Posted by: Castan Centre | July 19, 2019

Kuala Lumpur to Geneva with IWRAW-AP

By Amran Hassan Ali

My first month in Kuala Lumpur (KL) with the IWRAW-AP team was a month of, what can only be described as, ‘getting to know’. Getting to know the team who were equal parts away on mission or leave since I arrived in early December, getting to know the work IWRAW does and also getting to know KL. My arrival coincided with the 25th anniversary of IWRAW and I was definitely struck by the opportunity to work at an organisation, for however short a time, which has been advocating for women’s human rights for a quarter of a century. 

My main responsibility was helping in the preparations for the 72nd CEDAW review and the Global to Local Programme run by IWRAW to facilitate the participation of CSO’s from the countries being reviewed. Preparations ranged from reading and summarising State/NGO and UN reports, getting in touch with CSO’s, soaking in the expert knowledge of the whole CEDAW review process and everything in between. The best part of this process was reading some of the NGO reports which gave a clearer view of the situation for women on the ground which some States tried to obfuscate with legalise, long winded unclear data and at times out right claiming the work of CSO’s as their own accomplishments.  I’m looking forward to Geneva and hearing states respond to the questioning by the Committee. 

(Petronas Towers, apparently no visit to KL is compete without a picture of them)

The IWRAW team also run many more advocacy and capacity building programmes and luckily for me they didn’t hesitate to ask for my assistance which has given me a really varied experience and more in-depth look at the world of women’s human rights. I was invited to attend the Global Conference on Trafficking in Women & Girls in the Context of Global Migration being held in Bangkok and organised by IWRAW, and after a reading the concept note I know it will be an extremely enriching and enlightening conference, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend and learn from the impressive array off attendees invited. 

The second month of my internship was also the first month of 2019. By now I’ve settled into the city and the office nicely. Though work on the Global to Local programme is the main priority, I have also been assisting with other programs such as doing research on family law cases in SE Asia and researching judges in SE Asia who have made rights affirming judgements in the area of family law for an upcoming symposium being organised by the IWRAW team. I was also lucky enough to be invited along by the team to Bangkok to provide support during a global convening on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration. 

The convening aimed to analyse the root causes of trafficking as a violation of women’s human rights located at the intersections of gender, migration, development and labour. Also, to discuss positive and negative examples of anti-trafficking laws and policies and their implementation and to identify specific human rights-based, gender-sensitive protection and assistance measures. The participants in the convening ranged from CEDAW committee members, special rapporteurs and CSOs and it was such a learning experience to hear the differences in opinions from the varied participants as well as taking into perspective women’s rights, workers’ rights and migrants’ rights when thinking of human trafficking. 

(The food in Bangkok was definitely a highlight; delicious and cheap!)

Geneva was next, for the Global to Local Programme and to attend the 72nd CEDAW review.  I missed KL (and the warmth) but I was looking forward to seeing the work of the last two months come to fruition, and to witness the impact women’s rights activists and CSO’s can have on the review process. 

The “From Global to Local” programme run by IWRAW Asia Pacific’s is designed to bridge the gap between human rights monitoring by the CEDAW Committee at the international level and grassroots activism demanding government/State accountability at the national level. The programme provides technical guidance and support on the CEDAW reporting process to women’s NGOs and facilitates the presence of women from reporting countries at the CEDAW sessions to monitor and observe the review of their government’s report and to interact with the CEDAW Committee members. The programme covers substantive input on the CEDAW Convention, processes during the CEDAW Session, the NGO oral presentations, how to effectively lobby the CEDAW Committee members, and what follow up work can be done once NGO representatives return home. 

(UN Headquarters Geneva)

This year the countries under review were Antigua and Barbuda, Angola, Botswana, Colombia, Ethiopia, Serbia and the United Kingdom as well as Myanmar for an exceptional review. It was all systems go from the moment the team landed in Geneva and we worked every day for three and a half weeks straight. It was intense but extremely rewarding helping the women activists from these countries navigate the CEDAW review process.  Both weeks were extremely different, both by the size of the groups as well as the nature of the issues covered by the review. The questioning ranged from child marriage and marital rape laws for Ethiopia to demilitarisation and the rights of afro-Colombian women in Colombia. The questioning of the UK revolved around devolvement, Brexit and Northern Irelands lack of government and what that meant for women, while for the smaller countries such as Angola, Botswana and Antigua and Barbuda the Committee asked about the Gender Machinery and government support. These were obviously just the tip of the iceberg as questioning for the countries ran for a whole day. Seeing the committee raise questions on issues that were highlighted by the NGO groups as priorities, with the Government representatives was extremely satisfying. Both for the activists and myself and helped to solidify that the work they were doing and for some, the extremely long journey to Geneva, was worthwhile. 

(UN Headquarters Geneva)

My time with IWRAW helped me to really see the impact of human rights law and its application, but also its limitations, at work. Essentially everything taught in a classroom but at the source. The experience was invaluable and I’m grateful to the Castan Centre for the support and providing me with such an exciting, educational and rewarding experience. 

(Opening of the 72nd CEDAW Review)

Posted by: Castan Centre | July 2, 2019

An Indigenous Ambassador

By Jared Poland, Castan Centre Global Intern, Indigenous Intern to the UN Human Rights Council, Geneva

“You’re the first Aboriginal I’ve ever met”.   It was a strange thing to hear and it caught me off guard, though admittedly, given the context, it wasn’t the craziest of ideas.  For me what was actually crazy was where I was, you see I was at the United Nations for the 40th session of the Human Rights Council.  

I have always dreamed about going to the UN but never thought I would get to be involved in such a meaningful way.  The opportunity to be the Castan Centre Indigenous Intern to the Australian Permanent Mission in Geneva was life changing.   It both challenged me and showed me career pathways I did not know even existed. Working as part of Team Australia, I was able to be a part of implementing Australia’s human rights policies for the session.  Witnessing how human rights framework is debated and applied, or at times even disregarded, was eye opening. The need to protect and advocate for human rights is paramount, their existence should never be taken for granted.  This was evident at the Council, a delicate struggle of competing ideologies was on full display.   

