Human Rights

Professor Gillian Triggs on Speaking Up, Australia and Human Rights, the Global refugee crisis, and the United Nations

~ Transcript of full interview below ~

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In this podcast, Gillian and I discuss her recent book Speaking Up (MUP, 2018), influences on her early life and career, her role as President of the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2012-2017, the scale of the Global Refugee Crisis, and her upcoming role as Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nations.

Professor Gillian Triggs is a lawyer and academic, who became best known to the Australian public through her Presidency of the Australian Human Rights Commission between 2012 and 2017, which saw her involved in and influencing some of the major social, political and human rights issues and controversies of the day. Professor Triggs was recently appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

Professor Gillian Triggs, Yvette Coppersmith, Archibald Prize 2017 ( https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/2017/29828/ )

Professor Gillian Triggs, Yvette Coppersmith, Archibald Prize 2017
(https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/prizes/archibald/2017/29828/)

Gillian Triggs
29 August, 2019
Melbourne

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, featuring conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting and flourishing lives in order to better understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. 

00:11 My name is Nick and today I'm lucky to be joined by Professor Gillian Triggs who became best known to the Australian public through her service as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission between 2012 and 2017, which saw her involved in and influencing some of the major social, political and human rights issues of the day.

00:29 Prior to this, while working as a public international lawyer and academic, Gillian enjoyed a diverse and distinguished career in the law, both in Australia and internationally, working with Mallesons Stephen Jacques, serving as Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney and as Director of the British Institute for International and Comparative Law.

00:47 Gillian was recently appointed as Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, a role based in Geneva, Switzerland.

00:56 So, Gillian, thank you so much for being here today and congratulations on your recent appointment.

01:01 Gillian: Thank you. It's a real pleasure to talk to you.

01:03 Nick: So, you published your memoir, 'Speaking Up', in October, 2018 and it's a unique fusion of your personal story, your time as president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and an analysis of major political and social issues.

01:16 I found the opening chapter really instructive and framing some of your earlier influences, from being born not only in war time London but also in the wake of the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, your parents both serving in the armed forces against Nazi Germany and your early experiences as a migrant to Australia.

01:31 I suppose in retrospect it seems inevitable that your career would have come to have revolved around public international law, human rights advocacy and diplomacy. Can you reflect on some of these broader influences and defining moments of your life so far?

01:43 Gillian: I think it's one of the interesting aspects of getting a little older, that you can start to reflect back on the past and realise that things that perhaps you didn't see at the time as being particularly important have actually assumed an enormously important role in how your life sort of takes its direction. 

01:59 For me, obviously growing up in London after the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings, the end of the war, my parents being in the army and the navy and living in the poverty and destruction of London, the horrors of London, and growing up there for the first few years and then coming suddenly, my parents decided that they were going into the light to Australia and decided to become migrants. I was wrenched from being a professional ballet dancer to leaving Australia when I was 12 but coming through the Suez Canal probably was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life because I'd come from a very protected world in a terrace house in north London. My ballet, I was at a local convent. Led a wonderful life. Suddenly, I'm seeing that people my age in Yemen where there's still civil war - there was civil war then in 1958, but a young girl my age was living in abject poverty, discrimination, with virtually no future and no education. It opened my eyes to the realities of the world that I was living in. 

03:10 So, I think when I look back now from my seventh decade, I realise that those things really did inform, you know, my education and how I developed my life. 

03:23 Nick: Yeah, and can you speak a bit about why you named the book 'Speaking Up' and in particular, why you named the opening chapter 'finding my voice', perhaps reflecting on the reference you made to Homer's The Odyssey in chapter two?

03:33 Gillian: Well, I think that women - and I have observed that women have been passive. They have to a high degree been willing to stand behind men. They're not inclined to be - to speak and articulate their concerns, and very often they lack confidence in the public arena.

03:56 I found that when I was really quite young, I learned the power of the voice and I learned how to give a speech and I learned how to engage an audience, and they're skills that I think have helped me all my life. 

04:11 Most particularly, when I was president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I realised that we had the facts right, the law was easy to get right. It was now my job, absolutely clearly under the statute, to speak up for those things that I knew were legally and morally right, and I had a voice that not only could I use but that other people listened to.

