Michael Kirby, human rights advocate and former Justice of the High Court of Australia, will visit Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies to give the inaugural International Law and Institutions Lecture as part of Navigating the Backlash Against Global Law and Institutions — a conference co-sponsored by IU, the University of Maryland, and Australian National University that seeks to understand the developing role of international law and institutions amidst challenges in areas such as trade, human rights, and global governance.
The lecture will serve as the launch event for the new BA in International Law and Institutions, a joint endeavor between HLS and the Maurer School of Law. It also serves as the kickoff for the Hamilton Lugar School’s first International Law and Institutions Career Week, which brings together experts in the field to discuss their careers and critical areas of expertise. Sessions will include “Careers in Human Rights, Civilian Protection, and the Military” and “War Crimes Investigations, Explained.” Students will also have the opportunity to meet with and hear from experts in the fields of international trade, human rights, and refugee policy. Taken together, these events provide a salient look into the Hamilton Lugar School’s BA in International Law and Institutions. A joint endeavor with the Maurer School of Law, the new degree program encourages students to draw upon the wealth of resources at the Hamilton Lugar School, while also providing the opportunity—rare for undergraduates—to take courses taught in the law school and with law faculty.
Shruti Rana, Professor of International Law Practice and Director of the BA in International Law and Institutions, says that the major is intended for students who wish to “understand the foundational theories and concepts as well as [gain] the skills they need to engage with different forms of global governance” in areas such as human rights, the global commons, the conduct of war, and international development. Students graduate with both the analytical skills and the knowledge of international structures necessary to pursue careers in NGOs, government, law, humanitarian organizations, think tanks, and international organizations such as the UN, among many other possibilities. The addition of language skills, regional expertise, and international experience make graduates of this program deeply prepared to pursue careers in the global sphere.
Students interested in the International Law and Institutions major will gain much from Justice Michael Kirby’s lecture, since he provides an estimable example of the impact an individual can have in international and domestic law. When he retired from the High Court in 2009, Justice Kirby was Australia’s longest-serving judge. Before his appointment to Australia’s highest constitutional and appellate court, he had been a Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, the inaugural Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission, a Judge of the Federal Court of Australia, President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal, and President of the Court of Appeal of Solomon Islands.
As a judge he was known as “The Great Dissenter” for the frequency of his dissenting opinions, which often drew on the consideration of human rights and the basic dignity of all people. About his judicial philosophy, he has said, “Contrary to myth, judges do more than simply apply law. They have a role in making it and always have.” He believes in taking into account the social conditions in which a law is written and enforced, so that laws aren’t used to afflict the vulnerable.
This desire to understand how the law affects persecuted peoples developed early. As a young lawyer in 1965, for example, he helped organize the defense of an Aboriginal Australian university student who had purchased tickets to a movie and then requested entry to the balcony, a space in which Aboriginals were not allowed. The student persisted, and he and his friends were arrested and charged with trespassing and blocking the entrance. Ultimately, the judge hearing the case upheld the law and found the student and his friends guilty but did not impose a penalty. Two weeks later, the cinema changed its policy and allowed Aboriginal Australians access to the balcony.
About this experience Kirby has written, “The law in Australia was sometimes quite discriminatory. It was discriminatory against women, people of colour, and Aboriginal Australians. I knew discrimination extended also to me, as a gay man, at a time when the law criminalised gay activity. But it also taught me how important it was for lawyers to stand up for the right cases.”
Kirby came out publicly as a gay man in the 1990s, and LGBTQIA causes have been important to his life. He has steadfastly criticized anti-LGBTQIA laws in person and in law articles, and he has used his public platform to draw attention to discrimination and violence this community faces around the world. In 2006 he attended the International Conference on LGBT Human Rights in Montreal, leading the Asia-Pacific Plenary. Since 2011 Kirby has served as the Patron of the Kirby Institute, a global research institute founded in 1986 in response to the emerging HIV epidemic. The institute now works to prevent and treat a range of infectious diseases.
His work on HIV/AIDS has been tireless. From 1988-1992 he was a member of the WHO’s Inaugural Global Commission on AIDS; in 2001-2 he chaired a UNAIDS Expert Panel on HIV Testing or Peacekeeping Operations; and, starting in 2004, he served on the UNAIDS Expert Group on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights.
His human rights program has a global scope. In 2013-2014 he chaired a UN Commission of Inquiry that studied and reported on human rights abuses in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Using a variety of evidence, the Commission found rampant human rights abuses and atrocities in the country, particularly in its political prison camps. Since peace and security and human rights are interconnected and interdependent, Kirby believes, the Commission recommended the prosecution of North Korean leadership before an international court. In 2017 Kirby received the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan for his work on human rights in North Korea and for drawing attention to that nation’s abduction of Japanese nationals.
Concerned with animal welfare, he has supported the organization Voiceless and raised awareness of the environmental effects, health effects, and physical cruelty of factory farming. He helped launch Australia’s first animal law textbook in 2009, and he has been a pioneer of animal law as a discipline in Australia.
His other interests include nuclear disarmament, supporting the rights and welfare of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, and the separation of church and state.
Kirby was born in Sydney and attended public schools, culminating in undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from the University of Sydney, where he was a debater and President of the University of Sydney Union. He has served as an Honorary Visiting Professor at twelve universities, served on three university governing bodies, been the Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney, and been awarded many honorary doctorates in Australia and abroad, including from IU. He has pointed to his family, his education, his good fortune, and his partner of more than fifty years as reasons for his success.
His awards include the Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest civil honor, as well as the Australian Human Rights Medal.
When asked what advice he would give to young people, he has said, “This is not a dress rehearsal…We only have a limited time. And we should all seek love.”
Kirby has a long relationship with Indiana University. He served as a member of the Kinsey Institute Board of Governors and as the George P. Smith Professor/Chair at the IU Maurer School of Law Bloomington. In 2009, he delivered the commencement address to IU graduates, during which time President Michael A. McRobbie drew attention to Kirby’s diverse interests and wide-ranging influence in topics ranging from biotechnology and bioethics to privacy and technology.