The team that I was a part of were nothing short of amazing, diplomacy is often a balancing act and Team Australia has some of the finest acrobats around.  Working for DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was a rewarding experience. If I am being completely honest, as an Indigenous man, I was anxious about working for the Australian government.  However, my supervisors were encouraging and showed me what a career in international affairs and multilateralism looks like. While diplomacy is at times complex, often it is just simply being genuine and having a laugh together.  This, for me, was one of the most rewarding parts of my experience, being able to meet people from all over the world.

From the time we arrived, it was quite busy, two other Australian interns and myself were a welcomed addition to the team.  As a member state of the Human Rights Council, Australia was quite involved. Our tasks involved supporting Australian diplomats, reporting daily happenings to Canberra and attending events as Australian representatives.

The US’s self-removal from the Council has created a power vacuum, and the growing influence of China was on full display.  A controversial issue throughout the course of the session was China and their treatment of the Uyghur people, a Muslim minority located in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.  Perspective is everything. According to the UN and countries like the USA and the UK, these people are being rounded up and held in internment camps for “re-education” akin to that of cultural genocide, while the official explanation from Beijing is that these camps are in fact they education facilities seeking to rehabilitate individuals with extremist ideologies.

It was a sobering experience at times, I was witness to firsthand accounts of human rights’ abuses happening around the world, from the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to gender-based violence in Sudan.  I participated in a walkout, a protest and a sign of solidarity with those whose human rights are being undermined due to attacks levelled at the civilian population in Venezuela. On the day that the Council was debating the dangers of fundamentalism and increasing violent nature of nationalism, a sombre reminder of what we fight against had manifested, the devastating attacks in Christchurch were literally the news that we awoke to. I was proud when Australia delivered a joint statement with New Zealand at the Council denouncing attacks and calling for the international community to come together.  One of the most informative experiences I was exposed to was hearing the reports from various UN investigators on different humanitarian crisis’s and social issues. The need for collective action and purposeful solutions to climate change echoed across the session. I was encouraged the UN’s effort to combat racism and discrimination, after all we are much more alike than we are different.

 As a part of my internship I was involved in the drafting of resolutions, in particular the Rights of the Child resolution.  Here it was revealed to me the importance of words. The process and work that goes into the formation of the text of the resolution is quite extensive.  Australia and our allies (liked mind countries) would make suggestions and rebut the suggestions of other countries who weren’t happy with the text, often insisting that it be change to something they could agree with.  These slights changes in words, though often synonyms would make it easier to commit human rights abuses against children.

One of the greatest the highlights for me was presenting a statement on behalf of Australia on the topic of protecting Environmental Human Rights Defenders at a UN event run by the Norwegian Mission.  I was able to highlight the important role Indigenous people, in particular, the role Indigenous women play as human rights defenders, calling for their further empowerment. The foreign minister of Norway actually answered my question directly and I was able to meet with another one of the panellist, an Indigenous woman from Thailand.  I am very passionate about Indigenous rights, and being able to share with other Indigenous people from around the world, highlighted to me the issues that we as Indigenous people face in Australia are not unique and we are certainly are not alone in our struggle for equality and self-determination.

Though yes, I was working for the Australian Mission, I found myself in a way being an ambassador for my people and culture, Indigenous Australia.  It is a strange phenomenon, being the first of your people, someone as ever interacted with. To the international community, we are often barely a blimp on their radar when they think of Australia.  It was an honour to be able to share with people my personal experience of what it is like to grow as an Indigenous person in Australia. Afterwards people often questioned their perspectives of Australia.  

During my internship in Geneva, I have come to realise the importance of multilateralism, though the UN is often criticised, it does serve a valuable purpose.  It serves as a spotlight, shining a light on human rights, abuses and their perpetrators. It is important that we work together to uphold and protect human rights from those who would seek to dismiss them.  

I am truly grateful to the Bennelong Foundation, Castan Centre and the Australian Government for allowing me to have this opportunity.  I will carry the experiences that I had with me for life; I know they will be a great asset to me in my future endeavours.  

Jared Poland, a proud Malgana Yamatji man.

Posted by: Castan Centre | July 2, 2019

My Experience Standing for a World Without the Death Penalty

By Danilee Pallister, Castan Centre Global Intern, Reprieve

As a Castan Centre Global Intern I spent three months this past summer in Houston, Texas assisting capital defence attorneys in their tireless efforts to prevent the State from executing their clients. Based in the county referred to as the “buckle of the death belt”, I had a swift and sobering introduction to the Texan criminal justice system and to the systemic issues underpinning the practice of capital punishment in the United States. The internship experience was a conscience roller-coaster, challenging my perceptions and ultimately reaffirming my firmly held conviction that the State should not execute.

Throughout my internship I was given invaluable opportunities to assist with pre-trial consultations  and post-conviction appeals. I was tasked with interviewing potential witnesses, conducting document review, investigating mitigating material and researching  developments in the law relating to the constitutional prohibition on executing those with intellectual disabilities. I also met with clients to relay information and to check on their wellbeing.

My first visit to Death Row was a confronting, but impactful experience. I had been apprehensive to meet the clients, having worked on their cases, with the details of the crimes they’d been convicted of still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect of these individuals who had been deemed worthy of death. I quickly came to realise the reality that these inmates, who some would label ‘monsters’, were just as human as you or I. This realisation was simultaneously shocking and reassuring, as I struggled to reconcile my own conceptions of justice, morality and innate humanity. As I drove away from Death Row, I wondered if their sentence might have been different if the jurors tasked with choosing their death had the chance to sit and talk with them as I had. In sharing a conversation would they be reminded of their innate humanity? Would that give them pause to consider whether the State taking their life would atone for the taking of another’s? Outside of a courtroom, would they consider these human beings to be worth more than their worst act? Would they choose differently if the taking of a human life was not masked by clinical procedure, or if they themselves were responsible for strapping them to a gurney, hearing their last words to their family, administering the lethal dose of Pentobarbital and watching their heart stop?

