“A Career in Human Rights, from Springvale to Antananarivo”
In Conversation with Sabina Lauber (LLB(Hons) 1992)
“It was always in my blood.”
Sabina Lauber is speaking to us from Antananarivo, Madagascar. Her current role – as the Senior Human Rights Advisor to the United Nations in Madagascar – is a reflection of her extensive experience in the human rights sector, and a career that has taken her to locales as diverse as Mongolia and Switzerland.
Sabina’s role in Antananarivo and her work in human rights may appear to be a significant shift from her early education and career. Sabina graduated with Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Melbourne in 1992, as well as a Master of Laws from Columbia University in 1997, and spent her early years as a lawyer working in a commercial law firm. For Sabina, however, growing up in a migrant family and navigating between two worlds meant that human rights work ‘was always in [her] blood’.
From Springvale to Melbourne Law School
In 1972, Sabina emigrated to Australia with her family as a small child. She would grow up in working-class Springvale before studying law and commerce at the University of Melbourne. The 1970’s was a time in Australian history where increasingly diverse migration challenged the population to embrace multiculturalism. As a post-war German migrant, Sabina’s early experiences of Australia were clouded by racism and xenophobia, which contributed to an interest in human rights that has shaped her career. These early experiences in a working-class, predominantly migrant suburb stood in stark contrast to her time at the University of Melbourne.
Sabina entered the University of Melbourne as part of a special access scheme aimed at increasing diversity across the university. Ormond College provided an unusual contrast to the spaces where she had grown up. At Ormond, the children of Australia’s elite would walk around barefoot as a fashion statement, a world away from shoes being considered a hard-won protection from illness and progress out of poverty. Despite these disparate upbringings, Sabina quickly established friendships that endure to this day.
The University of Melbourne was a formative experience for Sabina, teaching her the skills foundational to her subsequent career, and where she discovered that ‘learning the law didn’t have boundaries’. Feminist legal theory, taught by Jenny Morgan, opened a ‘whole new world’ of possibilities. Sabina and her classmates created the Women’s Law Collective, inviting women who had ‘climbed their way up’ through the legal sphere to speak on their experiences. Through her involvement with the Collective, Sabina became a founding member of the Australian Feminist Law Journal, which remains active to this day.
Beyond her academic studies, Sabina took the opportunity to expand her horizons and engage with people from diverse walks of life. With a group, she backpacked across Africa for an extended period, travelling from Zimbabwe to Morocco. They spent nights ‘sleeping under the stars’ in Mali, with limited communication with friends and family back home. These travel experiences expanded Sabina’s perspective of the world by exposing her to different cultures, different economic situations and different ways of living. It helped her envision a future career outside of Australia.
For Sabina, the path to a career in human rights was not linear. Academic success in her undergraduate studies in law and commerce led to a position in corporate law upon graduation. Working in the corporate sector allowed Sabina to develop a strong foundation in practical legal skills. Refining those skills in the real world provided an opportunity for her to become familiar with ‘how the law manifests itself in practice and the importance of the rule of law in a society.
Despite the valuable legal experience Sabina gained in the corporate sphere, she found corporate work to be ‘so boring’ and ‘didn’t feel passionate about it’. Sabina remained engaged with NGOs and human rights throughout university and her early career. She has described this breadth of experience as ‘always [having] a foot in another door’. In pursuing opportunities to stay connected to human rights, Sabina was determined to find work beyond the corporate world.
An opportunity to work in policy at the Australian Law Reform Commission ‘taught [Sabina] how the legal system works’, beyond simply learning cases. Sabina noted one example, in which she was involved in a review of litigation cost rules, a project that highlighted the intersection of diverse interest in the practice of law and presented a ‘wonderful mix of corporate work and human rights’. Subsequently, Sabina landed a role in the Sex Discrimination Unit of the Australia Human Rights Commission. Her role was to support the government of Australia to implement the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW). In addition to leading the national inquiry into pregnancy discrimination, Sabina also participated in two international negotaitons on standards relating to women’s rights at the UN headquarters in New York. As an expert in women’s rights she was also part of Australian-aid funded exchanges with China and South Africa towards a better domestic implementation of international human rights standards. This initial experience in human rights in an Australian context provided the basis for Sabina’s subsequent career in the international sector.
