Interview | Benedict Coyne (President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights)

Recently, Milan Gandhi (TLF) caught up with Benedict Coyne, who we fondly refer to as Benna.  Benna is the President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.  He has an immensely interesting past and we spoke to him on a range of topics relevant to law students and early-career-professionals including the importance of creativity (specifically, dancing), whether the UN is broken, Benna's role as President of ALHR, and, of course, human rights and the future of human rights.
Disclaimer: the  following views are Benedict Coyne's personal views and do not reflect the opinions of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) or Anderson Fredericks Turner Lawyers & Advocates.
Benna, what is something you believe that other people think is insane?
That we are all intergalactic sky beings transplanted from interdimensional star systems and life is a mere lucid simulation in which Steve Bannon wrote the algorithm of Trump... ?On a serious insane note, I believe that Australia will be a Republic and have a federal human rights act or bill of rights within the next 10-20 years and some (insane) people think that is insane which balances out well!Benna - Slam Poetry
 Do you have a quote you live by or think of often?
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished” – Lao Tzu
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self
[My caveat on the answer to this question is that after coming to study law late and realising that I loved it, I spent a number of years kicking myself for not having had done so earlier and instead feeling like I had “wasted” years of my life travelling etc and that, had I not, my legal career would be much farther progressed by now etc etc. However, I have gradually come to realise that there is a wealth of worldly experience in all facets of life and aging all of which has great utility in a legal career in its various manifestations so I have eventually and finally arrived at the point where I can groundedly say that I accept my reality with the law and largely do not regret the early choices I made in my adult life]
  • Dreadlocks on a white-Anglo Aussie aren’t cool and eyebrow piercings are SO 1990s!
  • Don’t worry everything will work out just right;
  • Be yourself and don’t overly worry about what other people think;
  • Do exactly what you just did all over again i.e. follow your heart and passions; avoid studying law like the plague for at least 8 years; travel the world have adventures, try new experiences, challenge yourself; ride a bicycle across Australia, trek the Inca trail, do a 10-month overland trip through SE Asia with a one-way ticket, bungy jump off a 160m suspension bridge on the Nepal- Tibet border in the midst of a Maoist insurgency and civil war; get involved in many movements for positive social change and social & environmental justice; study philosophy, politics; investigate and explore many different religions and spiritual paths; go see the Dalai Lama teach in residence in McLeod Ganj; yoga retreats; Vipassana meditation; deep ecology workshops; eco-Catholicism and Eco-philosophy; interfaith and human rights; vision quest in Death Valley California; shamanic rituals in Bolivia and Ecuador; make music, write poetry; be spontaneous and random; write, produce and direct a hip hop puppet show; rap with a 10 piece New Orleans Brass Band; get a paid job as a travelling slam poet; work as a roadie, a labourer, a landscape gardener; do a Diploma in Holistic Counselling; live, live, LIVE!
What is/ who are the 'Australian Lawyers for Human Rights'? And what is your role as President?
ALHR was established in 1993 and is a national association of Australian solicitors, barristers, academics, judicial officers and law students who practise and promote international human rights law in Australia. ALHR has active and engaged National, State and Territory committees and a secretariat at La Trobe University Law School in Melbourne. Through advocacy, media engagement, education, networking, research and training, ALHR promotes, practices and protects universally accepted standards of human rights throughout Australia and overseas.The organisation was started by the amazing Kate Eastman SC of the Sydney bar after she returned from working for a public interest law firm in London and realised there was nothing similar in Australia. Former executive members have included Kate Eastman SC, Professor David Kinley (Business & Human Rights international thought leader from USYD), Robin Banks (former Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner who is returning now to head up our national Human Rights Act Subcommittee), former ALHR Presidents: Dr Susan Harris-Rimmer, Stephen Keim SC, John Southalan and Nathan Kennedy.
The organisation has expanded markedly over the past few years and we now have nearly 8 national thematic subcommittees as follows:
  • Disability Rights Subcommittee – chaired by the incomparably lawesome Natalie Wade 2016 Law Council Australian Young Lawyer of the Year and 2016 South Australian Young Lawyer of the Year;
  • Indigenous Rights Subcommittee – chaired by the magnificent Dr Amy Maguire of Newcastle University and David Woodroofe (Principal Legal officer at NAAJA);
  • LGBTI Rights Subcommittee – co-chaired by the both marvellous Nicholas Stewart and Kathryn Cramp;
  • Business & Human Rights Subcommittee – chaired by the excellent Amy Sinclair;
  • Refugee Rights subcommittee – co-chaired by the both superbly erudite UNSW academic Khanh Hoang and former UNHCR worker Rebecca Dowd;
  • Freedoms Subcommittee – chaired by the indefatigable and diligently brilliant Dr Tamsin Clarke who is always applying the finest precision sharpening to all of our submissions and media releases;
  • Women & Girls Rights Subcommittee – co-chaired by the both highly esteemed Associate Professor Rita Shackel (USYD) and Anna Kerr (founder/ Principal Solicitor of the Feminist Legal Clinic)
  • Human Rights Act Subcommittee – chaired by former Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Robin Banks and former ALHR President Nathan Kennedy will be focusing on progressing the campaigns for a Tasmania human rights act, a NSW human rights act, a WA human rights act and a federal human rights act. I founded the HRA subcommittee in December 2014 to reignite the conversation for a federal human rights act and to accord with my Masters dissertation on a similar topic. However, in February 2015, the work of the Committee changed its focus to co-creating a campaign for the Queensland human rights act and we have had great success in the past 22 months campaigning and lobbying for a Qld Human Rights Act. Now our eyes are firmly fixed on igniting campaigns for human rights acts in Tasmania (which the Tasmanian Council for Civil Liberties has already kicked off), NSW (which Amnesty people have kicked off), WA and federally.
