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2010 Justice Prize

Michael Kirby

Michael Kirby was born in Sydney and educated in public schools. He holds undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from Sydney University and honorary degrees from numerous universities, including National Law School University of India, Buckingham University and the Australian National University. The foundation for his lifelong commitment to human rights was most likely laid in her early years; he grew up with loving parents, teachers whom he admired and respected, and in a religious tradition that always had space for people having different views. During his adolescence, he discovered that he was gay, and with that discovery came a recognition that the law was not always kind or correct – a realization about the law that he believes every lawyer should make. He came to believe that the rule of law – if it means merely enforcing the law – is not enough; there was plenty of law, but not always respect for human life and human dignity. Throughout his life, Mr. Kirby’s involvement with many civil society organizations in Australia and elsewhere has kept him interested in other minorities and the need to learn from one’s own experience and extrapolate. He remains involved in the issues of the human rights of minorities and believes that not to respect the human rights of people who are slightly different diminishes the majority. He stresses that human beings throughout the world share 99.9 percent of the same genome.

After working as a solicitor and then a barrister, Mr. Kirby was appointed Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitraton Commission in 1974. He also served as chair of the Australian Law Reform Commission and then, in 1983, was appointed judge of the Federal Court of Australia. In 1984 he was appointed President of the New South Wales Court of Appeals, a position he held until 1996, when he was appointed to the High Court of Australia. Justice Kirby came to be known as the “Great Dissenter,” largely due to his attention to international law and human rights as foundations for Australian common law. As he explains, a matter does not get into a final national court unless it is highly controversial, and, on human rights questions, the reason for a diversity of opinion is multiplied by the high emotions that human rights cases tend to generate. It is therefore not surprising, according to Mr. Kirby, that human beings who happen to be judges also share the strong convictions about where the law stands and how it should be expressed.

Throughout his career, Mr. Kirby has been active in law reform in his own country and internationally. In the 1970s, he chaired the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development panel that created the guidelines that were to serve as the basis for modern privacy and data security law in the US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He served as a member of the WHO’s Inaugural Global Commission on AIDS (1988-92), chaired a UNAIDS Expert Panel on HIV Testing of Peacekeeping Operations (2001-2) and, since 2004, has served on the UNAIDS Expert Group on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights. He chaired the Executive Committee of the International Commission of Jurists and, from 1995 to 1998, served as that organization’s president. He also served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for Human Rights in Cambodia and Independent Chairman of the Constitutional Conference of Malawi. In Cambodia, he insisted that human rights included responding to the AIDS epidemic, and, although the Cambodian government argued at first that it was a matter for health workers, Mr. Kirby’s insistence helped steer Cambodia to a downward trend in HIV infections in that country. Many lives were saved. From 1995-2005, he served on the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO, where he chaired the group that drafted the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. During those same years, he served on the Ethics Committee of the Human Genome Organization. In 1991 he received the Australian Human Rights Medal.

Mr. Kirby believes that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, established with the support of the US Congress during the Bush administration, has provided great assistance to developing countries against all three epidemics, but especially AIDS. As a result of its establishment in 2002, large sums of money have been made available for the purchase of anti-retroviral drugs that have benefited millions of people around the world. Mr. Kirby believes that political efforts of this kind need to be translated into human consciousness so that people can realize the personal dimension of human rights and of combating great world problems. It is when you look at people as a group that you can dishonour them, he says, and it is when you sit at the bedside of someone dying of AIDS and hold his hand and know that he is a living human being with emotions and feelings like yourself that you can appreciate the importance of human rights. Mr. Kirby was the first judge of any final national court in the world who was open about his homosexuality. He has lived in Sydney, Australia, for 41 years with his partner, Johan van Vloten. He views the oppression and imprisonment of men and women in developing countries due to sexual orientation or gender identity as a human rights issue about which lawyers and citizens must speak up with honesty and courage.