Human rights as a vocation, from the latest Human Rights Defender


This edition of the Human Rights Defender focuses on human rights as a vocation, through the lens of human rights defenders.  The issue combines interviews with human rights practitioners regarding their motivations, challenges and aspirations for the field, alongside articles and photo essays which look at the ways in which human rights activism and work is incorporated into our everyday lives.

This issue asks the following questions: Who is a human rights defender?  What does it mean to practice human rights?  What challenges does human rights activism face and how can it respond?

The intention is to inspire, inform, challenge and educate, by looking to exemplars, both well-known and less so.  The issue examines the myriad ways in which we encounter human rights and reflects upon the motivations and experiences which drive human rights defenders to do the critical work they do.

The issue begins with HRD managing student editor Caitlin Eaton discussing what it means to be a human rights defender. Her article explains that human rights defenders have certain protections and responsibilities under the United Nations framework, and that they are defined by the nature of the work they carry out. As a result of this work, Caitlin suggests that human rights defenders face considerable and increasing dangers.

Emeritus Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, then analyses the two-fold significance of National Human Rights Institutes (NHRIs): as human rights defenders and as protectors of other human rights defenders. Professor Triggs discusses the functions of NHRIs in both the Australian and global context, emphasising that human rights frameworks need to protect human rights defenders.

HRD photo editor and production manager Diane Macdonald, in her project Positively Remarkable People, shows that photography can be a powerful medium for human rights advocacy.  Macdonald’s documentary photographic portrait project focuses on human rights defenders working to end all forms of gender-based violence.  By capturing her subjects directly, and in black and white, Diane Macdonald highlights the power of communities to collaborate to eliminate violence against women and girls in the future.

Jennifer Robinson speaks with Jenna Tabatznik about her own formation as a human rights lawyer and defender.  She speaks frankly about the difficulties she has encountered along the way and the opportunities which have arisen.  From her early and consistent engagement with West Papua, to her work for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and her current multifaceted engagement with human rights at the Bertha Foundation, Robinson offers an authentic and inspiring example of human rights as vocation.

Next, former HRD managing student editor Michaela Vaughan interviews Ricky Gunawan, of Reprieve Australia, about his work for prisoners in Indonesia facing the death penalty. The interview addresses the difficulties in abolishing the death penalty in Indonesia with a specific focus upon foreign policy and politics, and the significance of legal representation in preventing death penalty convictions. The interview concludes by suggesting ways to build support for the abolition of the death penalty and how Australia can play a key role in this.

In a moving and provocative essay Oishik Sircar recounts his visit to Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad, India; a lower to middle class Muslim residential complex that was one site of the anti-Muslim mass killings in the city in 2002. Sirkar reflects critically on the experience of attempting to imaginatively reconstruct the events and remember the victims.  His essay is accompanied by powerful photographs, or what he calls ‘visual testimonies of trauma’.  And alongside Macdonald’s contribution this essay reflects on the power and limitations of the visual record for the human rights movement.

Uzma Sherieff interviews Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, the Legal Director for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), about her experience of working in the humanitarian sector. The interview stresses the importance of humanitarian work, highlighting the legal, ethical and operational challenges faced by international humanitarian law today.

Darren Ou Yong then interviews Laurence Binet in her capacity as Director of Studies at the Fondation MSF. The interview specifically focuses on Laurence’s Speaking Out Case Studies project which documents how MSF has responded to past crises. After discussion of the project’s methodology, the interview highlights the important work of MSF, but also the challenges of working in the context of broader crisis and failure.

Finally, Emma Palmer interviews Stephen Rapp, US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes and leader of the US State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice.  Ambassador Rapp reflects on his career in international criminal justice and the state of the field.  Ambassador Rapp recommends improvements for international tribunals and identifies some obstacles which leave the development of international criminal justice ‘uneven’.

The issue closes with our back page reflection by current UNSW Reprieve intern Josh Thorp exploring developments in the debate regarding the death penalty in the United States.

We hope that you are inspired and challenged by the pages to follow.  Human rights discourse has become an important part of the vernacular language of politics.  Human rights practice as explored in this issue, in a range of contexts, continues to shape our everyday lives and offers both great hope, but also deeper challenges.  Human rights defenders, their work and motivations, can help us think critically about the field and can inspire its further development.


Daniel Joyce, Rohan Muscat and Jed Horner


Read more on how to access the HRD, here.