In May, Geoffrey Robertson will tour Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane and Canberra with a stage show. The show will incorporate footage of Robertson’s work in international courts and tribunals and his experience hosting a gathering of leaders in Africa, as well as archival excerpts from Hypotheticals featuring, among other luminaries, Gough Whitlam, Tony Abbott, Annabel Crabb, Marcia Langton and Germaine Greer – all looking very young.
And, of course, there will be Robertson himself: prowling the stage with his characteristic mix of larrikin humour, gravitas, the voice with a “vowel transplant” (as the satirical magazine Private Eye once described his accent) and his marvellous capacity to play with the English language. In short, it will be a show about the law and it will be fun – and there will be pictures.
What will Robertson talk about on his Australian tour?
“I will wait and see what is topical at the time,” Robertson says. “But a primary purpose is to discuss the ideas in my recent book Dreaming Too Loud: Reflections on a Race Apart.
“In it I expound on a number of ideas I’ve had about Australia and its future. Although I’m an expatriate, I’m not an ex-patriot, and I do care – about the constitution, for example. The audience may not care, so the challenge will be to draw them in and make them care. I will engage them, stretch their imagination a little, throw myself into a dialogue that they will enjoy at the time and think about later.
“It’s also an opportunity to raise money for a couple of good legal causes,” he continues, “the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), that does great work in Sydney on human rights, and a charity run by an Australian lawyer, Phil Lynch, in Geneva that operates to protect human rights defenders called the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR).
“The ISHR is an organisation I work with and admire. We’re doing a case at the moment against Russia because they’re trying to virtually ban human rights organisations that Mr Putin doesn’t like which receive money from abroad. So they are treating them like spies and we’re taking that case to the European Court.”
The primary purpose of Robertson’s talking tour is to provoke the audience to think about challenges in human rights. What issues does ISIS raise for international law?
“ISIS is a barbaric group that has an ideology which involves killing people of other religions, in particular Coptic Christians and so on,” Robertson responds quickly. “Killing groups, or parts of groups, because of their religion is very clearly genocide and is contrary to the Genocide Convention.
“Genocide is the worst crime against humanity and so there is, it seems to me, a requirement in the Genocide Convention that states should act to stop the criminal behaviour of ISIS. It is almost a requirement that the powerful states of the world should intervene to protect Christian communities that are at risk from the genocidal intentions of this group.”
It is a measure of Robertson’s skill as a persuasive communicator that, when I ask a question about the significance of this year’s 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, his reply has the same passion and intensity as his comments about ISIS.
“Magna Carta is a guarantee of the rule of law. King John came into the meadow at Runnymede an absolute ruler and he left it with limitations on his power,” he begins with relish. “And when Magna Carta was reinvented in the 17th century by Oliver Cromwell and his supporters, it was used as the basis for the demand for parliamentary sovereignty, for the demand for the greater widening of the franchise, for the demand for free speech and better access to justice.
“Our sovereign today is the government and parliament – but no sovereign can be above the law. Magna Carta is, if you like, the first bill of rights and, in Australia’s case, our only bill of rights.”
Robertson’s reflections on the Australian constitution in his book Dreaming Too Loud are sharp. “Australia was endowed with a supreme law – its constitution – which lacked any systematic protection for citizen liberties,” he writes. “If I am a refugee from anything, it is from the Australian constitution.”
Faced with this lacuna in the Australian legal landscape, Robertson believes, Magna Carta becomes even more important.
“I think that Magna Carta has a continuing importance for Australian law,” he explains. “It became part of the common law of Australia when Arthur Phillip ran up the flag on January 26, 1788, under the doctrine that he thereby imported into the country as much of the British common law as was capable of application to its conditions.
“So Magna Carta’s great promise – ‘To no man will we sell, to no man will we deny or delay justice or right’– was part of our law from the beginning. Phillip in fact ensured that his Judge Advocate protected convicts against theft by marines – and punished convicts and soldiers alike who assaulted Aborigines. And it wasn’t long before Macquarie’s time when the great fight was for emancipists to serve on juries and Magna Carta was very much used in the struggle for emancipists’ rights against the free settlers.
“So Magna Carta is important in Australian history. It is even more important, it seems to me, in world history. Its promise of fair trial and its promise of access to law has been significant in the demand for access to the courts through legal aid schemes and judicial review of bureaucratic action. The aphorism ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is based on Magna Carta. All this is frequently heard in courts around the Commonwealth.
“I have often cited the Magna Carta in appeals to the Privy Council and indeed I used it to obtain commutations of death sentences where men had been kept on death row for many years.”
Robertson’s commitment and belief in his work is exhilarating. He has an energy and intellectual curiosity more common among the young. When asked, he has much wise and practical advice to offer to students keen to follow a similar career to his own. Ultimately though, it is a question of determination and values.
“If you want to go the bar, and practise in the many and varied areas of human rights, you will need a great deal of persistence to become established. It is really hard – but not impossible – to succeed, and you must have something of a burning desire to use law to make the world a better place before you should even attempt it. And let’s face it, if your ambition is to make a lot of money, you will do better as a real estate agent or hedge-fund trader!”