Interview with Professor Gillian Triggs: A Truly International Lawyer

For our fourth profile of Women in International Law Month, Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Tridgell sat down with the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Professor Gillian Triggs. She is a highly accomplished international lawyer and academic, with experience on matters from commercial law to Indigenous rights.

Professor Triggs is the incumbent President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. Previously, she was Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney and Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law. Gillian has been a consultant on International Law to King & Wood Mallesons, the Australian representative on the Council of Jurists for the Asia Pacific Forum for National Human Rights Institutions, Chair of the Board of the Australian International Health Institute and a member of the Attorney General’s International Legal Service Advisory Council. She is the author of many publications on international law, including “International Law: Contemporary Principles and Practices” (Second Edition, 2011).


Professor Triggs, you have had a long and illustrious career in international law. What first sparked your interest in the subject?

I started my law degree, when I was barely 18 in 1964. While property law and contracts left me cold, I learned to respect legal thinking and legal history. Then I enrolled in International law, and learned about the Covenant of the League of Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the principles that underpin the subject. I began to understand the “Rule of Law” in international relations, and was fascinated by the idea of regulating conflicts through the United Nations. I remember thinking “this is the law for me. This makes sense ”.

From then on, I saw law through the prism of international law. After completion of my law degree, I was lucky to have the opportunity to study for a Masters in International Law in the USA, which consolidated my specialisation, in particular, in the rights of the individual. The challenge at that time was to find a career in international law, which I can assure you, in the late 1960s, was difficult outside academia.

What made it so difficult? Was it lack of demand, or understanding of international law?

International was seen as a highly specialist subject. There were very few jobs in the UN system, and most Australian law firms did not provide advice in this area. Indeed, they did virtually no international work at all. The kinds of issues that came up in international law were usually for the Government’s trade or foreign affairs departments. After finishing the Masters, I worked for about 3 years in the USA, doing civil rights work with the Dallas Police Department, and then returned to Australia.

I should admit that luck has played a significant role in my career. I was at the bottom of the ladder in a university, teaching criminal law and equity. Within my first year, the international law professor went back to Canada and I was promoted to lecturer in the very subject of my research. It was a stroke of good fortune.

Over time I came to realise that to be a good international lawyer, you need practical, commercial skills. I went to Mallesons Stephen Jacques (now King & Wood Mallesons) to work. As they are an Australian and international firm, they had transnational clients. I would be included as a member of a legal team dealing, for example, with bank loans to Papua New Guinea, force majeure clauses and sovereign immunity for the Timor Gap, or the legal security for offshore oil and gas concession in the Gulf of Thailand.

You mentioned that international law used to be considered very specialist, yet these days it is considered a huge field and each of those cases that you mentioned may be a specialist area in itself. Would you recommend that young international lawyers try to be more of a generalist or specialist?

My view is that it is important to be across the principles of international law as a generalist, and then move to a specialisation. It is a big mistake to go from an undergraduate course to a specialisation in human rights or environmental law, or even trade law for that matter. You need to learn the subject of international law in depth. You are not going to get that in a one-semester course of a law degree, of a JD.

I believe a thorough understanding of the classic topics of international law-territory, jurisdiction, and immunity, along with basic commercial law– should be mastered before specialization. For example, when I was Director of the British Institute for International Law, we worked with Oxfam to preserve a couple of square miles of the Amazonian rain forest for the Indigenous peoples who lived there. The way it was to be achieved was through a debt for equity swap.

What fascinated me was that the human rights lawyers who were working for the indigenous peoples had never worked in commercial law and had no idea what a debt equity swap is. We engaged lawyers from some top law firms in London, who gave their skills pro bono as banking and finance experts to achieve the human rights outcome.

You cannot be an effective human rights lawyer without knowing the fundamentals of the legal system, and wider aspects of international law. In short, to achieve human rights, you need to understand business, finance and trade agreements, and the impact they have on people. Perhaps what I am saying is “study for longer”!

When you moved from commercial work at King & Wood Mallesons into human rights, did you find that a natural transition or tension?

The honest answer is that I made this transition late in my career. I went from being an international lawyer, doing territorial work initially in Antarctica to advising clients on offshore oil and gas concessions, particularly in Timor and the Gulf of Thailand. Overwhelmingly, I was doing commercial work, including with the World Trade Organization. This became my primary area of research. Occasionally, I worked on the impact of international human rights law in Australia, and wrote on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

But I would not describe myself as a human rights lawyer. My work was always broader, and goes to my earlier answer about being a generalist. I was 68 years old when I was offered the position as President of the AHRC. I decided that this was an opportunity to ensure international human rights laws are applied in Australia. The opportunity would be exciting and challenging. It has certainly been that.

