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Flash interview with alumnus Joost Bunk: As a diplomat, you know there's a risk of being declared persona non grata

When Russia attacked Ukraine in the night of 23-24 February, alumnus Joost Bunk, who was working as a diplomat in Russia, knew that everything would change.

What did you study and when?

I did a master’s degree in Public International Law at Leiden University. I started in the summer of 2015, and in 2017 I added my name to the wall in the Academy Building’s zweetkamertje. But I started my university studies in Groningen, where I studied Law and Law and ICT. Inspired by an Erasmus exchange period in Ireland and an internship at a law firm in Washington, D.C., I was keen to study international law and international issues in more depth. My bachelor’s degree had been really interesting and studying in Groningen was great fun, but I wanted a different city to focus on the international side. 

What made you choose Leiden?

Once I had decided to choose a different city for my master’s degree, I searched on internet for information about the best master’s programmes on international law. Via recommendations from friends and after studying brochures I decided to come to the open day in Leiden. It was very useful and Leiden seemed to be a great city, so it didn’t take long to decide to enrol for the admission’s procedure for this master’s programme. Another factor in the decision was that my girlfriend (now my wife) had got a job in Rotterdam and so it suited us well to live in Leiden.

Did the degree meet your expectations? What did, and what didn’t?

The master’s programme was everything I expected it to be, and more. It was a lot of hard work and intellectually challenging. The courses were topical and the lectures were very interactive. So it wasn’t just passively learning slides during lectures, but more working out your own point of view and arguing this in a tutorial group. I expected and was prepared to just focus on studying for a whole year. Luckily, it turned out to be more dynamic than that. I did the Leiden International Leadership Project, took part in a mediation competition and made a lot of friends with international students, whom I still keep in touch with. It was certainly a lot of hard work, but very diverse.

What were you like as a student?

It took me a while to get going as a student. In Groningen at the beginning I was distracted by student life, but by the end, and certainly in Leiden, I was a well-motivated, hardworking student. I was in the University Library or the Law Library at the Steenschuur every day and you wouldn’t often find me in the Leiden pubs late at night.

Do you have one memorable moment as I student that you would like, or dare, to share?

My time as a student in Leiden was by no means as lively and adventurous as my time in Groningen. What I remember most about Leiden was actually all about studying. I’m very proud to have presented my thesis at a major conference of NATO'S Centre of Excellence. I won second place in an international, multidisciplinary thesis competition. I wrote my thesis as part of a student-assistantship at the Netherlands Defence Academy (NLDA) and I am still grateful to Dr Heinsch (Associate Professor at Leiden Law School) and Professor Ducheine (NLDA) for the opportunity and their wonderful supervision.

What was your favourite restaurant/pub/place in Leiden and why? 

We lived on Korevaarstraat and it was always great to go and lie in the Van der Werfpark in the summer. And tasting craft beers in café Olivier was always great fun. 

Looking back, is there something extra that you might have wanted in the law curriculum? Perhaps a specific subject that wasn’t taught, or an internship, or something else you missed?

What I found very useful, was doing several internships. I think it would be good if universities provided more opportunities for this, for example by attaching to an internship a paper that is graded, or facilitating an internship by allowing a few months’ extension. It would also be good if students – from whatever degree programme – were given the opportunity to follow an extra language.

Can you briefly tell us about your career, and if this was what you had always wanted or aimed for? Where are you working now?

I never really had one specific career goal. My philosophy was that you shouldn’t have a dot on the horizon, but more of a spot. If you roughly know what you like, what you’re good at and what you want, you should always move a little bit in that direction. When I knew I wanted ‘something’ international, I did an international internship, went to study in Leiden and tried to gain relevant experience through internships and projects. Through an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was initially employed there on a temporary basis and a bit later I got a permanent position. Until recently, I was working at the embassy in Moscow and before that at the Ministry itself.

My tip for students is to make room during your studies for internships. You can only find out what you want (and what you are good at) by actually having to do that work!

Can you explain why you chose not to join a profession related to law? 

I really enjoyed doing a law degree. The complex issues, the puzzling and the arguing your point of view – that was all very instructive. During my internship at a law firm, I did notice that you are a small cog in a bigger machine, that it’s often all about commercial interests and that you really have to enjoy delving into legal materials every day. Through my studies in international law and my internships, I knew I wanted to work on public issues that have an international dimension. That’s what I found at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

What turned out to be most valuable/applicable in your (current) work from your studies?

In an international working environment like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it’s always useful to have knowledge of international law. Although you’re not drafting treaties every day, background knowledge does help you understand the frameworks and concepts. In addition, the master's programme also focused on how international organisations and decision-making work, which proved very useful when I was participating in negotiations at the UN.

Besides the Public International Law master’s programme, I also took part in the Leiden International Leadership Programme. I found – and still find – this to be a very useful programme. The skills and self-knowledge I gained there still serve me every day. 

You were expelled from Russia as a diplomat during the Russia-Ukraine situation. Can you tell us what happened, how it affected you and your family, what the consequences are, and what you’re currently doing?

When I saw on the night of 23-24 February that Russia had attacked Ukraine, it became clear that everything would change. At the same time, not much actually changed straight away. In Moscow, public life went on relatively unaffected, though there were some demonstrations. My wife (Eline) and daughter (Linde) went to the Netherlands soon after to see family from New Zealand, as there was a lot of uncertainty about airspace closures. I stayed behind in Moscow, but fortunately I had good colleagues at the embassy and a lot of friends as well.

As a diplomat, you know there’s a risk of being declared persona non grata. After all, that’s part of being a diplomat and part of relevant international law. During this time, I also thought back to lectures in Leiden when this topic was also briefly discussed and I wondered what that must be like. When the news broke that the Netherlands was going to expel 17 Russian diplomats, we knew that there would be a backlash. But although we knew this was hanging in the air, it was still very surreal to hear that it’s you. Our ambassador was summoned on 19 April and it was clear the clock was ticking. It’s very strange that something you’d looked forward to for so long – Moscow was my first post and it had interested me for a long time – suddenly comes to a halt. Of course, it all has to be seen in the context of something terrible, and what happened to us can’t be compared to what’s happening in Ukraine.

When it became clear that I had to leave, you have to stop and leave behind the life you’ve built in a very short time. It meant a lot of running around to finalise everything and pack up. I would be facetiming with my wife late at night, discussing what to take and what to leave for us and for Linde, and then having to deal with the crisis again the next day. It really was an surreal experience. And then you have to leave the country. I ended up driving with colleagues via Finland and taking the boat to Germany. What I still remember was the long drive to the border with Russia and Finland – a long, straight road with only birch forests to the left and right. It really felt like driving off and leaving the country behind.

We’re now in the Netherlands staying with family before we plan what to do in the future. 

Would you want to do a hardship posting? 

I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who are doing a hardship posting. The living and working conditions are very challenging. As a diplomat, of course, you should never say never, because you never know where you’ll end up in x number of years. But at the moment I’ve got a young family and wouldn’t want to be separated from them for a long time.

Is there something that in your role as alumnus you would like to see at our University/faculty that is not (yet) currently offered?

When I saw that Leiden had launched a mentor programme, I put my name forward straight away because I think it’s a great initiative. When I was a student, I learned a great deal from the contacts I made during that time. 

Finally, to get to know you even better, a very personal question: what’s your guilty pleasure? 

My guilty pleasure is definitely my love of 1980s Italo-Disco – such wonderful, happy, upbeat music. And I also love watching sci-fi action films like Transformers. I’ve seen them all a few times now, and still have no idea what the story is about. Fantastic!

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