Human Rights Lawyer Julian Burnside Champions Refugees and Artists

Human Rights Lawyer Julian Burnside Champions Refugees and Artists

At inkl we are fortunate to share journalism from the world’s most-trusted publishers, and count some brilliant minds among our readers. In this new series, Portraiture, we shine a light on some of the inspiring members of our community, and bring you their messages of hope.

Our second portrait is of the Australian human rights lawyer, author, politician and refugee advocate, Julian Burnside QC. If you live in or near Australia, were tuned in to the 2019 federal election, or have read about the conditions in Australia’s offshore detention facilities – you will know of Julian. 

We spoke to him about how and when he decided to focus on human rights, what he thinks can be done about the global refugee crisis, and the one thing that he and his wife Kate can never agree on. 


Julian Burnside was born in 1949, into a world reeling from the worst conflict of the 20th century, World War II. Some 60 million people were displaced during the war.

By it’s close, support for a new conception of human rights was at its zenith. Over the next decade, human – and more specifically refugee – rights were codified. The first milestone was Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Next, in 1950, the UNHCR was established. At the 1951 Refugee Convention definitions emerged for “refugee” and, crucially,  “non-refoulement” – a policy which forbids the return of refugees to countries where they would be persecuted for their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

On the other side of the world, Julian was growing up in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. His mother was a nurse and single-mother to three. His father, a prominent surgeon, was largely out of the picture by the time Julian turned 12. 

“My father was a well educated person,” Julian says, “That gave me a sense that education was important. It’s probably the reason that I have a profound sense of inadequacy. Which is useful because it makes you try harder.”

As a young man Julian had fantasised about becoming an artist, but chose to study law at Monash University instead. Even so, it wasn’t until he was asked to represent Monash at the Australia and New Zealand inter-varsity mooting (where he won “best speaker”) that a career in law became a real prospect. The Chief Justice of New Zealand approached Julian after the moot and said: “You should go to the Bar”.

Julian joined the Bar in 1976, and proceeded to cut his teeth in commercial law. He would go on to represent some of the most famous (Rose Porteous) and infamous (Alan Bond) Australians.

The shift to human rights law didn’t come until 2001. By that point, Julian recalls, the Australian zeitgeist had become “palpably anti-Muslim”. In August 2001, the Tampa Affair marked the point of divergence of domestic politics from international refugee conventions. Staring down the barrel of a November election, then-Prime Minister John Howard refused entry to 438 asylum seekers who were stranded aboard the MV Tampa. Julian was asked to take on the case of the asylum-seekers on a pro bono basis. Since then he hasn’t looked back.

“Justice North handed down his judgement at 2.15pm in Melbourne on the 11th of September 2001. Eight hours later, the attack on America happened,” he says. “I think that reshaped Australian attitudes profoundly.”

Tampa culminated in the Pacific Solution, a long-running policy under which asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia by boat are detained offshore for processing – on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea or Nauru. Today, Australia and Papua New Guinea have begun the process of shutting the detention facilities on Manus Island. There are at least 150 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus, and another 80 in temporary accommodation in Port Moresby. Around 300 people remain on Nauru.

Detainees have been subject to torture, violence, and rape; and denied proper medical treatment. The conditions have precipitated a mental health crisis – with many being driven to self harm and suicide. Julian has spearheaded two class action lawsuits alleging that the conditions there amount to crimes against humanity and torture.

Red tape seals off these detention facilities: there is an $8,000 media visa fee for any Australian journalist trying to visit Nauru; while Greens Senator Nick McKim was deported during his visit to Manus Island. In cordoning off the camps, Burnside says the government can get away with indefinitely detaining refugees – because the public can’t see how they are being treated.

The conditions at Australia’s offshore detention centres have been likened to concentration camps. As have the conditions of Uyghur Muslims detined in Xinjiang, China; Rohingya refugees in Myanmar; and migrants in the US border protection facilities. It is the soaring number of displaced people (a record 70.8 million currently), and the conspicuous rollback of their rights, that keeps Julian motivated to expose their plight.

