tongs in the negotiation, as we each tried to get the best possible deals for our own countries, but you are going out for lunch together, having drinks together and getting to know them as people as well.”

Victoria stepped away from a legal role when she was posted to Paris as the Deputy Head of Mission of the New Zealand Embassy and Permanent Representative to UNESCO from 2008 to 2012.

“It was a great opportunity to get to know a country from the inside over a four-year period and develop some expertise on what was going on there and what the opportunities for New Zealand were.”

A recent highlight was leading the ministry’s work on the “Christchurch Call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online”, an initiative of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and President Emmanuel Macron of France following the March 15 terror attacks.

“The two leaders took an initiative responding to the terrible issue of terrorist content being spread online and the way the attacker in the Christchurch atrocity weaponised the internet for his terrorist purposes.

“This required the ministry to bring together a team to deliver a significant diplomatic initiative for the Prime Minister over a short period. It was good to do this with a country that I knew well from my posting. It was also very interesting to work with the tech companies and civil society organisations focused on the internet and human rights.

“Terrorist content online is one of these wicked problems. The internet is a challenging entity in that no-one owns or governs it, but we all want to benefit from it. We need to find ways to make it not just free and open, but secure and not prone to misuse.

“The Christchurch Call has brought about concrete improvements to how well countries and companies can respond to those kinds of actions when they occur. But it is a call-to-action which requires ongoing work.”

Law appealed because of the role of argumentation—“the battle of words appealed”, she says. “I did enjoy my time at Vic and I still have an association with the Victoria Law School through my ongoing relationship with the international legal academics there.

“I found the School was very well integrated with the public sector in Wellington—there is a lot of interaction, both informal and a bit more formal, a lot of visiting lecturers, people who are practising particularly in public and international law.

“A lot of people working in the public sector are taking part in courses, and the Law School, being situated in the middle of town opposite Parliament and the Beehive, feels very integrated into the capital city. So I would say it is a great place to do law.”

Victoria is currently the most senior international lawyer in the New Zealand government system and manages a legal team of 25 lawyers at MFAT.

“That is an awesome responsibility, in both meanings of the word ‘awesome’.

“International law is constantly changing and wide-ranging. One day I might be talking to my staff about a dispute case we have on a trade matter, relating to one of New Zealand’s exports.

“The next day I could be talking to others who are advising on maritime border issues related to COVID restrictions or those participating in UN discussions on the law applying to cyberspace.”

Victoria, who has a 23-year-old son working in the United States and a daughter aged 17, has been a Red Cross refugee support volunteer, helping a newly arrived refugee family settle in to New Zealand.

She took up her job as MFAT’s Chief International Legal Advisor/Kāhui Kaitohu Ture at the start of 2017.

She highly recommends MFAT foreign affairs and international relations as a career for those with a legal background and an interest in how New Zealand makes its way in the world.