04:38 Even if some of that meant that I attracted the ire of the Murdoch Press and News Corp and of course the prime ministers of the day and the attorneys-general, I really was so strong in knowing that what I was doing was right and legally correct and the facts were right, that it gave me an opportunity really for the first time in my life to not only have a voice within the small world I operated in, but to have a voice in a much bigger canvas, in a much bigger world. 

05:09 I saw the power of using that voice and you bring a lot of people - or you can bring a lot of people with you. So, when I came to writing this book about my five years as President of the Commission, I thought well really the title - what I was really trying to say is speak up for what you know is right. 

05:27 Now, you may not agree with everything I'm saying. I'm quite sure most - a lot of people don't, but that's not the point. I'd just like people to speak up about what they know to be right and be part of the democratic system in the way in which it was always intended, rather than allowing far too many people to speak up for you.

05:43 Nick: There's a really interesting kind of flip to that whole notion of speaking up which is I suppose not speaking up and what the costs are when you don't speak out against things which you perceive to be unjust or unfair.

05:54 Gillian: That's quite right, and the people - I try to speak to everybody - but the people that I find I'm particularly resonating with are people of my age. In other words, the World Economic Forum’s gender index says Australian women and girls are number one in the world for education. My generation from when I was at university in the sixties, we are probably the best educated group of women ever in the history globally but certainly of Australia.

06:23 I think my generation should be speaking up, that we have everything that's required. We've got the education; we have a voice. We have often relative comfortableness. We're coming to the later stages of our lives. I think we have a responsibility to speak up on all sorts of issues. 

06:41 Just by way of example, my whole education at University High School, the University of Melbourne, at a university in the United States, at Cambridge in England and back to Melbourne - all of that was at the taxpayer's expense.

06:56 A young girl now who does the JD degree at the University of Melbourne will have a debt probably of $100,000 and it's extraordinary that my generation isn't marching in the streets to say how is it that we have benefitted so greatly from that if you like social experiment of the sixties from which I benefitted so much? Why are we not standing up for these generations younger than us who have not got those opportunities?

07:25 So, that's the generation I'm most particularly speaking up to because we have money, we have power, we have education. We should be doing that.

07:34 Nick: Absolutely. So, I think one of the most powerful features and themes of your book is the way in which you do situate yourself as part of that generation of women who as you describe rode the crest of the wave in terms of female empowerment and liberation in the workforce but also in society more broadly, underpinned by the expansion of opportunities for university education as you mentioned but also the introduction of laws against sexual discrimination and intellectual movements typified by Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer as well.

08:02 So, your book is peppered with those wonderful nostalgic anecdotes from your time at the University of Melbourne, such as drinking rose at Jimmy Watson's wine bar, which many would be familiar with, but what was your outlook on life and work like as a young woman in the 1960's? 

08:15 Gillian: Well, it was as you say, I use the phrase riding the crest of a sort of optimistic, opportunistic wave. I mean, when I was at law school, it was never suggested that we wouldn't get a job. Of course, we were finishing law degrees, we were going to be powerful. The world was ours, absolutely ours. New ideas of equality before the law and non-discrimination, education for women. I couldn't have been in a more optimistic environment and we benefitted from it. It was a very exciting time

08:51 Also, evolving understanding of the horrors of the Vietnam War that we ought not to be involved in that, losing lives and many young men that I was at university with doing law were selected into the draft. Of course, a six-day war occurred in Israel and young men from my year at law school were leaving as Jews to go off to Israel. Of course, the war didn't last very long so they weren't there very long but nonetheless, that was the environment we were in; of young people with a different view about the future being caught up in wars that they maybe didn't support but felt they had to be part of. 

09:36 Nick: So, you've made recent remarks about how there's still a long way to go for women in today's generations to achieve full equality of opportunity, but also as you mentioned before just the complete shift I suppose in the opportunity that might have been afforded to your generation versus now and how there's a lot of, you know, evidence and reports which say that, you know, the standard of living for this generation is going to be a retrograde step. So, I suppose what do you see as the critical areas for improvement in terms of gender equality? 