The transition from commercial to human rights law was rapid and challenging. Even my most complimentary colleagues would not describe me as a “human rights lawyer”. I really had to work hard to understand not only the treaties, with which I was familiar, but also the international treaty system of monitoring and individual complaints.

More particularly, for this job, I needed to understand the gulf between international human rights principles and Australian law. We do not have a Bill of Rights. We have few Constitutional protections and many of the human rights treaties to which Australia is a party have not been implemented in domestic law. As we are an Australian government agency, I find myself moving from international human rights law into constitutional law and Federal statutes.

We heard recently from the Law Council of Australia on the wage gap and disparity of appearance time between female and male lawyers, particularly for barristers the High Court. Is this similar to your experience in international law?

Not really. I think you find it in commercial law to a degree, particularly in international commercial arbitration, which is dominated by men. Because I started in international law in the 1960s and ’70s, I was one of the few that were available to provide advice in this area.

Australia has educated some of the best international lawyers in the world: DP O‘Connell, James Crawford, Ivan Shearer, Hilary Charlesworth and many others. We have had a great tradition of international law scholars. I was following that tradition; standing on the shoulders of others. Because there were so few international lawyers in the ’60s, it wasn’t possible to ignore us. One of the many advantages of academia is that it is merit-based. A woman is not so easily sidelined in scholarship as occurs in other careers.

In my career, I have been fortunate to ride the crest of a wave from the ’60s ‘til today. Throughout my life I have had support from Law Deans and partners of law firms who have guided and supported me. Advice that I might pass on is that if an opportunity arises, grasp it, rather than wonder if it is the right thing to do. Just do it.

I never thought about my own career in gendered terms. Coming from a ’60s generation at university, it never occurred to me that inequality had not been fixed. We thought that the world was ours. It is only now that we look back over the last 60 years and we realise that the promise of the ’60s did not materialise for many women. Australia is well behind comparable nations in respect of gender equality.

2017 is already a challenging year for human rights. What particular challenges do you think are being faced for women, both in terms of human rights and international law?

You cannot answer that question without considering what is happening globally: Brexit, Trump and the move to the right with chauvinistic, nationalist governments. We are seeing a shift in global politics, where there is a tolerance for racism, for gender imbalances, for language in the media that we would see as discriminatory. These shifts present significant challenges for the future.

As for women, it is a little hard to see how emerging anti-immigration policies – the politics of fear- will affect women, other than as part of the racial and religious groups that are being demonised. In Australia, we have a conservative federal government that appears to support groups that are anti-migrant, anti-Muslim (unashamedly so), and in some cases, anti-women.

Women are going backwards in Australia and increasingly subject to disrespect. Women are ranked Number 1 by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Index for educational attainment, which I can readily believe. But across the Index, we have declined from being ranked 15th to 36th globally. The position of women is declining, with growing homelessness among women, and a stubborn pay gap. Shamefully, women have about 48 to 49% of men’s superannuation upon retirement.

This is why, in my speeches on behalf of the AHRC, I am asking people to speak up. In my view, women have been strangely quiet. This is the perspective of someone who was at university in the ‘60s, with Germaine Greer two or three years ahead of me at the University of Melbourne. She was confrontational, even vulgar, and in your face. She was not polite to anyone, but she made her point. Maybe we should not return to those years. However, women’s movements today are impeccably polite, courteous, and understated and rarely put their heads above the parapet. I am beginning to think it is time for another revolution.

Once your term finishes this year, what next? Any plans to return to international law practice?

I have some interesting opportunities that have not been publicly announced yet. Suffice to say, I will be fully engaged when my term finishes. My textbook on international law has given me great satisfaction over the years, and I would like to complete a third edition.

I will also write a book about my five years as President of the AHRC. The period of my appointment has been a rollercoaster ride, and is still moving. We have dealt with so many human rights issues over the last five years, especially the mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seekers and their children and violence against women. It has been a privilege to hold such a national position. I am hoping to glide into a state of semi-retirement (laughs).

Do you have any other words of advice to young students and lawyers hoping to practice in international law?

It is a wonderful subject area and endlessly interesting as it is linked to politics and international affairs more generally. I think it is an aspirational subject in many respects. Obviously in subjects such as trade law and law of the sea, international law is generally respected. This is not so with respect to human rights.

One of the delights of the subject is reading: knowing your subject is key. You need to be prepared read the cases, treaties and analysis to understand how international law applies. Do your homework. That is crucial.

We need more good lawyers to come into the field so that it is more integrated into our domestic systems. This is the future challenge. It is one thing to negotiate a treaty at international conferences, and quite another to implement that treaty on our home front.