Friday chat: Steven Freeland

Hector Sharp in conversation with Steven Freeland
Right Now’s Hector Sharp chats to Steven Freeland. Freeland is Professor of International Law at the University of Western Sydney. He has taught courses on law and human rights at various universities around the world. He has worked at the ICC in The Hague as a Special Advisor to the Danish Foreign Ministry. Among other pursuits he sits on the Editorial Boards of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, the Australian International law Journal, China-based Space Law Review and the UK-based Journal of Philosophy of International law. His research focuses on the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Court and the Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Special Courts and Tribunals for Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Lebanon, and East Timor.

Right Now: Steven, you teach human rights law both in Australia and internationally, when it comes to educating people about human rights are there any challenges or significant differences between an Australian audience and an audience in Vienna?

Steven Freeland: Whilst I think that the students in both places are equally keen to learn and understand the complexities associated with enforcing human rights and preventing violations, my general observation is that Australians, as a whole, are less engaged with these issues. Part of that is the ‘Island mentality’ that we may have here, and also that most people in Australia have not felt personally affected by gross violations of human rights. Europe is a lot closer both geographically and temporarily to such issues. I do think it is very important that Australians move towards thinking more on a global level, rather than perhaps reveling in our comfortable isolation. In the end, the protection of fundamental human rights is something that is important to all of us, no matter that we feel safe and free here.

In a recent talk you gave at a UN Australia Conference you spoke about IHL and space. What current legal provisions govern space and how inclusive of human rights are they?

The international legal regulation of outer space is mainly derived from some fundamental principles codified in a series of UN-sponsored treaties that were finalized in the 1960s and 1970s. Whilst these principles are important, they do not necessarily provide all the legal ‘answers’ to issues that may arise in more recent times, particularly given the rapid development of space-related technology. One area of concern in this regard is the trend towards the ‘militarization’ of outer space – satellites have been used in the conduct of armed conflicts for decades, and there are real fears that we may be entering an era of a ‘space arms race’, particularly amongst the superpowers. The traditional rules of IHL provide additional legal frameworks for the use of space technology in armed conflict but, once again, whilst necessary, they might not be sufficient to cover every contingency in increasingly technological modes of warfare. In the end, space is about ‘humanity’ and the promotion of a better standard of living for everyone, and we need to develop further rules to supplement the existing principles and provide a legal regime that minimizes the possibility of scenarios that are too frightening to imagine.

When most of the editors here at Right Now were at school, concepts of human rights were taught through classic literary texts like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – Are you happy with the way the concept of human rights is being taught in schools?

When I teach Human Rights at University, I try to take my students outside of their comfort zone. Otherwise, it is perhaps a little too much to ask students in developed and open societies like Australia to comprehend what it is like to live under oppressive regimes, to be constantly in fear and to be subject to arbitrariness and mistreatment by your government. Human Rights should be the most interesting and relevant course a student does at University – virtually every activity we are engaged in has a human rights element – but sometimes, sadly, I hear some young people tell me how ‘boring’ a subject it has been when taught elsewhere. I think it is important to try to engage our students to help them to better appreciate how fortunate they are and how they should consider all aspects of their lives from a human rights perspective, rather than taking things for granted.

Would you support the proposition that we should be handing out copies of the UN Charter to year 10’s?

Absolutely – and don’t stop there…. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well.

If you could pinpoint one particular influence that led you to a career in human rights education, what would it be?

I have been extremely fortunate to have a diverse career, as an actor, international commercial lawyer, investment banker, and then university academic and practitioner. I am not sure what will be next…. I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to live and work in many countries and that has been the greatest influence in the way that I view human rights. The diversity of people, cultures, states of economic development and history does give a person a better perspective as to how significant the protection of those human rights we take for granted is for so many people. I know it sounds a bit clichéd, but it is certainly true in my case that my broad experience has given me some valuable tools with which to better appreciate how important fundamental issues about human dignity are. And it has also taught me that one can never be complacent when it comes to protecting the individual against inappropriate misuses of power by those in a position to make decisions.

Thanks for answering our questions Steven.