10:02 Gillian: Well, that's been the extraordinary realisation; that here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and I'm now giving speeches and being asked to talk about the regressive position of women. But it's true generally, it's not only a gendered question but as we are going to talk about the opportunities that were seen for women in the sixties, why you know, 55 years later are we observing such a retrograde environment? 

10:31 So, although I mentioned the World Economic Forum's gender index, we're number one for education, we're 103rd for health access. We're 46th for economic engagement. Without going into that in too much detail, women now retire on 46% of men's superannuation. We are accepting fractional, flexible, casualised contracts and we've simply declined. Instead of reaching our full potential in the workforce, we've not done it and that's led to extraordinary statistics that the fastest growing group of homelessness in Australia is women over 55. That is largely due to firstly domestic violence and secondly, poverty, and no one could really have imagined that in the sixties that's where we would be, my generation. 

11:29 But speaking more broadly, a young girl these days does not have the expectations of the ability to meet her potential and indeed to do as well financially as my generation. I think we've got to look hard and long at this but what are the immediate issues? Homelessness, domestic violence, poverty but also marginalisation in the workforce, that we should be much more engaged than we are. We're something like 77th in the world for political engagement at senior levels and that's not surprising when you look at our current political environment. Who could have possibly imagined that?

12:09 So, we're a long way from achieving equality and I think many of the things that I'm talking about apply to men as well in some cases. It's not only a gendered issue so I do want to be careful in saying that. I don't only see this as women. I think men have also suffered in various ways, although overwhelmingly it's been women going into poverty. I see homeless men around here all the time.

12:35 The women's issue in homelessness is very different. It's much more easily covered up. It's the mother calling the son to say, "Can I sleep on your sofa, even though you've got three children and you're struggling?" Whereas, men tend to be literally on the streets and that's very painful to see.

12:53 Nick: What would your advice be to young women about living a happy, flourishing and meaningful life in the face of all these quite, you know, sobering and even sort of depressing statistics and broad societal trends?

13:04 Gillian: Well, I think one is to be alert to what's happening to them. I think it's been incredibly dangerous for women to be accepting these casualised, fractional positions. They've been lulled into what I think is absolute nonsense of the balance of life and quality of life issues.

13:24 I think by accepting this, they've actually stepped off the ladders. They don't build the superannuation; they don't build the financial background. My advice to them would be from a very - you know, once you're in that workforce, you build that workforce commitment and you stay in it.

13:44 My observation has been that women will take fractionalised positions but work in effect full time and get half the salary and they've done it for all sorts of personal reasons but I would say just as a first step - there are so many things, but the first step is when you get that job, you work on it fulltime and you develop your own security within the job market, but take opportunities. I think women tend to lack self-confidence. I'm sorry to say that but far too many do and I think that if we...

14:18 Nick: In terms of salary negotiation and seeking promotion...

14:21 Gillian: Absolutely, and not speaking up.

14:23 Nick: Yeah, well, there you go.

14:24 Gillian: They're so passive. There's a wonderful book - well, it's not that wonderful but it's interesting by - called 'Leaning In'. 

14:34 Nick: Sheryl Sandberg.

14:35 Gillian: By Sandberg, that women have not leant in. They've been so passive and willing to accept other people's view of them, but you can be courteous. You can still be feminine and you can still be all those things, but you've got to stand up for what you know you are. You know you're an educated woman with a clear mind and you can be ambitious and insist on your own position.

15:00 But I'm afraid young women do not typically take that view. They're still nervous about what other - they care about what other people think of them. They want to be liked. Whereas, men are not as subject to that. Now, why that difference has arisen, I'm not entirely sure, but my advice to young women is get the support of other young women and other young men and stand up for it and stand up for yourself, and use your education but don't accept this silly work-life balance nonsense. Take your full-time job which is actually 37.5 hours a week, I understand, and go for it.

15:34 Nick: Yep. That's wonderful. So, just shifting into your time at the Human Rights Commission from 2012 to 2017. Something that really pervades throughout your book is the sense that Australia as a nation has lost touch with its more liberal internationalist roots and obligations, perhaps best exemplified by Jessie Street and Herbert ‘Doc’ Evatt. So, why do you think Australia is so uncomfortable with speaking the language of human rights, exhibiting an extreme tetchiness to United Nations reports about violations of international law or other human rights standards within our own country?