During the internship, I also had the opportunity to attend a capital punishment symposium, where a panel of people of all persuasions and perspectives shared their experiences. A mother spoke of watching her son die in the execution chamber, a former corrections officer shared his experience of participating in executions, a former spokesperson for the prison spoke of witnessing hundreds of executions and various defence attorneys described their experience of losing clients. It was clear to me that there was trauma experienced by everyone involved in or touched by the process. There was general agreement, even from those who embrace the use of the death penalty, that the system is broken. 

Many people I met were curious to know why I would travel across the world to assist in capital defence work. I came to expect ‘but, why?’ every time I took an uber or met someone new. The question became a source of great frustration to me- how could I adequately address in the length of a short conversation the greater questions of justice, morality, prejudice and a person’s right to exist? There are many compelling reasons, including the risk of irreversibly punishing an innocent person, the arbitrary and political nature of choosing who to charge with a capital crime, and the costliness of a death sentence as compared with life in prison, but perhaps the most compelling is an incompatibility with human rights. When governments are empowered to create laws that kill people, protections need to be put in place that respect life. While most people have faith in the justice of the justice system and believe that those in power have their best interests at heart, that is entirely dependent on what acts lawmakers consider to be deserving of death. In Texas, for instance, I was shocked to learn that a person can be (and has been) executed even if they haven’t killed anybody, because the Law of Parties holds them equally responsible for a murder committed by an associate, even if they were not present for the murder or had no knowledge of the intention to kill.

The resilience and rapport among the team of attorneys I worked with was a counterbalance to the heaviness of the work. The team’s selfless dedication and drive in their efforts to defend those most vulnerable to abuse of power was incredibly inspiring and I am so appreciative of the way they mentored me during my time there. 

By Jayden Crozier

Working at the United Nations Human Rights Council as the Castan Centre Intern was a life-changing experience. I learnt about the paramount importance of human rights, and the challenges the international community face in protecting them. My mentors and colleagues at the Australian government mission showed me what a career in international relations looks like, whether that be in DFAT or a non-governmental organisation, and demonstrated the skills and diplomacy required to successfully fight for those most in need.

Throughout my six weeks in Geneva, I took part in many of UN procedures in relation to Australia’s role as a council member. It was such valuable experience, particularly the insight into the way a state prepares for and operates during the Human Rights Council.

While attending council, I witnessed evidence of many human rights abuses and saw the UN’s response to unfolding humanitarian crises. Early in the sessions, we witnessed reports regarding Myanmar, where ethnic cleansing in the Rakhine State had decimated the Rohingya population. The images were sobering, but they highlighted the need for the United Nations, and NGOs, to intervene on behalf of the Rohingya people’s human rights.

27096437758_383c033c9e_o (1).jpg

37th Session of the Human Rights Council, UN Geneva, Licence at:

One issue that particularly interested me was the abolition of capital punishment. I was inspired to see the progress the international community has made in this regard, to the point that Africa was heralded as the ‘next abolitionist continent’. Nonetheless, public executions are still used in many states, not for justice, but to create fear in the population and thereby consolidate authority. It still continues to be a prevailing issue around the world; however, I felt proud seeing the Human Rights Council stand up for its abolition.

As part of the internship, I played a role in drafting resolutions. This took shape through the meetings of various state delegations, where we would workshop draft resolutions paragraph-by-paragraph, ensuring that they satisfied all states wishing to see them adopted. While some of these meetings could be quite laborious, it could get more intense depending on the issue being discussed. All the hard work paid off, as Australia’s resolutions were passed by the council.

Perhaps my greatest highlight was speaking before the UN Council on Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme, as part of the Council’s session on Persons with Disabilities. I was elected to speak on this issue because of my experience working in the healthcare industry. Australia was commended for its policies for people with disabilities by the Special Rapporteur, and so it was an honour to thank the Special Rapporteur for their positive words, and share Australia’s initiatives with the world. I was also honoured to represent Australia when attending World Down Syndrome Day at the UN, which involved listening to inspirational speeches by disability activists, including the youngest speaker ever before the UNHRC: a two-year old child from China with Down Syndrome.

Another issue I care deeply about is the rights of Indigenous peoples. The Council examined various issues facing Indigenous people globally, including dispossession of tribes in South America, neglected poverty in United States and Canada, and the universal struggle for respect and recognition in the face of cultural erasure. Hearing the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, give an acknowledgement of country, before this global stage, made me grateful for the steps Australia has taken to recognise Indigenous Australia, but also mindful of the further work that needs to be done.

Throughout my time in the Human Rights Council, I became aware of the various challenges in protecting human rights. Certain issues seem at times too overwhelming for the international community to handle, such as climate change, or the many millions of displaced people. Ideological, religious and political differences complicate how human rights are framed. For certain governments, it will always be in their geopolitical interest to ignore human rights (which is why it is critical to have multilateral institutions such as the UN holding them to account).

Nonetheless, I remain firmly convinced that the world’s major humanitarian issues can be resolved if we listen and cooperate with one another, and I am inspired by all the Council was able to accomplish while I was there. I am grateful to the Castan Centre, the Bennelong Foundation and the Australian Mission for giving me this opportunity, and I look forward to applying all I have learned going into the future.

Jayden Crozier was the 2018 Bennelong Foundation Indigenous UN Intern

Posted by: Castan Centre | July 31, 2018

A truly life changing experience, from KL to Geneva

By Michelle Freilich

My arrival in Kuala Lumpur was marked by the tentative balance of nerves and excitement to embark on my internship with an INGO at the forefront of women’s rights. As I walked to the IWRAW-AP office on my first day in the sweltering 8am heat of a Malaysian December, the rich aromas wafting from the hawker stalls lining the street confirmed that I was at the beginning of a truly captivating experience. Over the course of the next few months, as I engaged in IWRAW-AP’s important work in defending women’s rights, the unparalleled opportunity of my Castan Centre Global Internship was continuously reconfirmed.

