Phil Lynch

Phil Lynch

Lunching with Lynch

In Conversation with Phil Lynch (LLB(Hons) 1999)

You know the story: bright-eyed students enter Melbourne Law School as aspiring human rights lawyers, and a few years later, they are cajoled towards a career with billable hours in a commercial law firm. Despite what the wallpaper of commercial law firm adverts may suggest, there are many ways to get involved in human rights legal practices whilst at law school. As for MLS graduate Phil Lynch who completed his LLB in 1999, human rights lawyering has taken him from Melbourne to Geneva, Switzerland as Executive Director of the International Service for Human Rights (‘ISHR’).

Phil was drawn to a career in law as he aspired to redress the injustices of society. He viewed law primarily as an instrument for social justice. Through his study of history, he saw that law can be a powerful means of oppression — but also as a tool for liberation and empowerment. Particularly, Phil credits his introduction to international human rights law to three Melbourne Law School professors of his time, Tim McCormack, Gillian Triggs and Lisa Sarmas.

Phil states there is no one path to a career in human rights lawyering. His pathway was just one out of the myriad of directions available to law students today. One of the best places to start, he mentioned, was to look for any opportunities at the domestic level where students could volunteer their time to further human rights causes. While he was studying and as an early-career lawyer, Phil volunteered with North Melbourne Legal Service as a paralegal/night-time lawyer. He was also involved in the establishment of the Amnesty International legal group which brought together lawyers and law students who were keen to use their legal skills to advance human rights causes. This gave Phil exposure both at a local level to community-based issues, and through Amnesty, more internationally focused human rights issues.

Following his graduation from MLS, Phil chose to start as a commercial lawyer. His brief experience at Allens, a corporate law firm, was pivotal for his legal professional development as he worked with outstanding practitioners with strong work ethic. Those skills were highly sought after in the human rights field. However, Phil says it was helpful to make it clear to Allens early on that he had a particular interest in social justice, so that he could follow that interest in his work, which they facilitated through pro bono opportunities.

His professional career in human rights law began with a position at PILCH (now known as Justice Connect) in the community legal sector. Phil worked at local and national levels – with Homeless Law and as founding director of the Human Rights Law Centre – before progressing to international human rights law. Phil credits this experience with helping him to approach advocacy from the perspective of rights-holders on a local level and the direct victims of violations of human rights.

Phil says it has been a privilege to pursue a vocation which aligns so strongly with his passions and values. One of the great strengths of the human rights movement is the level of alignment between personal and institutional values and passions. Phil has discovered that it is important to recognise and celebrate successes along the way, because significant human rights change is never linear; a huge amount of the work is about combatting regress, rather than maintaining progress.

Reflecting on his work in human rights over the past 20 years, Phil says one of the great things about his career is its proximity to change. A memorable victory for him was the decision of the High Court in Roach v Commonwealth which recognised, for the first time, the right to universal suffrage. More than that, the victory saw that Vickie Roach, who had experienced a lifetime of oppression as a member of the stolen generation, was successful in restoring the right to vote to disenfranchised prisoners across Australia, among whom Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are disproportionately and discriminatorily represented. These victories ultimately make the job deeply rewarding.

No two weeks as a human rights lawyer are alike. Phil’s day-to-day activities this month have been stretched across a multitude of different areas. First up, the United Nations Human Rights Council is currently in session. For ISHR, these sessions are of critical importance as they provide an opportunity to shape and move agendas aligned with their human rights goals.

Phil mentioned that his team are focused on the ongoing women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan through championing the adoption of a resolution on the rights of women and girls and demanding accountability for gender apartheid. For the most part, this entails providing a platform for women human rights defenders from Afghanistan to share their own experiences and demands and support them to communicate directly with states represented on the HRC. Further, Phil is hoping that they can successfully push for the adoption of a resolution on the human rights crisis in Russia. Alongside the condemning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ISHR wants to address the continued repression of Russian civil society. In this role, ISHR has been working with human rights defenders to communicate the situation to diplomats, and making the case for independent, international monitoring and reporting on the situation to the UN. Phil has found a common trend in human rights advocacy year after year: as space closes at the national level, human rights activists turn more towards this international system to engage and expose injustices and seek accountability. Other than the HRC session, Phil mentioned his role in preparing materials for the ISHR board meeting and AGM, as well as other work in research and advocacy.

“I wouldn’t have been in this job for 10 years if I didn’t have a firm conviction that international engagement could contribute to national-level change, and it can do that in a range of ways.”

The international system can contribute to progressive change through dialogue and cooperation where there is good faith and political will. Phil has seen many such examples at ISHR. Phil speaks excitedly of his experience working alongside activists from Cote d’Ivoire to secure the development and enactment of a specific national human rights defender protection law and mechanism. This was adopted through a multipronged strategy on a national, regional and international scale — ISHR engaged directly with parliamentarians, the national human rights institution and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. ISHR also fostered a bridge between advocates in Cote d’Ivoire and international Special Rapporteurs and the Universal Periodic Review to obtain recommendations and direction.

Conversely, where States do not have the same political goodwill, Phil states that international pressure can have a significant impact in protecting human rights defenders from persecution. Phil also mentioned that ISHR recently conducted research which found that the form of intervention most likely to be associated with positive change from a victim’s perspective is public advocacy and statements; the greater the number of people who speak out (particularly senior influential people in international political institutions), and the more sustained the period is over which they do that, the more likely it is to generate a positive outcome for the rights-holder, as well as send a vital message of solidarity and support. There is a sound evidentiary base that international accountability and public pressure can contribute to tangible national change.

Phil stated that one of the most important things was having great mentors. Finding and working with mentors — those who are experienced and can help nurture particular skills or navigate complexities within your field — are vital for a young lawyer. Further, Phil mentioned that there are many great opportunities in Australia worth seizing, as it has some of the most sophisticated, strategic and collaborative civil society organisations in the world (such as Justice Connect and the Human Rights Law Centre). Australia is a world leader in human rights and social justice lawyering, and these opportunities are worth considering before going straight into international law! He recommends, to the extent that it is possible for you, to look for opportunities to volunteer and engage with the community legal sector and with NGOs which use the law as a tool for positive change.

Prepared by: Eleanor Cooney Hunt and Isaac Hockey
JD Students MLS
July 2022