16:06 Gillian: Well, isn't it curious that when we started to flex our muscles and spread our wings as a sovereign nation in our own right, moving from the sort of imperialist world of Britain and we did so with such pride and such strength. We were larrikans and individualists and we saw that. 

16:32 When we had the Jessie Streets going across to negotiate the covenant of the League and insisting on women's equality and Evatt insisting on the power of the individual sovereign states and wanting equality provisions in the charter of the United Nations and being president of the declaration on human rights, they set the groundwork for exactly what you've described. Australia really committed to internationalism, to fundamental human rights and we were - we punched well above our weight in negotiating the major treaties.

17:07 Genocide. Refugees. Torture. International covenant on civil and political rights. Economic rights. The rights of the child. The rights of women. The racial discrimination. All of that scaffolding for the modern international law and international human rights law, we played a very significant role in doing that, quite beyond our GDP or where we stood economically in the world or militarily.

17:33 What has happened to us? I do try to understand this by reference to that extraordinary year, 2001, with the Tampa crisis, the children overboard lies by the government, demonstrably lies, and then ultimately the terrorist attacks on the United States. I think that gave the Howard government the capacity to argue that everything could be justified in the name of national security and he used that in my view as an abuse of power to then massively expand executive power at the cost of the individual citizen and to denigrate the role of the United Nations, of the treaties Australia has signed up to and been part of and to then ignore them.

18:23 I think the number is something like - for the human rights committee for example - 44 or 45 recommendations to the Australian government that have been simply ignored out of hand. I think one or two have been accepted for very particular domestic political reasons, otherwise we have that Abbott statement, "We will not be lectured to by the United Nations." 

18:46 So, we've had a complete transformation from when we were right in there with the UN forming it, drafting it - drafting the treaties to a prime minister like Mr Abbott who says, "We won't be lectured to by the UN, we will ignore all of those commitments that we made in the past."

19:03 That has led to a conflation of national security with anti-Islamic feelings, rejection of refugee claims and a denigration of those who are vulnerable internationally.

19:19 Nick: The extraordinary discordance is that not only were we signatories to these treaties and international obligations and frameworks of multilateral institutions, we helped to form and shape them perhaps in the mould of what our Australian values were at the time.

19:33 Gillian: That's right.

19:33 Nick: For us to sort of turn our back on them and denigrate them now I think is an extraordinary reversal that calls out for much study, I'd say.

19:42 Gillian: I think so. I mean, over the years there will be research - proper research - into how and why that transformation occurred. You're right, it's much more than human rights. It was the international financial system, the world trade organisation, one of the most remarkable achievements of modern democracy. We're now finding these things are being overturned as we retreat into national populism and jingoism.

20:12 Nick: One of the features I found most compelling in 'Speaking Up' was the way in which you interweaved your own personal encounters and stories with those you connected with during your time at the Human Rights Commission with broader treatises and reflections on contemporary legal, political and human rights issues. So, thinking back across your five years at the commission and the profound and diverse exposure to Australia and humanity at large that that gave you, what are some personal stories or encounters that most moved you and shaped you as a person?

20:42 Gillian: Well, when I first started to write this book, I was very much, you know, concerned with the legal and constitutional problems that Australia doesn't have a charter of rights, we haven't got the legislation that we need, our courts have become powerless for various reasons. Why has that happened? Because that impeded me in my ability to do my job at the Human Rights Commission.

21:04 So, that's why I started to write the book and of course to pick up the theme of speaking up, the publisher - the wonderful Louise Adler from Melbourne University Publishing said, "This legal stuff is fine, Gillian, but we want the personal stories. People want to know what happened and how you felt."

21:20 So, I went back to the drawing board and starting to re-do it putting in the personal anecdotes but let me say that there were many of course that I remember, but I think in particular were my three visits to Christmas Island where there so many children that the government hadn't even counted them.

