Tackling Human Rights Issues with Unreasonable Optimism
In Conversation with Andrew Hudson (LLB(Hons)/BA(Hons) 2001)
‘You need to have some unreasonable optimism because these issues are all solvable and actually the biggest barrier is defeatism and people saying it is not possible or the problem is too big.'
From working out of a shipping container lovingly referred to as the Tin Palace of Justice to his current role as CEO of the Centre for Policy Development (‘CPD’), Andrew Hudson has always been passionate about human rights
Andrew graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Affairs, and a Bachelor of Laws in International Law and Human Rights Law. After working for a few years, he undertook further study, graduating from New York University School of Law with a Masters in Law in 2006. Andrew has worked internationally and domestically in the public and private sectors, taking on a multitude of human rights issues. His current areas of focus at CPD are early childhood education, climate change, foreign policy, the crisis in Myanmar, and refugees.
When asked how his passion for human rights developed, Andrew says, “it’s weird, I think, that you almost have to justify why you are interested in doing something good.” “People are often looking for these moments, like ‘I went to Africa, and I saw some suffering and I then, as a white saviour, wanted to come save the country because immediately, I understood the way the world works.’” He posits a reframing of the question:
“Instead of asking people why they are interested in human rights, we should be asking people why they are interested in working for corporations motivated solely by maximising profit.”
Andrew has always been interested in universalism and globalism. In grade one, his parents took him out of school to travel the world for a year, exploring Thailand, Egypt and India. In high school, he joined the UN Youth Association, eventually becoming the National President. Coming to university, Andrew explains that there was pressure to go commercial, but he was “just happy going on [his] own path”. While studying, Andrew became Australia’s first youth representative to the UN (1999) and helped to set up and subsequently edit the Melbourne Journal of International Law. He recalls advice from his International Law lecturer Gillian Triggs (now the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) that if you want to be a good international or human rights lawyer you have to get qualified. So, he completed clerkships and did his articles at Mallesons Stephen Jaques (now King & Wood Mallesons), helping to strengthen their Human Rights Law Group while he was there.
While working for Mallesons, Andrew completed a secondment at the Brimbank Melton Community Legal Centre in Deer Park, with another Melbourne Uni Alum, Hugh deKretser.
“Their office was a shipping container, dubbed the Tin Palace of Justice, where they fought for the rights of marginalised prisoners.”
A significant, and tragic, case they worked on was the death of a man named Gary White. White was a prisoner who had been taken to hospital and, during a CAT scan, became panicked and tried to leave. He was subsequently shot by the prison guards and died. Andrew and his team were unsuccessful in their case against the individuals, but they were able to use this case to successfully challenge the use of force regulations for prison guards, making lethal force a last resort.
When comparing client facing and policy reform work, Andrew explains that he has been drawn to systems change because of its broad impact. However, he also reminds me that the separation between policy reform and client focused work is not as clear cut as it may seem. “Whenever you are doing [systems change work], you have to have connection with people with lived experience”, for example pursuing justice for Garry White. “The most successful systems reform/policy reform work is always done by amplifying the voices of people on the ground.”
Andrew believes that it is important to look at human rights both from a domestic and international perspective, because often the issues are connected, and CPD is one of the few organisations in Australia that straddles this divide. His desire for an international perspective led Andrew to undertake further study in the US. In 2005, he was the recipient of a John Monash Scholarship, and moved to New York to study his Masters in Human Rights Law at NYU. While studying, he worked as a research assistant for Philip Alston and completed internships at the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the Centre for Constitutional Rights. After completing his Masters, he worked at Human Rights First and then joined Crisis Action, where he stayed for the next eleven years. Crisis Action, like CPD, has a strong focus on getting “getting people that have suffered human rights abuses before the people in power” Andrew recalls his time at Crisis Action with fondness and pride, “When I started, we were about 8 people [and] when I left, we were 50 people in 12 countries … Our board was 60% from the global south, 60% people of colour. [I’m] just really proud that we were an inclusive, diverse organisation that had real impact.”
A key lesson Andrew has learnt is that “[if you] start specific and don’t let the naysayers get to you, it is amazing how you can build momentum.” A specific example he shares is his work to help set up the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala while at Human Rights First. This was an international commission that worked to root out corruption by supporting cases built in the local system and building local capacity. “Everyone said you’ll never be able to do anything about corruption, and this UN Mechanism is going to be useless, it won’t do anything, no one will fund it. We managed to get the US Congress to fund it, and [the Commission] ended up exceeding everyone’s wildest expectations.” The work of the Commission helped to imprison two presidents, prosecute hundreds of corrupt officials and implement numerous law reform processes.
When asked how he avoids becoming disheartened when people say his goals are impossible, Andrew explains that:
“You need to have some unreasonable optimism because these issues are all solvable and actually the biggest barrier is defeatism and people saying it is not possible or the problem is too big.”
“Especially if you look at human rights from a global point of view; the people who commit atrocities are almost always caught and brought to justice… Sometimes it takes 5 years,
sometimes it takes 10, sometimes it takes 40, sometimes it takes 50, but they are almost always, the worst ones, caught, banished, brought to justice.” Our discussion of optimism in the face of challenge reminds me of the hesitancy of law students and lawyers to discuss the times when things don’t go as planned. Andrew acknowledges and accepts the importance and value of failure, explaining that “in a human rights career you are going to make mistakes and you’re going to experience failure every day. You’ve got to try and not let it get to you and realise that it can make you stronger. Savour the good days and the small victories.”
For students interested in human rights, Andrew’s advice is to build up thematic experience. Volunteer, go overseas, and gain field experience with a particular focus, because being able to pull a thread through your CV will make you more competitive. However, students interested in human rights are not the only group Andrew has advice for. Students are entering a workforce where “the dominant capitalist narrative is dying”, and there will be very few companies that still say they are motivated only by profit. Andrew believes that “everyone should be finding a way of trying to change the world for better, whether that is in your neighbourhood, your workplace or [elsewhere].” With determination, passion, and unreasonable optimism, individuals have the power to make change, even when others say it seems impossible.
Prepared by: Emma Bampton
MLS August 2022