My experience in Kuala Lumpur reflected IWRAW-AP’s dual roles of advocacy and capacity building in the Global South and as an intermediary between the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and local NGOs from around the world. Following the Bellagio International Judicial Colloquium, facilitated by IWRAW-AP as a knowledge sharing and peer advocacy platform, I contributed to a report on best judicial practices for ensuring access to justice for sexual violence in Africa and Asia. By exploring the root causes of gender-based violence against women and the barriers to accessing justice, I not only developed critical research skills but also gained insight into comparative laws and cultures.

Palais de Nations

Palais des Nations at night, UN Photo, Licence at:

My other main responsibility was assisting with preparation for the 69th CEDAW Session in Geneva, and especially our Global to Local Programme for NGOs participating in the CEDAW review process. Analysing and compiling a seemingly endless pile of State, CEDAW and NGO reports revealed the importance of NGOs having a space in the CEDAW review process, as discrepancies between State reports and shadow reports marked a dangerous void in human rights protection. As I researched Malaysia, Chile, Republic of Korea, Fiji, Saudi Arabia, Suriname, Luxembourg and Marshall Islands, who were all to be reviewed at the 69th CEDAW Session, the need for protection against human rights abuses became evident.

After two engaging and flavoursome months in Kuala Lumpur, I ventured to Geneva to begin what would be a formative experience both personally and professionally. The Global to Local Programme started with participants sharing their ‘shero’ (female hero), uniting NGO members from around the globe in mutual awe of inspiring women who shaped women’s rights today. The intensive training course educated the participants about UN systems and gave strategic advice for lobbying. Being surrounded by brilliant lawyers and human rights defenders was uplifting. We learned about the struggles and successes of working for women’s rights in different countries, and how different laws and cultures impact human rights concerns. For example, Luxembourg focused on intersex surgeries, while Saudi Arabia was primarily concerned about guardianship laws that permeate all facets of Saudi women’s lives.

Perhaps the most monumental aspect of my internship was the opportunity to be involved in the 69th CEDAW Session. As I entered Geneva’s Palais des Nations, I was struck by the awareness that the lives of global citizens were changed by decisions made in this very location. I attended and documented the constructive dialogues between the States and CEDAW, observing the manner in which diplomats would traverse the political landscape of questioning. At the daily briefings to CEDAW, NGOs from the State to be reviewed the following day would provide key information that may have been obscured in the State reports. This ensured that CEDAW had a comprehensive understanding of the needs of women within those States. While the session was inspiring, it also elicited dismay over the lack of consensus by CEDAW regarding more controversial matters, and exasperation when States refused to be held accountable for their human rights violations. Yet overall, the session reinforced the importance of UN mechanisms for review, as issues were brought into the open and responses were demanded. Further, my understanding of the importance of civil society defending human rights was crystallised as I witnessed the reverberating effect of NGO lobbying.

My internship with IWRAW-AP enabled me to gain insight into the impact of international human rights law on the lives of women throughout the world. Through the work I undertook and brilliant legal minds from which I had the opportunity to learn, I developed critical skills in research and analytical thinking, and an understanding of international law. I would like to sincerely thank the Castan Centre for providing me with this invaluable opportunity. I am extremely grateful to the Castan Centre and IWRAW-AP, as my internship was a truly life changing, formative experience.

Posted by: Castan Centre | February 19, 2018



By Aiden McKee

The year is 1687. The Kangxi Emperor, Xuanye, is the fourth of the Qing Dynasty, and he will live on to become the longest reigning emperor in Chinese history.

He is presented with a gift; a series of three books – collectively entitled Principia – that have been authored by Sir Isaac Newton, an English mathematician and physicist.

After carefully appraising the work, the Qing Emperor sends his response:

The theory of gravity is relative to local conditions and many so-called ‘laws’ of gravity are merely parochial Western notions inapplicable to Chinese circumstances.

Of course, this is a fiction. No such interaction ever occurred.

However, if you were to take this quote (here, incorrectly attributed to the Kangxi Emperor) and substitute “human rights” for “gravity”, you would find yourself with a rough equivalent of the statement issued by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in response to the international outcry sparked by its imprisonment of Xu Wenli, an organiser of the 1978 Democracy Wall movement and founding member of the illegal China Democracy Party.[1]

In 1688, only a year after Sir Newton’s Principia, yet another Englishman would publish yet another series on a supposedly universal law. In John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he proposes the first fully developed theory of natural law (at least, in the liberal political tradition). He suggests that the authority and jurisdiction of the state cannot infringe upon the life, liberty or property of its citizens, as these are universal rights that should be enjoyed by all men (or at least, Europeans that happen to be male and that happen to own real estate).

For fear of labouring the analogy any further, I venture to suggest that gravity and human rights are not all that different. Neither can be seen, but the forces that they exert on the objects that they effect are measurable and intelligible, and lead observers to conclude that some scientific rule – or law of nature, if you will – is at work. No doubt, the reader will naturally accept that the preceding is an accurate description of gravity, but might pause a moment before conceding that the same can be said of human rights.

Admittedly, the statement of the CCP played upon my mind as I queued up to collect my accreditation pass at the main gate of the United Nations Office at Geneva. I was coming to the end of my first week as an intern at the International Service for Human Rights. Here, in Switzerland – the geographical heart of Western Europe and the age-old arbiter between its great powers – I glanced up at the familiar UN logo; an azimuthal equidistant projection of the globe superimposed over concentric circles. After a polite exchange with the French-speaking security corporal (who busied himself with my passport), and a brief survey of the bustling throng of European staff, my eyes again turned to the logo above. I noted that it was flanked by Greco-Roman olive branches and the almost identical English and French lettering: ‘United Nations’ and ‘Nations Unies’. I wondered whether all of this this would feel quite so universal if I was a Chinese diplomat.


Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works.

Eleanor Roosevelt – diplomat, activist and ‘First Lady of the World’ – shared these words with the United Nations General Assembly on the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).[2] This document is the foundation upon which the entirety of the modern international human rights law regime is built. From it spawned the nine core treaties of the United Nations.