21:38 I asked Scott Morrison how many children had been born on Christmas Island and his answer was that he didn't have the biodata on that. I mean, it was a disgraceful answer but in particular, I met a 12-year-old girl who sort of hung around me for a while as I was moving across the island and the various compounds in which these people are trapped in the heat in concrete behind barbed wire. I mean, it was simply appalling. 

22:06 There she was, this bright-eyed, obviously intelligent 12-year-old. Finally, she got my attention and proceeded to tell me the story that she'd been on the island for more than 12 months. She'd come from South Sudan where her parents had been murdered, killed, her brothers and sisters killed, but an aunt from Kenya who had a bit of money managed to get this little girl out through people smuggling and she came through the seas terrified of sharks, terrified of the water, finally picked up by Australian coastguards thank goodness and rescued effectively by Australians in the best of traditions in maritime safety.

22:45 She was brought to Christmas Island and she was there for more than 12 months. She told me her story about how she'd come. Her father had been put in a sack by rebels and left on a road to be run over by trucks. I mean, appalling stories. Losing her entire family.

23:02 She was completely composed as she told me this story, remarkable in itself, but then she burst into tears when she said, "I've been on Christmas Island for 12 months, more than 12 months, without any schooling or education at all."

23:18 I realised then that she understood that if she couldn't get an education, her future capacity to develop and develop her capacities and rise to her possible limits were being stymied at this incredible age of 12. She understood that deeply, and I found myself in tears listening to her story.

23:43 One of the most important things that we recommended on that first visit to Christmas Island was if whatever else they do; they must provide education for these children. Do you know, the government refused to do so? But what happened - and this is something I learned about Australia - was that the Catholic Education Commission in Western Australia which of course is the closest to Christmas Island ultimately agreed that they would provide some sort of rudimentary education to these children.

24:11 Now, of course within a couple of years of that or 18 months of that, all the children were removed from Christmas Island and came to Australia, but I think that single story demonstrated to me not only the refusal to comply with fundamental principles of human rights law to children, but the spitefulness and the maliciousness of the Australian government policy was beyond belief and I could not believe that my own country would fall to those depths.

24:38 Nick: It has obvious echoes to your own migration story as well coming through...

24:42 Gillian: Yes, indeed. I was the same age as her. I was 12. 

24:44 Nick: Exact, really?

24:45 Gillian: I was exactly the same age.

24:47 Nick: Isn't that extraordinary because you think by the arbitrary nature of citizenship or where you were coming from, you had this sort of, you know...

24:53 Gillian: A Londoner. Australian government wanted British people with - my parents were business people. We were going to be good migrants and I think we were good migrants. The happenchance of her life in South Sudan and civil war gave her nothing, no hope. Now, ultimately, she did get that hope, but the horror of those policies at that time was overwhelming.

25:20 Nick: You can imagine the possibility that unfolded in your life and you're heading off to Geneva soon to the United Nations, but to think that any possibilities for her total flourishing might be denied to her because of that mandatory detention law is quite shocking.

25:33 Gillian: Mandatory, indefinite detention. It was completely contrary - I can use this opportunity to say not contrary to sort of what people might see as left-wing radical views of the General Assembly, but that is in the middle of the Magna Carta more than 800 years ago. No person may be detained arbitrarily without charge or trial by their peers. She never had the opportunity of anybody, any court, any judicial process to determine her incarceration.

25:58 Nick: So, it might be a nice segue to probably the most defining - well, one of the most defining moments of your time at the Commission, the publication of the forgotten children report which is a 300-page report detailing the impact of mandatory indefinite detention of asylum seeker children. So, for our listeners, could you summarise sort of what the report found, why it was so ground breaking and perhaps what the impact of the report has been domestically and internationally since then?

26:23 Gillian: Well, perhaps I can tell you the story that after the report was published, we of course sent it to the United Nations. When I went to Geneva for a meeting, I was asked by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to come and see him. He was a Jordanian prince in that diplomatic position and a wonderful man, a philosopher and a mathematician I understand, but very unusual to be invited to meet him because Australia is not usually at the front of his mind or the front of mind of the Human Rights Commission for that matter.

26:56 So, normally they wouldn't sort of spend their time speaking to people like me. They'd be talking to Africa or, you know, China or other parts of the world where there were egregious breaches of human rights. So, I was surprised to get it but when I went to see him, he was just glowing in his review of the forgotten children's report. 

