Dianne Otto

Dianne Otto

Staying True to Yourself within Legal Academia

In Conversation with Professor Dianne Otto (LLB 1992; LLM 1996)

“Many of us have an interest in challenging the historical legacy of international law that is white, masculinist, and imperial. And it is imperative that we continue.”

On a bright sunny day in September 2022, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Dianne (‘Di’) Otto. She was wearing a gorgeous jumper complementing the vibes of spring, and her insights during the interview were just as bright and hopeful.

Di held the Francine V. McNiff Chair in Human Rights Law at Melbourne Law School (MLS) from 2013–2016 and was Director of the Institute for International Law and the Humanities (IILAH) from 2011–2015. Currently she is a Professorial Fellow. Di’s work has made ground-breaking contributions to the field of International Law and Human Rights. Her scholarly writing is recognised for its criticality, unwavering attention to the legal text and, most essentially, its awareness of the ‘political’ within the law.

Di enrolled in MLS in 1991 as a “mature age” student to pursue a Bachelor of Laws, almost 18 years after she completed a Bachelor of Arts at Adelaide University. Before joining MLS, she worked as a community development worker, building local self-help networks and advocating for social justice with various community-based NGOs including the Halfway House Women’s Refuge in Melbourne, youth outreach groups and a mental health advocacy organisation. These experiences provided Di with many insights into the law’s failures. Nevertheless, she hoped studying law might provide some stronger tools to address inequality and injustice. While Di failed her first law exam, she did not treat this as a discouragement but rather as a realisation that she needed to find a way to “think about things through a legal framework” instead of a sociological and political one. In the same breath, she added that law could also be political, though in a different way from what she had assumed.

During our conversation, Di mentioned that it wasn’t until her international law and human rights law classes that things started to come together for her as she could see that the community-based NGOs with which she had previously worked were valued; and if not outrightly valued, they certainly had a role in advocating for social change. In law school, too, Di continued pursuing her activist goals. She was part of a group of students who set up a feminist law collective, and through this collective, they pushed for change. One of the incredible results of this was the establishment of the Australian Feminist Law Journal. To this day, this journal is recognised for covering feminist legal issues from a critical perspective.

Despite securing a job at Amnesty International Australia after graduation from her LLB, Di’s new-found love for international law brought her back to MLS, and she embarked on a fully-fledged academic career in 1994. Di completed her LLM the following year, after which her new life course took her to Columbia University in New York City for her PhD, which she completed part-time. Di’s life as an academic at MLS continued for 23 years. After formally retiring at the end of 2016, she has continued her academic research, student mentoring and part-time teaching with enthusiasm and still in the hope that emancipatory social change can be facilitated by law.

I was fortunate to experience Di’s unique teaching method first-hand in 2022, while working as a teaching assistant for her and Professor John Tobin’s International Human Rights course for the LLM program. It was one of the most enthralling experiences for me, after joining MLS as a PhD candidate, to witness how she provided a platform for her students to bring their lived experiences to the class and reflect on them in the context of the ‘law’. So, during the interview, I was keen to know how she would reflect on her years of teaching experience in MLS. She emphasised that the classroom provides a great opportunity for academics to also be activists and how this space, albeit a closed one, is so important for challenging cultural and disciplinary assumptions about ‘truth’. I divined that bringing her and her students’ experiences into the classroom was Di’s way of challenging the concept of law as objective and neutral (not political). Further, she emphasised that it was equally essential for the students to understand the ‘mainstream’ legal view or framework and simultaneously take time to step back and reflect on whether it was serving justice in the fullest sense.

With my lived experience of being born and raised in the Global South, where most of my legal education was pursued, this conversation prompted me to ask Di about how to balance the expected style of writing that academia, particularly in the Global North, prescribes and has established as the ‘norm’ while not losing sight of my South Asian voice or my activist self. Di eagerly answered that there were many ways in which one can ‘talk’ or ‘do’ activism. She shared her experience of attending the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where she was involved in the Lesbian caucus and the Asia-Pacific caucus. This experience taught her that she could be both an activist and a scholar and weave the narrations of her experiences and positionality into her scholarly legal analysis. Di hopes that the expectations of legal writing have become more flexible over the years, and that there is now more scope to incorporate the personal or, as she called it, “the community experience, the historical experience” into one’s narrative. Part of the question about how one writes, she said, is the audience one is writing for. Writing needs to speak in the vernacular of its intended audience, and although there are many protocols associated with academic writing, especially with a PhD, these protocols can be challenged especially when they silence non-western ways of thinking.

For Di, activism can also take the form of using one’s legal skills in a way that enhances the activism of others. Drafting general comments for the treaty bodies, preparing shadow reports, and providing an amicus curiae brief for an individual complaint, were all ways for Di to keep her activist soul alive within the confines of academia. She emphasised, and I quote her: “Stay true to yourself and explore how, within the legal tradition, you can do this.”

During the interview, we also discussed how she sees the future of human rights. Di reflected on the crises in democracies, the rise of conservative populist movements—which are “incredibly racist, sexist, and homophobic”—and how many of these movements appropriate the language of human rights for their ulterior motives. For Di, therefore, keeping a sense of emancipation and social justice inextricably linked to human rights is of utmost importance. In this context, we also discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and the failure to ensure an equitable distribution of vaccinations, knowledge, and information. Further, she shared her views on the dangers of anthropocentrism and pointed out that it was essential not to lose sight of the needs of the present. “Why can’t we do things better now?” she pondered. Despite her critique of human rights systems, I found Di optimistic about their future. She remained hopeful of the emancipatory potential of human rights and assured me that there are always opportunities for change that we must not lose sight of.

Winding up, Di emphasised the importance of new thinking about the ‘universality’ of human rights law, and the importance of linking with a redistributive ethic, perhaps now more than ever. Di stressed:

“Many of us have an interest in challenging the historical legacy of international law that is white, masculinist, and imperial. And it is imperative that we continue.”

Prepared by:

Sumedha Choudhury
PhD Candidate MLS
November 2022

To learn more about Professor Di Otto’s work, you may refer to a few of her publications listed below: