Alumni Spotlight: Ben Playle
Ben Playle was the National President of UN Youth Australia from 1997-98 and was involved in the drafting of our first National Constitution. Since then he has held various positions working in international relations, including as as the Deputy High Commissioner at the Australian High Commission in South Africa. Ben is now back in Australia specialising in North Korea. We caught up with him to hear more about his time volunteering with UN Youth Australia and his experiences since.
You’ve worked in various fields relating to international relations, including in New York as a Legal Adviser at the Australian Mission to the UN as well as for the UN itself at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. You now work at at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canberra; what does that job entail?
I joined the DFAT graduate program in 2001 straight out of uni and haven’t looked back. I’ve worked mostly in legal roles in Canberra, with three stints overseas: one as Legal Adviser at the Australian Mission to the UN in New York, one taking some time out of DFAT to work for the UN Office of Legal Affairs in New York and Phnom Penh on the Khmer Rouge trials, and most recently in South Africa. I returned from Pretoria last September and have since been covering North Korea.
I’ve been fortunate to work on some fascinating issues, from Australia’s ratification of the Rome Statute of the ICC, to the use of force in Afghanistan and Iraq, to Guantanamo Bay detainees, to whaling in the Southern Ocean, to oil and gas in the Timor Sea, to designing our sanctions regimes against Russia and Syria. Most of those issues arose from unhappy events, but they have all provided challenging and interesting work.
My current role on North Korea is particularly multi-faceted, involving legal policy issues related to UN and Australian autonomous sanctions; multilateral issues related to UN discussions on North Korea; and bilateral issues related not so much to Australia’s limited relationship with North Korea, but instead to the range of international partners which share our concerns about North Korea, most notably the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea.
What advice would you give to a high school or university student interested in having a career in international relations?
Go for it! Gone are the days when DFAT was one of only a handful of options for a career in international relations, at least in Australia. Most Australian Government departments now engage internationally, not to mention most law and other professional services firms offer international opportunities, and the think tank and academic communities working on international issues continue to expand.
DFAT remains unusual in a few respects. A DFAT career is one of the few ways formally to represent Australia overseas, and the breadth of opportunities presented by an overseas network of around 100 diplomatic missions is unparalleled in Australia. While serving overseas offers some wonderful experiences, DFAT also stands out for me because it still offers plenty of time back home, with the usual rhythm involving three or four years in Australia, followed by three years overseas, followed by three or four years in Australia, and so on. Without getting too sentimental, there’s a lot to be said for living in Australia!
Needless to say, DFAT isn’t for everyone. Like all Australian Public Service agencies, DFAT impartially serves the government of the day, meaning that you will almost certainly wind up implementing some policies with which you disagree. Before applying for DFAT, you should also think carefully about the practical implications of a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, including its affect on your relationships with family and friends, and feeling slightly nauseous at the regular sight of moving boxes. While these issues may feel a bit distant right now, it’s not easy to juggle a DFAT career with the career of your partner, nor your children’s schooling.
How did your experience volunteering with UN Youth influence your choice of career and career path more generally?
Put simply, UNYA was my greatest influence. I was hooked from the moment I participated in the inaugural Dag Hammarskjold Trophy (mock-UN Security Council) Competition as a year 12 student in Perth in 1994, which determined my focus on international law and politics in my Law and Arts studies at UWA, which in turn pointed me in the direction of DFAT.
Aside from getting me interested, UNYA also gave me a giant head start in terms of the advocacy and management skills that are essential in most workplaces. Plenty of organisations offer roles for young people, but very few on the scale of UNYA are entirely run by people under 25. Most importantly, UNYA gave me some of the best memories of my uni life and introduced me to many lifelong friends.
You were involved as a volunteer with UN Youth during the drafting and adoption of our first National Constitution. What was it like trying to unite the State and Territory divisions into a federated structure?
We were just starting to engage internationally, first at THIMUN, then at the World Youth Forum of the UN System, and culminating in the creation of the Youth Representative position. Partially as a result, we were engaging more with the Australian Government. To do all of that properly, we needed a more robust national structure, including to coordinate our engagement and develop a national policy platform. There was no point seeking out these opportunities, and they would just as quickly vanish, if we had nothing meaningful to say. While UNYA’s relationship with UNAA will always be important, we also needed to establish a more independent identity.
Aside from the odd moment when we all took ourselves too seriously, drafting the National Constitution was fun. Most of the work was done at National Council meetings that ran too late into the night. We probably would have done a better job with more sleep. I’m sure that our successors have improved upon our efforts, but hopefully the basic structures that we set-up have stood the test of time.
What’s your most memorable experience or memory from your time volunteering with UN Youth?
There are a lot to choose from, including in a nerdy way some of those late night drafting sessions, but I’ll go for attending the World Youth Forum of the UN System in Braga, Portugal in 1998 with Carrie McDougall, another UNYAn of my vintage. Through a mix of good luck and good management, we both wound up in the middle of efforts to draft the declaration adopted by the Forum, which then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan accepted on the final day.
In hindsight, the declaration would have been put straight in a bottom drawer even faster than most UN paperwork, but it felt like a big deal at the time and meeting Kofi Annan was pretty special. The declaration did prove useful for UNYA in at least one way: it recommended that governments include youth representatives in their delegations to the UN General Assembly.