27:17 As I left the Palais Wilson on the shores of Lake Geneva on these sort of creaking old wooden stairs, I was fluffing myself up with pride for the work of the commission thinking well, we really did a good job with that report. But then as I came down the stairs, I thought how ridiculous, he was making the point that never in the history of the United Nations have they ever received a report that gave the medical and scientific data on the impact of indefinite mandatory detention on 1,100 children. I thought of course they were pleased to get it because they've never seen anything like it.

27:54 Nick: There's no parallel, there's no... 

27:55 Gillian: There was no parallel. There had never been anything like it in the history of the United Nations. They'd never had a report like that. So, that really brought me back down to earth when I realised just the magnitude of this problem in Australia.

28:07 But to go back to your original question, we embarked on this with the 1,100 children in detention and there was no movement. The Abbott government was not moving these children at all. They'd been there for then more than a year and a half and he was showing no indication of moving them anywhere. So, that’s why we embarked on the report. Controversial though it was because it was seen as politically biased which was nonsense but we'll put that to one side. 

28:28 What I did was to bring medical officers with us, all probono. Psychiatrists, paediatricians, general practitioners, social workers; with us on each one of these and sometimes repeated visits to the worst of the detention centres - Christmas Island and on the Australian mainland. I couldn't go to Nauru or Manus because the government wouldn't let us.

28:49 Nick: Really?

28:50 Gillian: There were no children on Manus but there were children on Nauru, but the government wouldn't let me go. So, I concentrated on what I could do, but the miracle of that report was that it was not only the legal standards which of course we could do easily but we did not have the skills within the commission to make judgements about the medical and mental condition of these children.

29:13 We concentrated on the children for obvious reasons, because people were going to be moved by the condition of the children. They weren't going to be moved by the condition of the adults. I mean, I'm afraid that was a sort of an opportunistic, very practical thing, but the statistics then demonstrated that 34% at that time and worsening of those children had medium to severe mental conditions. Now, that was just the start but of course they had physical conditions. We took pictures of the sores on their bodies, the spinobifeda conditions that were not being met, but the critical one was really the long-term damage done to these children.

29:55 Of course, they've all now come back into the Australian community, some still in detention in Australia. A small number, a handful, but most now are in community detention or in the general community where their parents can still not get visas. The best they can get - and most have not got it yet - but the best they can get is a temporary protection visa. So, they have no security. The parents are still in a state of great anxiety and that passes through to the children who are now presenting in their schools and in the medical facilities with long term psychiatric and other physical and mental conditions.

30:36 So, I mean, the research was ground breaking because it's never been done before but we've never had a group of that size that you could get a statistically relevant database.

30:51 Nick: Those drawings you mentioned are probably things that stick with you.

30:54 Gillian: Oh, they do. When we first said to the children, well you know, tell us about your life, some would write wonderfully optimistic - do drawings on the Australian flag. They understood what the flag meant, and their vision of Australia with kangaroos and oranges growing on trees and sunshine. But overwhelmingly, it might be that was one side of the picture; the other side of the picture was them with bars over them, crying.

31:22 Perhaps the most powerful thing was that the children all put their boat numbers on the pictures. Now, can you imagine in a kindergarten or a young primary school in Australia, children putting a number? They may have a number when they enrol in school, I've no idea, but they would always say Alice or Jane or Tom. These children didn't do that. They'd been trained only to deal with a number and that's part of a dehumanising that the Australian officials but particularly the SERCO guards and others imposed on these children.

31:54 They would stand up straight and give you their boat number as though they were in a Nazi concentration camp. It was totally shocking. Bit by bit, we encouraged them to put their names down, but they always put the boat number.

32:07 Nick: Just extraordinary. So, you were recently appointed as the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, so the UNHCR, and will soon move to Geneva which is obviously an extraordinary connection between your work with the Human Rights Commission here. So, you mentioned that the appointment was a recent and rather unexpected development. Can you maybe tell us a bit about the background, about how you can to the role and what responsibilities it will entail?