  • We are also hoping to have a Children’s Rights Subcommittee launched this year.
We also just had our first ever ALHR National Human Rights Conference at La Trobe University Law School city campus in Melbourne. Although we were nervous about our first run, it was a great success with an amazing line up of speakers and a very collaborative collegial atmosphere where many strategies and ideas for the coming year(s) were shared and pitched – it was not an academic conference which is exactly what we wanted!We are also excited that in transitioning to paid memberships in the past 2 years we now have some funding to better increase our visibility and advocacy impact in the media and generally. We are also increasingly sending national committee members to advocate in Geneva and hopefully New York at various United Nations events and related events.My role as president involves essentially a second full-time job and includes overseeing all ALHR’s national/international activities with my brilliant colleague Vice President Kerry Weste and our executive. We are a very democratic and non-hierarchical organisation which brings its own challenges and benefits and during a recent period of unprecedented expansion we have experienced some growing pains with the national committee facing an ever-growing workload - this is essentially a very excellent “problem” to be confronting!In day to day terms this includes but is not limited to:
  • Overseeing all ALHR’s national/international activities with my brilliant colleague Vice President Kerry Weste and our executive. We are a very democratic and non-hierarchical organisation which brings its own problems and benefits and we are experiencing some governance growing pains at the moment due to our increasingly burgeoning impact which is essentially a very excellent “problem” to be confronting!
  • Governance issues and convening regular national committee meetings and related;
  • Attending events around Australia including for example, the recent DFAT Human Rights NGO roundtable at the National Museum in Canberra, the Law Council of Australia Death Penalty Symposium in Melbourne;
  • International work: Attending UN events such as Australia’s Universal Periodic Review in Geneva and we are hopefully getting a team to attend Australia’s CERD Review in Geneva as well as this year’s UN Forum on Business & Human Rights in Geneva;
  • Corresponding with colleagues internationally about setting up similar organisations;
  • Engaging in the Human Rights Act for Queensland coalition including attending meetings with various organisations and politicians;
  • Media engagement: Drafting and finalising media releases, radio, television and newspaper interviews at local, national and international levels;
  • Drafting and finalising submissions on substantive law reform or legal issues to State/Territory/Federal Parliamentary Inquiries and United Nation Bodies
  • Giving evidence before Parliamentary Committees of inquiry for example the recent Freedom of Speech/ Section 18C inquiry
  • Meeting with various UN Special Rapporteurs when they visit Australia and our various national
  • Giving speeches, presentations and lectures on human rights topics at universities, conferences, high schools, around Queensland and Australia
  • Coordinating campaigns, organising events and always thinking up more audacious ideas
Why were you on Channel 10's the Project last week!?
Yes, on Friday 26 Feb 2017.... for a whole 8.5 seconds (extracted from a 15 minute interview where I tried to align with the parlance of The Project’s demographic with lines like “Tony Abbott has a history of being hysterically hostile to human rights.... he is a human rights hater from way back...He should pop another onion in his gob to stop all the cray cray from leaking out”...they didn’t use it!)16804114_1270202019726604_3200618769196104964_o
You have forged a career navigating the legal system to seek justice for underdogs and voiceless people – what is one thing you would change about our legal system with such people in mind?
There would not be one thing but many fact very many things! However, to limit my response, I would properly enhance access to justice via significantly increasing the quantum of legal aid funding from State/Territory/Federal budgetary allocations such that access to justice can become an actual realisable reality – we are far from it currently and drifting dangerously further with the federal government's incoming cuts! Access to justice and proper legal representation for the marginalised and disenfranchised in our society is what protects the dignity of our democracy from dissolving into the increasing dysfunction of highly polarised rich-poor cavernous gaps which destabilise and make insecure our societies and economies (notwithstanding that the human-greed-impulse and fictional-infinite-growth-bottom-line-lustful-clutching paradigm always albeit erroneously appears to be the most pragmatic pathway for our corporately-compromised political class). There is an abundance of places to easily source such funding. The perennial and pernicious obstacle (to most of our human-rights-violation-problems in Australia) is political will! For example, one could introduce a small (0.01% - 0.1%) levy on corporate and large scale financial transactions to fill a national legal aid fund and thereby boost the economy by providing increased employment for many of our legal graduates who are currently entering a balloted market a situation of diminished employment opportunities (and don’t even get me started on tertiary institutions irresponsibly marketing aspirational legal career mythologies to fill their pocketses...). Substantively providing access to justice in Australia via an enhanced well-funded legal aid service(s) would go a significantly long way to solving a lot of persistent human-rights-violation problems in Australia.
