Gillian Triggs

Triggs Gillian

Speaking Up

In Conversation with Dr Gillian Triggs (LLB 1967; PhD 1982)

“Take the opportunities that come to you and take risks.”

Gillian Triggs is a familiar name to law students given the high-profile positions she has held throughout her incredible career — the United Nations Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Dean of Sydney Law School — just to name a few. Dig a little deeper and you learn that between 1996 and 2005, Gillian was a Professor of Public International Law at MLS. Many alumni featured in this project, including Andrew Hudson, Fiona McLeod, Hugh de Kretser and Phil Lynch, all credit Gillian for sparking their interest in international and human rights law while they were MLS students. Almost two decades since she left her post at MLS, Gillian generously accepts our invitation for an interview. She logs onto our zoom call from Geneva, greeting us with her compelling voice and disarming smile, ready to inspire yet another generation of future human rights lawyers.

Gillian arrived at MLS in 1964 as an 18-year-old. In fact, she was one of a handful of women in her cohort of 350 students. Driven by her innate passion for fairness and justice, Gillian was naturally drawn to international law as an area of study; she was fascinated by international legal frameworks that sought to regulate the interaction of States. Yet, at the time, ‘international was a very peripheric subject’, the dominant view was that ‘if you were serious about the law, you would study commercial law’.

After completing her LLB, Gillian moved to Texas, where she completed a Masters of International Law and worked as a legal advisor on civil rights legislation to the Dallas Chief of Police. The Gillian on my screen carries herself with such grace and poise, so it is difficult for me to imagine her as a law graduate in her 20s advising the police on civil rights in 1960s Texas; but Gillian didn’t stop there. She went on to obtain her PhD in Territorial Sovereignty from MLS and spent nine weeks in Antarctica advising the Australian government on oil and gas law. Knowing this, Gillian’s first piece of advice to aspiring human rights lawyers is perhaps unsurprising:

‘Take the opportunities that come to you and take risks. When opportunities present themselves, take them and learn. Even though they may not be consistent with your direct career plan for the future, they are building blocks towards your career goals. Life very rarely takes you in a straight direction, you cannot predict in which way things are going.’

In the 1980s, Gillian received an offer to join Mallesons Stephen Jaques (now King & Wood Mallesons) as a consultant on international law. Over the next 20 years, Gillian would advise clients on matters including continental shelf rights in the South China Sea, international disputes over offshore oil and gas and matters of jurisdiction. As law students, we have a tendency to think of our careers in a binary way, we assume there are two divergent paths: commercial and non-commercial. We see these paths as mutually exclusive, as if traversing one path renders us ineligible to explore the other. Gillian’s experience debunks that assumption. She considers herself ‘very fortunate’ to have had the opportunity to pursue commercial practice and she describes her time at Mallesons as ‘a remarkable experience’. This brings us to Gillian’s second piece of advice for aspiring international lawyers:

‘To be a good international lawyer, you need practical, commercial skills. My commercial experience built upon my academic skills and showed me how international law works in practice. Commercial skills will stand you in good stead.’

In fact, Gillian partly credits her appointment as the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2012 to her breadth of professional experience across academia and commercial law. The Australian Human Rights Commission is a statutory body that aims to promote human rights in Australia through the provision of legal advice to courts, the resolution and investigation of complaints as well as research, advocacy and awareness programs. Gillian describes her five-year tenure as President as ‘exceptionally difficult’, as the Abbott and Turnbull governments sought to scale back the size of the Commission. Despite this challenging experience, Gillian reiterates the privilege of serving the Australian community through this role, noting the ‘difference between the government’s political position on issues and the humanitarianism of the Australian public.’ Gillian’s transition from commercial practice to human rights work was ‘rapid’, ‘challenging’ and ‘exciting’. Her ability to make such a transition is a testament to her dedicated study of the foundational principles of international law. Her third piece of advice to students is simple: ‘do your homework’.

‘Familiarise yourself with the fundamental principles of international law… Be a good generalist international lawyer before you specialise. You cannot be an effective human rights lawyer without knowing the fundamentals of the legal system and wider aspects of international law. In short, to achieve human rights, you need to understand business, finance and trade agreements, and the impact they have on people.’

In 2019, Gillian was offered the position of Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Since her appointment, Gillian has travelled to over 30 countries to learn about the position of people displaced both internally and externally. Gillian emphasises that she is ‘humbled and inspired by the fortitude and courage shown by stateless people facing often insurmountable obstacles to just live a simple, normal and happy life.’

Curious about the demands of her role, I asked Gillian how she manages the emotional toll of a career in human rights and the vicarious trauma that may arise. With a humble smile, she admits that her job is ‘truly overwhelming’, due to the scale of the global refugee crisis and the number of conflicts that cause displacement. Gillian ensures her wellbeing by putting some emotional distance between herself and her work and taking the time and space she needs to look after herself — ‘just doing normal things like walking in the sunshine or catching up with friends and family can keep you going’.

Gillian’s journey from a law student like you or me to an eminent, deeply-respected international lawyer was not a linear one. In pursuit of opportunities, she has travelled across the world, repeatedly stepped outside her comfort zone and, in that process, served as an inspiration to many law students and legal practitioners. Gillian is a true trailblazer with a deep commitment to her subject. As she looks back on her career progression, Gillian encourages students to forge their own paths towards a career in international law:

‘You can have the most rewarding career and work with deeply committed people from all over the world. I think it is an unbeatable experience both personally and professionally.’

Prepared by: Ana Guimaraes Ferreira and Nuria Yu
JD Students MLS
January 2023