32:34 Gillian: Well, I had never imagined that we would be doing something like this. I'd come back to Melbourne. I chair Justice Connect. I'm on the - you know, president of the Asian Development Bank Tribunal, about to move to another major international tribunal. I simply thought I'd lead a relatively quieter life, getting back to some of my roots as an international lawyer.

32:56 My roots are commercial law, international commercial law. I did a lot of offshore oil and gas stuff. I was not really a human rights lawyer, but I thought I was going to settle back into my older world, settle back into Melbourne, seeing more of my family and friends and, you know, enjoying my life not at the same frenetic pace that I'd had.

33:18 I was phoned by a UNHCR official to say that I was, you know, strongly encouraged to allow my name to go forward for this position. I didn't know it was vacant and I wouldn't have applied for it in any event but given that they'd so strongly encouraged me, I said, "Alright, I'll put in my CV in."

33:35 Very often as you all know, the appointment process is both in Australia and internationally, they often used other people's names as camouflage for the person they really want to appoint. You're just there to sort of make it look good.

33:49 So, I wasn't really - I didn't imagine for a minute I'd ever get it. Also, the UN usually appoints from internal positions. So, I was completely surprised to be offered the position through the Secretary General. Then, I felt well, in a way just as we began this conversation, my life has really led to this point.

34:09 Nick: That Churchill quote about how everything in your life has led to this exact moment or something.

34:12 Gillian: Well, he talks about it walking with destiny. I'm not quite sure I have the same grand view but there's no doubt at all that you do feel in the end that maybe some strings are being pulled up there, that it all comes together.

34:24 I thought well, this is a wonderful opportunity to work with something I really believe in. I'm still healthy and well, my husband is coming with me which is nice. So, what's the job? Well, as somebody rather amusingly introduced me the other day, they said you've managed to irritate one government, now you're going to go off and irritate 193 governments. I hope I don't irritate them.

34:47 What the job is, is the role of Protection is not operational. I will of course spend time in some refugee camps but my job is not there to deliver services. My job is to insist on the legal standards of protection. That means working with government officials across the world.

35:07 Funnily enough, I'm advised by others that I've been dealing with in UNHCR that Australia is probably one of the most difficult countries to be operating in, that in other parts of the world there's a much more humane approach. 

35:21 One of the biggest challenges is not the kind of rhetoric we get in Australia. One of the biggest challenges is actually asking governments to ensure safe passage so that displaced people and refugees can go back to their homes, and many, many governments want to support that program. 

35:38 So, I am optimistic about this, although certainly daunted by the huge numbers. They're unprecedented. We have - the UN is estimating now nearly 72 million people in the world are displaced within their own country or refugees. 

35:53 Nick: So, you are coming into the role at a really critical time as you've just mentioned with - in terms of the scale of the global refugee crisis, but also there are environmental factors or political factors around you with the resurgence of anti-immigration sentiments like President Donald Trump, Brexit and it's rebuke of the open borders model in the EU, and the migration crisis in the Mediterranean whose figures far eclipse those in Australia as well in terms of being upwards to nearly 200,000 people. So, could you maybe provide a bit of a survey of the current crisis as it stands and the diplomatic and political challenges that the climate presents?

36:31 Gillian: That's right. Well, look it's an unprecedented challenge. One that you didn't mention that I think is relevant particularly for our area is - you know, now certainly a million Rohingya have moved from Myanmar to Bangladesh. So, there they are on the border in Bangladesh in one of the poorest countries in the world and yet the Bangladeshis have offered their hospitality.

36:55 Trying to get clean water, education for the children, medical care, the NGOs and charitable groups are working there, but a huge political problem where they're stateless, so they have no right of return to any country because they're not - they don't have statehood. As we know, Australia is even adding to that problem with stripping nationality and leaving people, contrary to the statelessness convention of course and Myanmar has been doing that or never granting nationality in the first place, so that's a huge problem.

37:25 Then, you've got countries - again I think the poorest country in the world, Mali, hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees as a safe sanctuary. South Sudan, where civil war rages, the Yemen where citizens are being starved to death; these are huge problems and that doesn't get us anywhere near the Middle East and Syria and the continuing problems of Palestinians displaced. So, there are huge global problems which possibly or probably will be exacerbated by the effects of global climate change.

