Alison Duxbury

Duxbury Alison

“Eyes Far from Glazed”

In Conversation with Professor Alison Duxbury (BA/LLB(Hons) 1993; PhD 2008)

If you’ve just started at Melbourne Law School and are enticed by the alluring mess that is international law, Alison Duxbury is a name you get to know pretty quickly. A widely published and respected academic, Deputy Dean, Chair of the International Board of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative… I could go on. You might catch sight of her in the university halls — energetic, clothed in bright colours, moving fast (of course, there’s a lot to do).

I first met Alison in the midst of Jessup submissions preparation. Jessup is an international mooting competition held annually in Washington DC. In 1993, Alison competed alongside her teammates, taking out the world championship. Decades on, she continues to grace MLS teams with her international law insights, fervent but kind practice judging and the odd box of chocolates. In fact, my interview with Alison was slotted in before a planning meeting for next year’s competition. Before getting into business, I’m tasked with finding out how one goes from Jessup competitor to renowned academic and practitioner in international law and human rights.

Notable beginnings include taking elective subjects on human rights and international law in the final years of her BA/LLB. These were taught by fellow distinguished alum, Professor Hilary Charlesworth, with a teaching team including Gerry Simpson (now Chair of Public International Law at the London School of Economics) and Tim McCormack (now Professor of Law at UTas and Special Adviser on War Crimes to the Prosecutor of the ICC). Alison remembers Hilary in the classroom as a fantastic lecturer and a great role model.  According to Alison, these classes “made a huge difference to a number of people in terms of what they wanted to do.”

This culminated in a final year research project on whether the Commonwealth should have a human rights charter. An interest in the Commonwealth and other international institutions in relation to human rights frameworks forms a common thread throughout Alison’s career and has been a major focus of her academic research. She recalled her first article published in the International Comparative Law Quarterly. It focused on the way the Commonwealth “has used the human rights debate to reaffirm and reform its role as an international organisation.”

After our interview, I track down the article. It begins with a quote from Lord Casey concerning the difficulty in trying to arouse interest in the Commonwealth, which is often met with “the glazed eye of boredom”. But as Alison charts where her own interest in the Commonwealth and human rights has taken her, my eyes are far from glazed.

From this article and her first academic position at Monash University Alison developed an interest in international institutions beyond the Commonwealth. She focused her PhD on whether state membership of international institutions should be determined by their human rights and democracy record. At the time she began her PhD, the Commonwealth was one of the first organisations to suspend a member because of breaches of democratic principles. She began research on a number of other organisations who engage in this behaviour and determine their membership on the basis of human rights and democratic principles (notably the Council of Europe and the European Union). We discuss the implications of these kinds of sanctions and the complexities of methods of exclusion and the levels of adherence to criteria to be expected.

Evidently, Alison is not afraid of a thorny human rights issue — she has spent her career in research and practice considering them. Across our conversation, we cover a few. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of human rights frameworks in general. From Alison’s perspective, human rights considerations have served a fundamental role geopolitically and in resolving crises. However, where there is a tendency to consider human rights as an individualised framework, she considers them inadequate in responding to the bigger issues we face such as climate change and structural inequality.

When it comes to Australia’s human rights record, Alison recognises inequality as a major problem — especially in relation to the need to account for our nation’s past as well as our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. However, we also cover the lack of a statutory or constitutional bill of rights and the impact this has had on rights protection in Australia. Alison considers the ways in which this has influenced the perception of human rights in Australia and how they are pursued. As well as international law, she has taught in Australian Administrative Law. She discusses how the administrative justice system, by providing us a channel through which to challenge government decisions, is an important means for individual rights protection.

She raises an interesting example of ‘rights protection’ through the Constitution. In the 2000s, there were growing concerns that the courts martial system for military justice in the ADF should be improved. Jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights suggested courts martial systems lack independence because of the connection between members of the court and the chain of command. In 2007 the Australian Military Court was set up in response to these concerns. However, a High Court challenge found the Court unconstitutional. While the Court would have probably met requirements under human rights law, it did not survive the strict doctrine of separation of judicial power provided in the Constitution. We don’t delve deeper into the benefits and drawbacks of this decision and the wider system but reflect on the diverse methods of making human rights arguments.  

And so, in taking me through this constitutional challenge over coffee next to MLS, Alison demonstrates her love for teaching. I have been lucky enough to benefit from Alison’s guidance during the Jessup competition and witness the passion she has for her field and her desire to share this passion with students. Through the years, from undergraduates taking an MLS breadth coordinated by Alison on Human Rights and Global Justice, to ADF personnel taking Alison’s classes on Military Administrative Law, many other students have witnessed this too. Just as she remembers of Hilary Charlesworth’s teaching, Alison too has been a role model for many interested in pursuing international law and human rights.  

When it comes to specific advice for those interested in starting a career in human rights and international law, Alison reflects on her own career. Two recurring themes are passion and serendipity. For example, Alison’s early career focus on the Commonwealth and human rights led to practical engagement in the field beyond research. Around 2000, Alison found herself at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London at the same time as Maja Daruwala. Daruwala was the Executive Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative based in Delhi. Recognising Alison on a staircase in the building, Daruwala told her to keep in contact, and several years later asked her if she wanted to be on the organisation’s board.

With this in mind, Alison advises those keen on a career in human rights that there are more opportunities now than ever. With new human rights bodies and international tribunals developing worldwide, there are many ways to get involved. Noting the natural serendipity of the field she reflects on the twisting path that may lead one into research or practice:

“You don’t have to progress in straight line” she tells me. “Remember that if you’re not successful first off, you sometimes need to take a side-track to get there’
For international law and human rights enthusiasts completing a law degree, the prospect of this winding road is daunting. However, role models like Alison and other MLS alumni and professors ease the apprehension. By sharing not only their intellect and insights but also their own journeys, it is easier to imagine how we could one day be on the other side of the interview.

Prepared by: Eleanor Twomey
JD Students MLS
October 2022