I interrogated these words from Roosevelt’s 1958 address as I passed back through security checks and strolled around to the western gate of the Palais des Nations, the path towards its neoclassical façade lined by the flags of the UN’s 193 member states. Roosevelt’s rhetorical foregoes the dilemma of the origins of human rights theory, in favour of a much more pragmatic approach. But the question still lingers, 60 years on. Although devoid of the typical decorative elements of most neoclassical architecture, the Palais still has a distinctly European aura – similar, I thought, to the legal architecture of its human rights mechanisms, and the philosophical presumptions underpinning them.

Whilst these rights can’t be seen on the world’s maps, they’re plainly evident in its history books. At least in the ones I’ve read – the West tends to takes centre stage. The Magna Carta, the English Civil War and the Bill of Rights, the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence and – of course – the founding of the United Nations and the drafting of the UDHR. Most historians and human rights advocates worth their salt bear at least a passing familiarity with each of these developments. When asked for an account of comparable milestones in the East, however, many struggle. I, for one, would falter, before murmuring something about the Cyrus Cylinder or the Confucius Analects, and perhaps attempting to recount the upsides of communitarian value systems.

In this context, it is not difficult to understand the reservations (or indeed open suspicion) of the East and the Global South, as hinted at in statements like the one issued by the CCP in the fallout surrounding the Xu Wenli fiasco. Others go as far as to suggest that human rights theory is merely cultural imperialism re-packaged; that it is an attempt to export hedonistic individualism and chaos-prone democracy where they’re not welcome. One such critic is Makua Mutua, former dean of the State University of New York’s Law School and member of The Council of Foreign Relations. The “declaration’s bias and exclusivity”, he opines, has been exposed by “Muslims, Hindus, Africans, non-Judeo-Christians, feminists, critical theorists, and other scholars of an inquiring bent of mind”.[3]

There’s no denying the underlying assumptions. The western world’s thoroughly riddled historical track record speaks for itself, and needs no recounting here. One can’t help but think that it’s not the whole story, though.

Whilst the UDHR is not a perfectly representative document, it is difficult to conceive of any practical measures that could have made it any more inclusive. There was not a single dissenting vote when it was presented to the General Assembly in 1948.[4]Indeed, whilst it is true that many peoples across the world were still under colonial rule at the time – and thus were not represented as nation states at its presentation and accession – every subsequently constituted state has gone on to ratify both the ICCPR and the ICESCR (the two primary treaties deriving from the Declaration), and have reaffirmed the UDHR itself in the Vienna Human Rights Declaration in 1993 (along with, in some cases, the wholesale copy and paste of large swathes of the UDHR into their own newly written constitutions).

Its developmental process was also highly consultative in nature. The UNESCO Philosopher’s Group and the Committee on Social, Cultural and Humanitarian Affairs were both involved in the drafting and review of the document – the latter including six members from the communist bloc, eleven different Islamic countries, and four countries containing large Buddhist populations. After over 100 meetings spent reviewing each word of the declaration, its Chair – Charles Malik, of Lebanon – concluded that each culture in the world had had a hand in the drafting of the UDHR.[5]Additionally, the particular delegates involved in the UDHR’s composition that were from China, Lebanon, the Philippines and Chile (including Chang, Malik, Romulo and Santa Cruz) were widely regarded as having been some its most influential drafters.[6] Some have gone so far as to say that “it is unlikely that any other political document in history has ever drawn from such diverse sources, or received the same worldwide, sustained consideration and scrutiny as the Declaration underwent over its two years of preparation.”[7]

The UNESCO Philosophers group would also go on to conclude, after consultation with Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic cultures (including, of course, Christian culture) that there was an irreducible common core of fundamental principles widely shared in countries that had not yet adopted human rights instruments.[8] From this, it was extrapolated that there are indeed basic concepts of humane conduct so widely shared that they may be viewed as implicit in man’s nature.[9] This writer has his own views on how they got there, as, most probably, will the reader. The UDHR drafters, however, deliberately omitted the inclusion of any philosophical premise for the universality of the rights they proceeded to proclaim. There was no mention of any divine inspiration or any natural law; no one culture’s perspective given any preference over another’s. In the thaw of the icy rivalries that had gripped the globe in WW2, the drafters quickly bypassed any settlement on these foundations. The Iron Curtain was descending upon Europe, and both sides would soon dig in for the long winter of the Cold War. Once that chill set in, the steady stream of cooperation and resolutions passing through the United Nations General Assembly would freeze over, and any consensus would be nigh on impossible. The window of opportunity would have been lost.


The Commission on Human Rights. New York: May, 1948. Chang (far left), Roosevelt (third from left), Malik (centre right).

The consequence, however, was a much more flexible and inclusive document. PC Chang (the Chinese delegate to the drafting committee) stated that the rights described therein were for everyone, not just Westerners.[10]There was thus no central blueprint for the implementation of these rights, and no one culture that could claim to have had the monopoly on their genesis. Chang and his colleagues on the international drafting committee expected that that the Declaration’s rights would be inculcated in a variety of ways, and that over time the corpus of human rights would be enriched as a result. It was never intended that its implementation would compel uniformity with western ideals. As the French philosopher Jacques Maritain would remark of the 30 articles of the Declaration; many different kinds of music could be played on the document’s 30 strings. Mirroring the same sentiment, Chang stated that “culturallythere are many ‘Easts’ and many ‘Wests’; and they are by no means all necessarily irreconcilable.”[11]This was evident in the leeway built in to the international human rights mechanisms themselves. Aside from non-derogable rights, all human rights can be subjected to reasonable limitations, the enforcement of which is the responsibility of individual states – which may also include reservations to treaties in order to retain the right to differing interpretations, as they arise. 

