Written by Julia Day

Some may say that in 2020 human rights has become trendy!?! This is ironic for Professor Hilary Charlesworth, as when she completed her undergraduate law degree at Melbourne University in 1980, the whole notion of human rights was not seen as not being particularly relevant to the discipline of law or perhaps to Australia as a whole!!

Hilary first became interested in human rights when she was completing post graduate study at Harvard University in the US. During this time, she got involved with human rights organisations. She also completed a summer internship with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Upon returning to Melbourne in 1987 she decided she wanted to teach and research into human rights law and she hasn’t looked back since.

Former High Court justice Michael Kirby will be joining the audience for the Kitto lecture, which demonstrates the importance of this presentation. Mr Kirby has been a great influence on Hilary through his commitment to human rights. ‘When Michael Kirby was a member of the High Court he always shone a light on human rights issues. Often, he was the only judge to do this, leaving him in a dissenting position. I have so much respect for him as a leading legal figure.’

Hilary with her mum and daughter (both Stephanie) and granddaughter Mabel

Hilary’s parents were also great influences on her professional life. Hilary’s dad was an academic philosopher. Her childhood memories include going to demonstrations with her dad protesting the death penalty and then Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. Hilary remembers her dad getting into trouble with the Catholic Church for his anti-Vietnam war activism. Michael Kirby later became good friends with her father, through their shared interest in bioethics.

Hilary’s mum, Stephanie, who is still going strong at 95, followed Hilary into the law. After having 7 children in 11 years, Stephanie decided to study law to complement her social work career. Apparently, Hilary’s mum was ‘the world’s keenest law student’ and would exhaust her kids with her enthusiasm for the discipline. ‘Mum was in many of the same law classes as my younger brother, who was also studying law. This proved to be slightly embarrassing for him.’ Her mum practised law until a few years ago- predominantly in family law.

Hilary being sworn in as a Judge ad hoc in a case concerning The Arbitral Award of 3 October 1899 (Guyana v Venezuela) via zoom.

Professor Hilary Charlesworth will be hosting #UNELaw’s Kitto Lecture on the 18th November. She will talk about how COVID has influenced human rights issues. It will no doubt be a fascinating, insightful and thought-provoking presentation!