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Justice Kirby marks 75 years since human rights breakthrough

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Justice Kirby addresses students at his annual public lecture.

Professor Nick James was faced with more than 60 eager law students and a dilemma. 

He was about to introduce eminent former Justice of the High Court of Australia, the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, for his annual Bond University public lecture. 

“We have been honoured by regular visits by Justice Kirby for over a decade. This is a testament to his generosity of spirit, his loyalty to the profession and his commitment to supporting the next generation of legal professionals,” the Executive Dean of the Bond University Faculty of Law said. 
 
“But there are difficulties in introducing a man who has sat through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of introductions over the years. Is it possible to do so in a genuinely novel way?’ 
 
So he went for a limerick. 
 
When it comes to rights, he is a sage 
Justice Kirby takes centre stage 
With wisdom profound, his insights abound  
Against injustice and ignorance, he will rage. 
 
As off-beat as it was, it proved the perfect introduction to an hour-long lecture delivered without notes on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the 10th anniversary of the Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights Abuses in North Korea by the person appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to lead the group.  
 
That appointment sparked a forensic year-long investigation which identified systemic and widespread human rights violations by the totalitarian state.  

And for Justice Kirby the lecture in the Gregor Heiner Lecture Theatre in late October was a chance to share with the Bond students, academics and members of the University community the story of where it all began.  

“When I was a very small boy, I went to Summer Hill Public School OC Class in Sydney and I had fallen under the influence of an incredible teacher, Mr Keith Gorringe, who had fought the Japanese in World War II. 
 
“He gave all of us a pocket size copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to demonstrate that war was horrible and human rights are everything. 

“I only found out his first name later because in 1948 no students ever knew their teacher’s Christian names, but he was enormously influential, and I still carry a copy of the UDHR today,” he said. 
 
During most of his time on the High Court of Australia, Justice Kirby was the only member of the bench whose entire school education had been in public schools. 

“That was a curious thing because 67 percent of Australians spend their entire schooling in public schools, but that’s not reflected in the membership of High Court. 
 
“But the Albanese Government has recently appointed three public school justices, including the first Tasmanian to be appointed to the High Court of Australia, which is another curiosity considering the high quality of judges (that have practised over the years) in that state. 
 
“It is all about values in and values out and the values that you receive from schools that are not posh and expensive but have a range of beliefs, religions and backgrounds that influence your world view,” he said. 

Justice Kirby recalled the day in 1942 when the US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to Australia to open the Concord Repatriation Hospital in Sydney, built for the treatment of American soldiers injured in World War II. 
 
“I was a schoolboy and we were sat on the footpath outside our public school with little Union Jack flags because we were ever-so British and I swear that as she came close to where I was sitting, our eyes locked,” he laughed. 

As he tells it, it was the eminent jurist’s first flirtation with the world of international politics. 

“I always remember a verse written by my Canadian friend John Humphrey who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that I was given as a schoolboy, and which has its 75th anniversary in December. 

“Humphrey headed the Secretariat of the UN committee for Mrs Roosevelt. 

“I met him later when we were both serving on the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva and he told me how new ideas for the declaration entered his mind as he was riding on the bus to work, and he jotted them down. 

“They included the marvellous first article of the UDHR ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’.

“He was an enormous influence and I’ve carried that mantra and that little book everywhere I’ve gone,” he said. 

Fast forward to 2013 and his appointment to the North Korea Commission and a chance to properly exercise his belief that all people have the right to forge their own directions in the world. 
 
“Unfortunately, the North Korean people have never had that self-determination since the Korean Peninsula was divided at the tail end of World War II, with Soviet Union leader Stalin and US President Roosevelt adopting communist and democratic spheres of influence in the north and south respectively,” he said. 

“And today there is great power in the north with the Kim family who have built a regime that gives them ultimate power, while the south continues as a functioning democracy with an extremely successful economy and high levels of education in mathematics, science and technology. 

“Make no mistake, it is also the case in North Korea where they have very high levels of education in technology, otherwise they would not have been able to develop the nuclear capability that has occurred. 

“But a decade ago there were very alarming reports coming out of North Korea of huge oppression, great violence and multiple deaths, which led to the decision by the Human Rights Council to establish the Commission. It was created with no opposition, which has never happened before,” he said. 

Justice Kirby spoke of diplomatic efforts since to establish meaningful dialogue with North Korea and of the continuing obligation of the international community to protect countries against crimes of humanity. 

“Ten years on from the Commission the work continues to find the diplomatic ground in which proper dialogue can be undertaken in considered, rational ways and non-provocative ways,” he said. 
 
The lecture concluded with a discussion on the current state of the world, including the ongoing conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, before he left the students with a food-for-thought quote from the Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO. 
 
Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that we must find the pathways to peace.

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