All things considered, then, those that attempt to frame the debate as a binary East v West contest are, respectfully, perpetuating something of a fallacy. It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing the West as uniform, and sprouting the familiar Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire narrative (which does, admittedly, form so much of our political and philosophical development). As with most fields in academia, though, international law and human rights scholarship is beset with a multiplicity of philosophical divisions and debates. Amidst the economic and cultural relativists, the modernists, Marxists, and moralists, the utilitarians and the consequentialists, the cynics and the political realists, the faithful and the sceptics – and those that quite simply defy categorisation – it’s difficult to say that there even is a Western orthodoxy on the theory of human rights. Each and every practitioner has his or her own particular subscriptions, biases and ulterior motives when engaging in the work – this writer included.

This same complexity is present in the East, and its many different cultural and religious traditions. Whilst it is important to take international criticisms of “human rights hegemony” as bona fide, and to respond to them on their merits (and there’s no doubting that they are not without merit – if you’ll excuse the double negative) it is perhaps slightly naïve to assume that the protestations of many non-western states are entirely representative of the cultures that they claim to speak for. The vast majority of human rights defenders that are imprisoned and harassed in the non-Western world are just that; not Western – but rather, local. It’s possible that the real fear underscoring these state’s objections to Western human rights laws is of their own peoples, rather than the aspirations of the West.

Here again, the conflict between the likes of Xu Wenli and the Chinese Communist Party comes to the fore.

Xu was arrested in 1981 for his role in the Democracy Wall Movement, having been charged with spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. He subsequently served 13 years of the 15 year imprisonment order handed down, having been released on May 26, 1993. He would be imprisoned again in 1998 – this time, for having co-founded a political party to oppose the CCP. He would be exiled to America in 2002, after having been granted medical parole.

On beginning my internship with the International Service for Human Rights, I learned of the experiences of my predecessor this time last year, in 2017. Then, China’s more recent civil society crackdown (starting around 2015) had forced numerous NGOs to shut down. Newly introduced national security and counterterrorism laws limited access to and sharing of information, both online and offline. Efforts to contain progressive or ‘activist’ lawyers and legal professionals resulted in up to 300 human rights defenders being harassed, detained – or simply disappearing. In Washington, Brussels, and of course Geneva, this had sparked an urgent initiative by NGOs (including the ISHR) to leverage international pressure and appeals – from both foreign governments and the UN – for an end to the crackdown and the release of political prisoners.

One of the main UN human rights mechanisms through which the ISHR works, and where efforts to hold China accountable continue despite the current political environment, is the UN Human Rights Council. I have arrived just in time to prepare for its 37th session, commencing at the end of February and running through March. In my first conference with my programme managers, we discussed the ISHR’s thematic and country-based priorities, the primary resolutions to be proposed, and the role that potential spoilers – not least of which is China – might play in the negotiations.

Two years ago, 12 governments (including Australia) issued a joint statement in the Human Rights Council raising concerns about China’s deteriorating human rights record, including its use of disappearance and detention to silence activists. Since then, despite continual arrests, disappearances, restrictions, and deaths – like that of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo – the Council has remained relatively silent. Even when individual delegations and UN experts dared to directly raise concerns themselves, China returned to its increasingly familiar script;

As a state based on the rule of law, China opposes any case of arbitrary detention. Yesterday the Chair of the Working Group made an irresponsible statement on Liu Xiaobo, and this is interference in the judicial sovereignty of China. China firmly objects to this… the case of Mr Liu does not represent arbitrary detention, but falls into the purview of national sovereignty. We do not accept any external interference, and the Working Group should use authoritative and objective information to improve its credibility.

After this first meeting with my new colleagues, I mulled over the now standard-form response of the Chinese government as I headed back to my desk, my opinion on the matter toing and froing. The corner of the Palais des Nations is just visible from my office window – and sitting on the wall adjacent, a large ‘Carte du Monde’. The warped longitude and latitude lines, increasing in breadth, depth and curvature as they move out from the centre, give the impression that the continents are being pulled inwards by some invisible force.

It struck me that Europe – in particular, Western Europe – was in the centre of the map. I reflected on the fact that its innate bias (it was evidently drawn up by Europeans) did not necessarily render it inaccurate – in fact, the proportional adjustments on this particular map make it more accurate than most.

The philosophical entanglements surrounding the universality of human rights can produce something of a quagmire. But as far as their modern codification into legal standards is concerned, it strikes me that the more important question is not “who had the idea first?” but “is the idea a good one?”

The gravity of Newtonian physics is felt just as heavily in Asia as it is in Europe, where it was ‘discovered’. Here’s to hoping the gravity of human rights can be felt just as universally.



[1] See generally Mary Ann Glendon, ‘Universality Under Siege’ in A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York, 2001.

[2] Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘The Great Question’, remarks delivered at the United Nations Office in New York, March 27, 1958.

[3] Glendon, ‘Universality Under Siege’, 2001.

[4] Mary Ann Glendon, ‘Foundations of Human Rights: The Unfinished Business’, AM. J. Juris, 1999, Vol. 44, p 163.

[5] Charles Malik, ‘Introduction, in Frederick Nolde, Free and Equal: Human Rights in Ecumenical Perspective, Geneva1968, p 12.

[6] Jack Donnelly, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly, May 2007, Vol. 29(2), p 283.

[7] Glendon, ‘Foundations of Human Rights: The Unfinished Business’, p 163.

[8] Donnelly, ‘The Relative Universality of Human Rights’, 283.

[9] Richard P. McKeon, “The Philosophic Bases and Material Circumstances of the Rights of Man,” in Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations, New York, 1949, p 45.

[10] P. C. Chang, China at the Crossroads: The Chinese Situation in Perspective, London, 1936, pp 124-25.

[11] Ibid.

Posted by: Castan Centre | February 14, 2018

The life of an immigration attorney in New York

By Michael Li

It’s been a couple of months since I began interning at Human Rights First in New York City. For those who aren’t familiar, Human Rights First is a non-profit organisation that assists and advocates for refugees. A big part of their work is the Refugee Representation Program (RRP), which provides pro bono legal representation to people seeking asylum in the United States. As an intern, I assist HRF’s attorneys with a variety of legal and administrative tasks. And boy, what a variety it’s been!

