A Conversation Between Helena Kennedy and Michael Kirby - "A Law Unto Themselves"

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Jul 31, 2014
by Tanya Yilmaz
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A Conversation Between Helena Kennedy and Michael Kirby - "A Law Unto Themselves"

Salzburg Global Fellow interviewed for BBC Radio 4 by Cutler Lecturer on his courage and dedication to protecting the rule of law Baroness Helena Kennedy and Justice Michael Kirby

Helena Kennedy had not even finished listing attributed qualities when Justice Michael Kirby interrupted her with a good-humored laugh.

“God that makes me exhausted! I didn’t know I’d been accused of so many crimes,” Kirby remarked.

In an interview for BBC Radio 4, Cutler Lecturer Baroness Helena Kennedy spoke to Salzburg Global Fellow, Justice Michael Kirby, in a new series of talks called “A Law Unto Themselves”. The series will see Kennedy interview four eminent international lawyers and judges whose courage and dedication to protecting the rule of law has helped make societies more justifiable.

Kirby discussed how his life-long pursuit of justice was driven by his own experiences with equal gay rights in Australia which has led him to use his expertise to fight for human rights in North Korea.

He was the first Australian High Court judge to come out as gay in 1999 after he revealed that he had been in a stable same-sex relationship since 1969. Kirby has since campaigned for gay rights which have brought him into conflict with not only politicians but also the church and fellow judges.

As a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow, Kirby has attended numerous sessions in the past including, “Biotechnology: Legal, Ethical and Social Issues” and “Telecommunications: Policy Issues and Regulatory Practices.” Kirby also expressed support for (though was unable to attend) the Salzburg Global LGBT Forum in Berlin this year.

Whilst in North Korea, Kirby produced a report detailing and investigation into the widespread violations of human rights in the country and to ensure full accountability is evident, particularly, for acts which may be classified as crimes against humanity.

In 2014, Kirby penned a letter to the participants of the Salzburg Global session Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention: Sharing Experience Across Borders”, where he outlined the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on human rights violations, particularly within the context of North Korea. He not only discussed the modern definition of genocide but also called for participants to engage with new issues such as the global approach to narcotic drug control; human rights issues presented by HIV; the issues of animal rights, protection and welfare.

In his letter, Kirby stated: “I applaud the program at which the marvellous Salzburg Global Seminar will address issues presented by Holocaust and genocide education.

When talking with Kennedy about his judicial work within the High Court of Australia and the Court of Appeal of New South Wales, Kirby made reference to how he adopts the rule of law based on his values.

“I do admit that my background, my experience, my education and my sexuality have an impact on your values and values are critically important – the higher you go up the judiciary ladder, the more important are your values because in the spaces left in the ambiguities of law and statues,” Kirby explained.

Baroness Helena Kennedy has also strong ties with Salzburg Global having been the Cutler lecturer at the “Third Annual Lloyd N. Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law: ‘Conversation at the Court’”. She also attended Cutler Fellow Program in 2012 as well as the November Board of Directors Dinner in the same year.

During the interview, Kennedy described Kirby as the “Great Dissenter”, as he frequently votes against his fellow judges and expresses his personal views outside of the courtroom – something which judges are not supposed to do.

The BBC program also featured speakers such as John Doth and Geoffrey Robertson, who both praised for Kirby’s openness about his sexuality.

Robertson said: “He had two qualities which were remarkable as a judge…He was gay and he came out, and that gave him the perspective of a minority group, it gave him a real, visceral understanding of how law and non-discrimination law was important for different groups of people… [which] marked him as someone who was particularly able to bring the law into the 21st century and into a position where it could better advance human aspirations.”

Doth added that by coming out as gay, Kirby “gave a real respectability to the gay community” and it made a huge difference to public attitudes in Australia. 


To listen to Baroness Helena Kennedy interview Justice Michael Kirby, go to the BBC iPlayer website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04bnd0l

Download Michael Kirby's letter to Salzburg Global Fellows on Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention