Dr Bina D'Costa

If you had to explain your research to someone who has no knowledge of your subject area, how would you explain it?

My research is broadly in three large areas of peace and conflict studies, drawing from critical international relations.

The first area is war crimes and nation-building, focusing on women’s experiences of different kinds of war and also looking at women’s experiences of justice in war crime tribunals and truth commissions. For that, I looked at three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. I spent a lot of time in those countries and looked at tribunals and different kinds of commissions, like disappearance commissions, inquiry commissions, and so forth.

The second body of work actually also emerges from these experiences of women, and I research children who are born of sexual violence during war. Now I am focusing on the experience of people who are displaced. I look at refugees, then internally displaced and stateless people. I again focus on children, unaccompanied children who are forcibly displaced, and this whole discussion about displacement and extremism.

Tell us about your new role at the United Nations.

My new role at the United Nations is the Head of Research of the entire migration programme, and I will be on the United Nations Task Force on Migration.

I’ve always published advocacy material from all kind of research. For example, in the war crimes research, I have worked with the War Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh, and worked with War Crimes Tribunal in Cambodia. I’ve talked to many NGOs of Asia Pacific who focus on conflict issues and victimisation of people. I’ve always done work with policymakers, such as my work with the Australian Government, with the British Government, American Government, Bangladesh Government and, also, with the United Nations.

The UN project is a 100% research project. There’s a huge source of data from all UN agencies that work in different countries of the world, so I’ll have access to all that large dataset. I’ll be supervising five other researchers, junior professional officers and senior fellows in the UNICEF Research Office in Florence, and together we will build this unit that will focus on children’s experiences of migration. I will contribute to the Secretary General’s report on migration that will be out next year.

What stands out to you when studying war crimes, children and violence, and war babies?

In war crimes research there are multiple truths. I have actually learned a lot of humility doing that research. It’s a methodological point and, in academia, that kind of self-reflection is very important, and in warzones there are so many grey areas that even amongst victims there are differences in victimisation and marginalisation.

This question of multiple truths and history is not a linear thing - there are so many different complex layers of histories. I find that absolutely fascinating. When you look at perpetrators, they are not straightforward evil people. There are different ways you can also think about evil people and different ways you can think about victims. Oppressed people themselves can also oppress other groups who are even lower in the hierarchy from them. This is a central part of my new work, as it is very easy to divide the world into good and bad or evil but it’s not that simple.

How would you sum up your teaching philosophy?

I received a teaching award from ANU in 2008. In 2008, I was so happy to have students, but now I think first and foremost I want my students to understand the more humane approach to international politics.

You teach students about states, and borders, and power, and regional institutions, and security, and strategy - all those things, but never let them forget that it is so connected. It is definitely connected to the wider world. It is very interesting to hear about what the US, Australia, the UK are doing, but actually all these states are actors and there are many, many people involved, and it’s a very interconnected world.

I always tell my students that I am just teaching you now, but I know ten years down the track these are people’s lives you are going to deal with, whatever and wherever you are working. My teaching philosophy is very much grounded on a socially responsible and responsive method.

What advice would you give to undergraduate students?

I’ve had very good mentors around me and very good people who believed in me, so from my own experience, I would tell undergraduates that although it is difficult, say hello to your lecturer, because we love when students come, even if for a few minutes, and introduce themselves.

We recognise students. Make that effort to know lecturers personally, because those are the lecturers who later on become mentors and your supporters. We give lots of free advice. I know you have your life, and you are enjoying it, and partying, and barbecuing, and doing all those, but enjoying university life at its fullest also means taking advantage of the intellectual environment and opportunities - not only formal ones, but also informal ones. Make networks, be a part of student institutions, bodies, just be aware of everything that goes around. I’m always so happy when I see my students come to seminars, talks, and roundtables. It’s so exciting to see students and those are the students who do well at the end.

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