Since I’ve been here, I’ve written affidavits, drafted court motions, interviewed clients, attended court proceedings, filled out visa applications, served papers, researched country conditions, edited legal publications, and so many other things. It’s a glimpse into the life of an immigration attorney: every day is different, and no skill goes to spare. One day I’m combing through case law, trying to piece together the standard for proving inadmissibility on a particular ground, the next I’m furiously taking notes during a three-hour interview with a Tibetan client. Occasionally, I’ll get back to my desk to find a legal brief that needs proofreading, or some documents that need to be filed with the Immigration Court, in which case I’ll make my way down to the court building, hustle through the security checkpoint, and finally get yelled at by the clerk for not hole-punching the papers correctly – this is America after all, pal.

I’ve also had the privilege of working directly with HRF’s clients and learning some of their incredible stories. To put it mildly, they’ve been through some pretty rough times. Recurring themes include gang killings, arbitrary imprisonment, female genital mutilation and torture. A woman client came to us with of the worst cases of domestic violence I’d ever seen; reading her file literally made me shiver. But despite these deeply confronting narratives, the work that I do – and the work that everyone at HRF does – is resolutely optimistic. It’s inspiring to see people so determined to rebuild their lives from near ruin – to not let their past trauma control their future. You don’t know courage until you shake hands with someone who, after losing half their family to gang violence and narrowly avoiding the same fate, still manages to greet you with a gleam in their eye and a smile on their face. And of course, whenever one of our clients is granted asylum, we celebrate the good news with a round of Dunkin Donuts – which, I might add, taste strangely better in New York.

As I write this, I have about a month left in my internship and a sinking feeling in my chest. The past two months have gone by so quickly – I can already picture myself on the plane back to Melbourne, sad about leaving New York, wondering where all that time went. I’ve still yet to see a Broadway show (they’re not cheap), and this week I’m going to try to catch Free Fridays at the Museum of Modern Art. This has been a truly incredible experience for me, and I hope to make the utmost of my remaining time.

Posted by: Michelle Freilich | February 7, 2018

In the Pursuit of Women’s Human Rights


Before venturing to bustling Kuala Lumpur, I was eager to delve into my internship at International Women’s Rights Action Watch – Asia Pacific; an international NGO promoting and protecting women’s human rights. I would be working alongside defenders against human rights violations and global, systemic discrimination faced by women. As I sat in a meeting on the discourse of intersectionality in an office enveloped in bright, unapologetic women’s rights posters, my expectations were surpassed. Indeed, throughout my time surrounded by the brilliant feminist minds of IWRAW it became increasingly evident how vital advocacy and capacity building, particularly in the Global South, is to the realisation of women’s rights.

Through immersive conversations with the women at IWRAW and a towering pile of booklets, I began to understand the depth of engaging with women’s human rights. It seemed apt that the first paper I read was on the crucial differences between gender equity and gender equality, as my coming weeks would be followed by in depth consideration of the nuanced complexities of discrimination against women. An international platform provides the clarity of view to discern women’s rights issues as a holistic network rather than silos. For example, in the examination of sexual and reproductive health rights, it is imperative not only to consider the accessibility of services but also their interplay with the socio-political climate, sexual violence and the marginalisation of groups of women. Further, in practice, an international platform enables programmes to be conducted in which human rights defenders from diverse countries learn from one another.


In the first few weeks of my internship I began the project of contributing to the report on the international judicial colloquium on access to justice for sexual violence. This quickly became a highlight of my internship. The colloquium was a knowledge sharing and peer advocacy platform in which judges, lawyers, women’s rights experts and activists engaged in advancing the discourse on gender equality in national laws and policies. As I buried myself in the materials from the programme, I was struck by the reverberating effects of good judicial practices. I have long marvelled at progressive judgements in Australia (á la Justice Kirby) and in turn was captivated by these progressive judges sharing the ways in which they circumvented discriminatory laws to enhance access to justice. The High Court in Zimbabwe struck down marriage to the victim as a mitigating factor in sentencing in child sexual abuse cases, while the Constitutional Court of South Africa extended the common law definition of rape. Through the important dialogue that took place at the colloquium, various strategic responses to structural, substantive and cultural barriers to access to justice in sexual violence cases were disseminated in a global context.


Central to the operation of IWRAW is the utilisation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The international treaty focuses on the attainment of full equality between men and women and the elimination of discrimination against women that impedes women’s enjoyment and exercise of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. IWRAW has harnessed CEDAW as a tool in pursuit of the realisation of women’s human rights. In particular, CEDAW can be utilised by women’s human rights advocates and defenders in applying international human rights standards at the national level.

In achieving this end, IWRAW provides strategic support to women’s rights NGOs through their Global to Local Programme prior to CEDAW Review Sessions. The programme empowers women at the grassroots level by facilitating the involvement of NGOs in the review. In turn, NGOs are ensured the opportunity to hold their government accountable for human rights violations and discrimination against women. Since the start of my internship, I have been involved in Global to Local through compiling and noting the discrepancies between the reports composed by States and the often starkly different shadow reports composed by NGOs. The space between the state report and shadow report manifests the necessity for local NGOs to be given a voice on the international human rights platform. In sifting through the reports of Malaysia, Chile, Republic of Korea, Fiji, Saudi Arabia, Suriname, Luxembourg and Marshall Islands, I have become acutely aware of the diverse ways in which discrimination against women manifests. There is a certain confrontation in reading about women’s human rights violations directly from local NGOs.


Having never been to Malaysia before I was unsure what to expect of the country that would become my home for the next two months. I had a curiosity that Google and friends’ anecdotes could not quell. From the energetic streets to the humid lightening storms, I have been captivated by Kuala Lumpur. My tolerance for spice has even (very mildly) improved. It has become clear that cereal pales in comparison to dim sum for breakfast and sandwiches are a flavourless lunch against hawker delights. Beyond the consuming cuisines of Malaysia, it is a fascinating base from which to engage with women’s rights, as the exposure to new cultures demands a constant renegotiation of my perspectives. As the end approaches for the Malaysia component of my internship, I already long for egg custard buns and rooftop views of vast cityscape.