From 1996-1997, Sabina advanced her studies in international human rights law at the Columbia University school of law. The opportunity to be exposed to students and teachers from all over the world reinforced her previous studies at the University of Melbourne and expanded her human rights network. At the end of her studies she did an internship at the United Nations headquarters in New York, which reaffirmed her dream to work in the world of multi-lateral human rights engagement.
International Human Rights Work
Following her introduction to the human rights sector, Sabina has had the opportunity to work in a variety of countries on diverse, complex issues, predominantly for the United Nations. Among other locales, she has worked in Thailand, Mongolia, Sudan, Malawi, Madagascar, and Switzerland. Sabina’s extensive experience is embodied in practical application. Experiences in Malawi and Madagascar demonstrate the importance of varied experience, applying communication and cultural understanding to the protection of human rights.
From 2019-2021, as the Senior Human Rights Advisor to the United Nations in Malawi, Sabina partnered with diverse religious leaders to uphold human rights standards, including to resolve conflict between Muslim and Christian communities. The primary trigger of the conflict was Christian-owned schools preventing entry to girls wearing hijabs. Sabina’s ability to facilitate communication across cultures, including between religious leaders with complex histories, ultimately resulted in a national agreement ensuring that choosing to wear hijabs could attend schools, in alignment with international human rights standards.
Sabina’s varied experience is further reflected in her work to address the high level of attacks against persons with albinism in Madagascar. When reports emerged of discrimination and physical attacks perpetrated against persons with albinism in Madagascar, Sabina recognised similar patterns of behaviour from earlier work in other regions of Africa, associated with harmful superstitions and beliefs. As a result, Sabina was able to work with police, relevant ministries and civil society to develop a holistic human rights approach based on empowering individuals with albinism; promoting inclusion in all aspects of society; coordinating customs and excise law, criminal law, and police powers to effectively tackle the issue and ensure human rights standards were upheld. This is an example where the ‘law is really helping’: a new NGO was created; local authorities set up protection systems for persons with albinism and Madagascar now celebrates International Albinism Awareness Day on 13 June to combat discrimination and stigma.
Human rights has the capacity to make an active difference in people’s lives, particularly in the application of practical experience to produce meaningful change. For example, Sabina’s work in the human rights sector has been influenced by her degree in commerce and her economics expertise, which contributed to her deeper understanding of the complexities of economies and under-development. Sabina emphasises that ‘human rights can’t stand on its own’; instead, meaningful change in this sector is the product of diverse areas of expertise, and collaboration across disciplines and sectors.
Realities of the Human Rights Sector
For Sabina, human rights provides a framework of behaviour ethics by which state authorities and society as a whole should ideally engage with each other. Human Rights has the capacity to transform people’s lives by providing systems to ensure individual dignity and to prevent conflict. According to Sabina, her work in human rights is ‘not that glamorous’. Speaking to young people with a desire to work in this sector, Sabina feels that working in human rights should not be the product of a ‘desire to be a superhero’, however well-intentioned.
Working in human rights is serious, hard and emotionally tiring work. You may experience the impact of ‘shocking’ poverty, and the horrors of war and torture. Your freedom to move around outside may be limited, particularly for women. There is a significant sacrifice involved in choosing this life, and you risk being traumatised by the work. During her time in Nepal, for example, Sabina’s work in transitional justice involved finalising a report on horrific war crimes, using cases and analyses compiled by different experts and organisations over several years. Resilience is vital.
In exchange for the long hours and sacrifice, you have exceptional opportunities: to gain a deep connection to a country and its people, to discover beautiful places, and to find your ‘kindred spirits’ across the world. For any career, Sabina emphasises the importance of finding your own area of expertise. Success is found in becoming a specialist in the field that you feel passionate about.
Sabina’s career in human rights has been shaped by her past experiences: her upbringing in Springvale, her experiences at Melbourne Law School, and her early legal career. She emphasises the importance of legal skills and practical experience, resilience, and the vitality of maintaining a ‘strong sense of self’. Her career journey provides valuable insight for young lawyers, reflecting the realities of work in the international sector.
Despite the difficulties of a career in the human rights sector, this is vital and affirming work. For current law students, Sabina’s advice is to ‘get out there’: develop your own legal skills, and find your own opportunities to make a difference. This is important advice for all students beginning to chart their own journeys from Melbourne Law School to their future careers.
Prepared by: Sarah Phillips and Alexandra McKinnon
MLS JD students