38:02 Nick: Yeah, and I suppose it's powerful symbolically to have a representative in your position now from the Asia Pacific and perhaps someone outside of the UN as well.

38:11 Gillian: Yes, and I think - I can't presume to know what motivated them to give me the position, but I think that having a voice from this part of the world is really important. When you look at many of the UN organisations, the UN specialised agencies, they are dominated by Europeans, by Africans, Latin Americans but you don't see many from this part of the world.

38:37 One of the reasons I possibly have been offered the job is that I did a report for the United Nations last December on abuse of office and harassment and bullying within a UN agency, UNAIDS. I suspect they quite like a fairly direct Australian voice. I don't know that but I was – just as with the children's report -prepared to call a spade a shovel and prepared to call things out when the evidence is there to support it.

39:06 I think that when you look at a lot of UN reports, the language is careful and elegant and a little oblique. Whereas, I don't do that. I think maybe they think it's time for a bit of plain speaking. Australians of course have got a reputation for that and I've picked up that national characteristic, despite being originally English. So, when in doubt I'll pretend to be English and when necessary, I shall be Australian I think is the way it will work. 

39:38 Nick: So, going back to that idea of speaking up and the cost of remaining silent, you're obviously doing so on a much bigger scale now with the United Nations, this idea of going from Australia and a lot of issues in our country to I suppose a global stage. You can see a sort of funny image of all the Parliamentarians who might have breathed a sigh of relief thinking, you know, you've gone off the public stage in Australia and you've got a bigger microphone now with the United Nations. How do you kind of see your role and responsibilities to speak up for some of these global migration issues now? I mean, it's essentially what you were doing in Australia at a much, much bigger scale. 

40:13 Gillian: I don't quite know the answer to that question yet because as you say, it would be wonderful to have that global microphone and be able to speak up for these things. At the same time, in four weeks, I will morph from being a British and Australian national to an international public servant. So, my job really to be to support the secretary general and the high commissioner and I won't be quite the autonomous person that I've been for almost all my professional life. So, I will have to be a little more careful because my job is to help them speak out. I can't in a way promote myself. That's just not about me. So, I will have to be careful, but I guess I will be clear in doing what is within my portfolio, and so I hope that I will have an opportunity to speak up and clearly do so. At the same time, I can't take the risks that I took in Australia in speaking as frankly as I did in the media.

41:18 Also, of course I was countering the appalling News Corp misinformation, so I was really sort of - you know, I had the jet fuel of anger behind me. I can't allow that to influence the way I work in the United Nations. I will have to be much more careful.

41:35 Nick: Yep, well I hope we can read a memoir from your time at the United Nations once all the - the final question wrapping up the interview would be what will you miss most about Melbourne and Australia?

41:45 Gillian: Oh, well you know, I do love Melbourne. I love the relative openness of Australian society. We're pretty decent people, I think. We're led by appalling governments in my view. I think the governments have let us down but to go back to the more positive aspect of your question, you know, I do love being with Australians, much more than anybody else. I think we are - we're pretty decent people. We basically act in good faith and we basically are diverse, multicultural and we respect each other, for the most part. So, I'll miss that. I'll miss the number one tram in Melbourne. I'll miss the National Gallery.

42:28 Nick: It's a very sweet corner of the planet here, beautiful beach, the ice-cream store...

42:30 Gillian: It's a sweet, sweet part with a beach down the road and the ice-cream - a beautiful community here in Albert Park. I will miss the cultural life but I miss the city. I'm a city person. I love the city and I love being able to walk through the parks and eat well, but also in a pretty egalitarian city, it tries to be, it doesn't always succeed. But it is a country and a city that aspires to egalitarian diversity and we struggle to get there, but I think for most Australians that's what we want, that's what we aspire to. So, I will miss that and I think Switzerland is a very different place. I love the cold, so that's not a problem, but I will miss the open freedom, the relaxation of Australians and the fact that we basically like each other and act in good faith.

43:34 Nick: Brilliant. Professor Gillian Triggs, thank you so much for your time today.

43:36 Gillian: It's a real pleasure talking to you, Nick. Thank you very much.

43:38 Nick: Thank you.