James Barklamb is our Global Intern at the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center in New Orleans. He recently visited the National Civil Rights Museum and penned this post. You can also read his first post at

James Barklamb- Castan

2018 marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In the half century since, there have been gains-  both real and symbolic- in the fight for racial equality. But any sense that the underlying injustice and disparity in circumstance that underlay the civil rights movement is remedied, is evidently misplaced.

The night before Dr. King was killed, he proclaimed he had seen the “mountaintop”, in what is now recognised as one of his greatest speeches. At its core, the speech is a meditation on service through collective action; service that sublimates the individual at the head of a movement, in pursuit of the movement’s greater longevity and sustainability. 

It is therefore unsurprising that the speech reaches its crescendo in Dr. King pronouncing his great fortune at having survived a life-threatening stabbing to witness a series of…

View original post 820 more words

Posted by: Castan Centre | May 17, 2017

Humans and Rights

By Nicola Silbert

Following an intense month at the Human Right Council, life at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) continues. This post will discuss the Universal Periodic Review and an example of ISHR’s advocacy work for human rights defenders in China.

Universal Periodic Review

The Universal Period Review (UPR) is a review of the human rights situation in all of the UN member States. A review of the human rights records of basically the entire world is not for the faint-hearted, and there is no other universal mechanism of this kind. A State, known as the State under Review (SuR) will cycle through for review every five years. The SuR will present a national report and then other States have the opportunity to make recommendations to improve its human rights situation. It is reminiscent of a TV talent show with 192 judges and significantly more tears.

The UPR culminates in an “outcome report” listing the recommendations the SuR will have to implement before the next review. Think it sounds like a great idea? You are in good company, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described the UPR as having “great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.” ISHR engages with the UPR by submitting briefing papers about the situation of human rights defenders in the SuR; supporting human rights defenders to interact with the UPR; and advocating for the strengthening of the UPR as a mechanism.

Humans and human rights

In the bland light of Room XX where the UPR is held, I struggled to conceptualise the meaning of words behind country reports. I was reminded of the following analogy:

“If someone tries to browbeat a farmer to sell his eggs at a moderate price, the farmer can say “I have the right to keep my eggs if I don’t get a good enough price.” But if a young girl is being forced into a brothel she will not talk about her rights. In such a situation the word would sounds ludicrously inadequate.” Simone Weil, Human Personality (1943)

In her criticism of human rights, Weil argues that the concept of rights is unable to portray the suffering of the girl in the above example. What would she think of the UPR and HRC? For me, the formulaic and disconnected atmosphere means that I struggle to understand the human rights violations which are described in the UPR. Of course, my individual experience of humanity also limits my understanding of how another’s humanity is violated. I can only imagine that the delegations involved in the UPR feel similarly.

Yet Weil was writing before the development of human rights as a legal tool. Human rights is not only a method through which we can express violations of our human dignity, but it is a legal system. As a legal culture, it is natural that the UPR and other human rights mechanisms do not go into issues of justification. In the UPR, the humans behind the human rights seem less important than the effectiveness of the mechanism. Yet implementation of UPR recommendations relies on political will, so perhaps it is important to have some deeper understanding of the humans who hold the rights. The pre-sessions to the UPR provide such a platform.

The pre-party

UPR pre-sessions are organised by the non-governmental organisation UPR Info. The pre-sessions are panels of human rights defenders and national organisations who provide first-hand testimonies and information. The room is filled with reviewing States, who use this information to make recommendations to the SuR. Listening to the lived experiences of human rights violations, State representatives are more likely to fully comprehend the situation in a country. The pre-sessions are clearly powerful, leading to some States preventing panellists from speaking – a human rights defender in Bahrain who was meant to speak on the panel was apprehended on their way to Geneva and another declined to speak for fear of reprisal. Providing a platform for people on the ground to engage with States ensures that the UPR remains effective and relevant to the humans whose rights are being discussed.

Advocacy at work

Another example of ISHR’s nudging the UN to focus mechanisms on defending the rights of people is through advocacy work. In July 2015, more than 300 human rights lawyers and defenders were arrested in China in what is known as the “709 Crackdown.” Two lawyers arrested in these attacks were Li Heping and Xie Yang. Last week, Li Heping was sentenced during a secret trial while Xie Yang’s trial was indefinitely postponed. There are allegations that both have been tortured while in detention. Meanwhile, Li’s wife, Wang Qiaoling was harassed by State security who asked her to come with them for a ‘reunion’ with her husband, a euphemism for what is essentially a house arrest.

What has been the UN response to the 709 Crackdown so far? In February 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement expressing concern over China’s clampdown on lawyers and activists, including Li Heping. A group of twelve States, including Australia, also delivered a joint statement at the Human Rights Council. However, over the past year there has been little response to the ongoing human rights violations and clampdown on civil society.

So, how do international NGOs like ISHR push the UN to hold the Chinese government accountable? I was lucky enough to see the advocates at work. During the HRC in March, I watched civil society organisations strategize and meet with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This was followed by a flurry of letter writing from ISHR and other organisations. We wrote to the OHCHR; to States who spoke out about China at the HRC; and to those who should have spoken out about China but did not (Australia being in this category). During the week that Li Heping and Xie Yang had (or rather, didn’t have) their trials, I gave my rusty Chinese skills a work-out, contributing to the following article.

The tangible effects of meetings, letters and articles are difficult to quantify. However, on Friday, the OHCHR released this statement on human rights lawyers in China, including Li Heping and Xie Yang. The Chinese government has been sensitive to this kind of international scrutiny in the past, making the statement a small success. ISHR’s pushes might have just tipped the OHCHR into making the statement, demonstrating the effect of their work. This advocacy is yet another example of how ISHR works within the UN systems to advocate for both humans and their rights.

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