In 2018 he narrated the documentary, Border Politics, in which he visits Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp. Home to some 80,000 Syrian refugees, Za’atari is now Jordan’s fourth most-populated city.

There were 715,312 refugees and 52,562 asylum seekers living in Jordan at the end of 2018. The nation itself has a population of 10 million, a landmass less than half that of Syria, and no oil money – making it ill-equipped to bear the load of such high refugee numbers. As of June, the UNHCR had secured just 20% of the annual funds required to support the nation’s refugees.

Despite this, Julian points to a key difference between many of the refugees in Za’atari, and the detainees in Australia’s offshore detention: a sense of hope. “There are 2,000 shops in Za’atari run by refugees including – would you believe it – a shop where you can hire bridal gowns. That’s how much hope for the future they have,” he says. “Australia’s system is leaving people with a sense of hopelessness.”

Julian is in close contact with Behrouz Boochani – a Kurdish-Iranian journalist who has been detained on Manus Island for just over six years. Behrouz has been recognised across Australia: his memoir, No Friends But The Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison won the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature. He didn’t pen it from the comfort of a study, or have the luxury of a laptop: he wrote it piecemeal in WhatsApp messages to his translator, Dr Omid Tofighian.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the writer who exposed Russia’s gulags, once said: “violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.” Indeed, Behrouz’s work has drawn back the curtain on the atrocities at Manus Island. Now, many Australians are refusing to look away.

“I recently had a conversation with Behrouz,” Julian says. “He observed that Australian activists are using the hashtag #BringThemHere. But he said to me: the people on Manus Island do not want to come to Australia, because Australia has treated them so badly.”

This deterrence confirms that the Pacific Solution’s intent has borne out. Yet nearly two decades of brutal border policy hasn’t completely “stop[ped] the boats'' – at least six boats from Sri Lanka have attempted to enter Australian waters since May.

At least 1,720 people died at sea en route to Australia between 2000-2013. According to SBS, there have been no deaths at sea since 2013. But there is still a cost: 24 people have died in Australia’s on- and offshore detention facilities since 2010, 14 of them suicides. Over half of those deaths were on Manus or Nauru.

Despite an illustrious career across law and activism, Julian thinks that making art is the most important thing that people can do – not least because it secures their place in history. Take a room of 50 people of fair intelligence and education, but no artists among them, and give them a list of names of prominent people from the last half millennia.

“My instinct is that most people will recognise the names of the artists – Da Vinci, Dickens, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven – but they probably won’t recognise the names of lawyers, economists or accountants who were active at the same time,” Julian says. “We treat artists as if we don’t value them.”

To know Behrouz Boochani’s influence is to understand Julian’s contention on the artist. Behrouz’s tireless reporting from the vacuum of terror on Manus might be considered to outlast the influence of lawyers, economists and accountants practicing today.

Julian’s value of the artist is something that he and his wife, artist Kate Durham, disagree on. “We have the same values, except in that regard,” he says. “I regard art as the most important thing humans do, and she doesn’t have a view. She finds it puzzling that I regard her art as so important.”

Kate was standing by Julian’s side when he ran for the seat of Kooyong as a member of the Australian Greens at the 2019 election. He didn’t win a seat, but is set on continuing to represent and help refugees – a power that he believes every citizen of the world has.

“We have all got the power to vote, demand the facts, and call on our news sources to tell the truth. Anyone can raise their voice if they are motivated to,” he says. “The most optimistic solution would be that the countries of the world all decide that they will look after people who are internally displaced, but that’s unlikely to happen.”

“We punish refugees for doing exactly what we would do in their circumstances. If you asked any member of Parliament what they would do if they were experiencing what the Rohingya in Myanmar experience. I bet you they will do whatever it takes to get themselves to safety,” he says. 

Another question is whether these detained refugees – if they wielded any power in politics – would do to others what is being done to them?

For now, Julian plans to keep acting within his power to help those refugees toiling under Australia’s border security. With an ocean and bureaucracy between them, he is ever-determined to help these detainees reclaim their future.


Image: Hilary Walker

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