Hilary Charlesworth

Charlesworth Hilary

“Let Passion Guide You”

In Conversation with Professor Hilary Charlesworth (LLB/BA 1979)

As we welcomed Professor Hilary Charlesworth onto our Zoom call, we were met with a firm but gentle smile. Professor Charlesworth was a Laureate Professor at Melbourne Law School. During the time she taught Human Rights Law through the Melbourne Law Masters, she also co-directed the Human Rights Program with the founder of the Human Rights Community, Professor John Tobin. We were extremely grateful that she met with us so early in the morning, as she was calling from the Netherlands, where she currently lives. From there, she carries out her current role — for in addition to being a well-renowned academic who has made valuable contributions to the area of international human rights law, she is also a judge of the International Court of Justice. You can imagine just how humbled we were by her presence!

Professor Charlesworth’s journey

Taking a trip down memory lane, Professor Charlesworth reflected on her time as a LLB student at MLS in the 70s. She recalled that, at the time, law was taught doctrinally and largely dependent on memorising case law. Though she never had a chance to study human rights law, she discovered international law in her final year and was enthralled by it. She speculated that because international disputes often had political implications, it was not easy to resolve them simply through the application of doctrine. Later, during her time as an Associate to Sir Ninian Stephen in the High Court of Australia, a few cases with human rights dimensions came to the HCA. Through these cases, Professor Charlesworth drew connections between international law and human rights law, as she realised the power of international human rights instruments. She supplemented her interest in by doing graduate studies at Harvard Law School. Finally, after interning at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees one summer, she was inspired to pursue a career in academia.

All about Passion

As an academic, Professor Charlesworth is passionate about international human rights law, especially how it translates into Australian law. When asked how she knew this area of law was for her, Professor Charlesworth lamented that she did not have a natural aptitude for commercial law. She spent a year doing her articles (now known as clerkships) in Melbourne and later worked in a commercial law firm in New York. Reflecting on those experiences, she concluded that, because she was not especially interested in the area, she did not have a great sense of motivation. Instead, she found the campaigns that she was involved in outside of work much more engaging. Ultimately, it all goes back to where her interests lay: international human rights law was what really inspired her, and keeping that interest alive led her to where she is now.

A women’s flight

It struck Professor Charlesworth early on in her academic journey that women’s rights were often left out of the human rights lens in the drafting processes of international treaties and conventions. She noted that while issues of international significance are concerned with the public sphere, issues such as violence against women were relegated to the private sphere and were thus considered a domestic law concern. She explained that the human rights canon was based largely on potential harms likely to occur to men rather than women. Wanting to bring potential harms against women into the purview of international human rights law was what drove her to pursue writing and advocating for women’s rights.

“While international human rights has taken on the vocabulary of women’s rights, when push comes to shove, those are often regarded as human rights of secondary order.”

Although women’s rights have gained immense recognition since the 1970s, Professor Charlesworth believes that there is still a gap between theory and practice. While there are numerous resolutions and conventions discussing the importance of addressing injustices faced by women, it remains difficult to find women being involved in decision-making in international law, especially those relating to war and peace. Feminist legal theorists also face marginalisation , from having their work criticised as being ‘political’ rather than ‘legal’, and  the seriousness and impartiality of such works being questioned. Being a  feminist international lawyer is not confined to an interest in women’s rights. Professor Charlesworth focuses on a wide range of international issues, both in her academic work and her role as a judge of the International Court of Justice.


Established by the United Nations, the Court comprises 15 members, each from a different State. Judges are elected by both the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council. As a judge, Professor Charlesworth’s work primarily consists of sitting on cases that involve disputes between States. These involve a wide range of areas from  territorial or maritime issues to treaty interpretation.  Many cases have human rights dimensions. She shared with us two cases that she has participated in  since her election - one being a case brought by Gambia against Myanmar relating to an alleged breach of the Genocide Convention, the other being a case brought by Chile against Bolivia, which concerns rights of access to water. Previously, she had acted as an ad-hoc judge of the ICJ, her first experience being  the Whaling case involving Australia and Japan. Her election to the Court sees her being more involved in the daily life of the Court, including sitting on committees and observing how the Court balances multiple cases at once.

Some tips for Students

Drawing from her varied experiences, Professor Charlesworth was happy to share some insights for law students and young professionals to reflect on in their journey.

“Take your time and be persistent”
She explained that it is important to collect experiences from as broad a range of areas as possible. Then you will know which area interests you deeply. If you find an area you want to work in, ask for advice from experienced lawyers, especially those who are currently in a position you would eventually like to see yourself in. Approaching people politely and preparing tailored questions (maybe over some coffee?) is a great idea. Remember, for most people, it is an honour to be asked for advice!

“Don’t specialise too early”

The area in which you start off working in is not the be all and end all — you may end up finding your niche in a completely different field. What is essential is honing basic legal skills, such as drafting letters, memoranda and correspondence. There is no need to feel pressured to decide immediately upon graduating from law school where you want to end up. And if you have yet to find an area to specialise in after gaining some experience, further study is always a good option.

“There is no one clear career path”

Following on from the above, there may be multiple career paths that are of interest to you. Professor Charlesworth mentions that some of the young lawyers working  at the ICJ practised law in their home countries, while others worked in non-governmental organisations. There were also those who did Masters degrees in international law  in various countries before finding internships with NGOs or the UN.

“Be a good lawyer”

Recalling a piece of advice often given by Judge James Crawford,, Professor Charlesworth explains that, to be a good international lawyer, it is important to be a good lawyer with fine legal skills.. Having worked in commercial law but not finding her career path in the same, she still values that experience for providing her with diverse skills sets, such as managing files and dealing with clients, which are essential to succeed as a lawyer.

Inspiration to all

After an awe-inspiring talk with Professor Charlesworth, we were left enchanted by the realm of international human rights law, as well as her contributions to this field. With many thoughts in our minds, we set out to do some more reading. A great place to start is some of Professor Charlesworth’s publications, which are linked below for you, so you can be as inspired as we are!

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=336319 – SSRN page for Hilary

Individual publications:

United Nations Reform Through Practice: Report of the International Law Association Study Group on United Nations Reform

The Creation of UN Women

An Alien's Review of Women and Armed Conflict

International Human Rights Law and the Language of Crisis

The Regulatory Power of the Universal Periodic Review (Introduction)

Equality for Indigenous Peoples in the Australian Constitution

Final Report of the Australian Capital Territory Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Research Project

Australian Capital Territory Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Research Report

International Law: A Discipline of Crisis

Prepared by: Ananyaa Mahajan and Georgia Zheng
JD Students MLS
August 2022