What will the major challenges to human rights be in 4 -6 years', time and 20 - 30 years' time?
Historical amnesia will be the perennial challenge to human rights forever. As long as humans have memories and power biases. Currently we have the Trump/Briedtbart Spoilt Brat White Man syndrome and rise of right wing nationalists.Really you can’t sum it up any better than British historian and moralist, Lord Acton, who expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."Until Homo sapiens evolve into a more compassionate, wise, considerate and eco-collaborative species of Homo-more-selfless-sapiens or even better Homo-all-my-relations-sapiens, we are going to be stuck with innate (human) nature of corruption and erroneous-scarcity-motivation toward small “s” selfish greed and gluttony at the expense of others. It is up to human rights advocates to keep watch and maintain vigil at the doors of democracy and, in the vein of former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld’s famous statement, not “to take (hu)mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell."
How must human rights law "keep up with the times" and what role can lawyers play, particularly young lawyers, in ensuring that it does?
The term “human rights” is as amorphous as it is ambiguous, broad as it is specific and encompasses a myriad of contexts, perceptions, perspectives, circumstances and thematic areas. I believe that most lawyers are human rights lawyers. Certainly, criminal defence lawyers are human rights lawyers of the first degree on the front lines of access to justice, as are employment lawyers and civil and administrative lawyers. Even if you are a prosecutor you play an important part in the machinery of access to justice and human rights and equally if you are defending corporations there is an increasing exciting global movement in business and human rights emanating from the 2011 unanimous adoption of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights by the UN Human Rights Council.Human rights law keeps up with the times by virtue of there being an active, creative and innovative body of (human rights) lawyers actively, creatively and innovatively engaging with the myriad of human rights issues in all their multi-faceted complexity, whether that be: writing algorithms to enhance access to justice or bringing human rights cases before any of the courts (well-considered audacious arguments to expand the law or otherwise); or lodging complaints about human rights issues with the various United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures; to the diligent conduct of one’s legal practice and adherence to all one’s ethical obligations to courts and clients.Some other things young lawyers might want to do is join ALHR and The Legal Forecast, and every other human rights legal organisation. Volunteer at a Community Legal Centre. Take every opportunity to enhance access to justice and creatively, innovatively and passionately address the myriad of human rights-violation perennial problems throughout Australia and the world. Write about it! Talk about it! Sing about it! Rap about it! Dance about it! There is plenty of work to be done and an abundance of opportunities to do it so get up, get down, get excited and get engaged!Is the UN broken? A Swedish billionaire has offered a $5.6 million reward for anyone who can come up with UN 2.0. What would your UN 2.0 look like? (We promise not to submit your answer...)
No. The UN has many systemic problems as do all institutions that are dependent on the corruptible  natures of human beings. However, on a cost-benefit analysis I think the UN provides far more benefit to the world and humanity than the problems it has. I think detractors and critics of the UN often fail to acknowledge the momentous amount of work UN bodies do every day, hour and minute throughout the world and the innumerable people that they do help albeit not everybody. My question for such detractors/critics is “Would you prefer a world without the UN?” Again, a perennial problem for the UN and its bodies, such as the UNHRC, is funding (from UN member countries) and political will and the Westphalian conundrum of nation-state sovereignty and its intersection (or obstructions) with international diplomatic collaboration.
For example, please imagine/envision the following – Australia could have easily and humanely solved its alleged border security problem in complete adherence with international law (ICCPR & 1951 Refugee Convention & 1967 Updating Protocol) by investing just one-fifth of the approximate $5 billion of taxpayers’ money it cruelly, wastefully and idiotically injected into the private shareholder coffers of Transfield/Broadspectrum/Ferrovial/Wilson Security/etc (without taxpayer consent) into the UNHCR and related bodies creating a properly funded holistic regional processing infrastructure with Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand etc Further, in adherence with international law, the Australian government could lead the way globally in the climate of the current and looming global refugee crisis, and fund adequate legal representation for asylum seekers which again would enhance the economy by providing more jobs for university law graduates
As stated above, I think the best summary realistic (as opposed to optimistic or pessimistic) assessment of the United Nations was made by former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld when he famously said that the United Nations "was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell."
I think it is excellent that Laszlo Szombatfalvy has offered such incentive for younger generations to engage in enhancing global governance. For a healthy socio-economic global climate, our systems require constant reassessment, questioning, disruption and updating just like our technologies. Let’s not forget what an amazing job former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan did with his visionary overhaul of the UN with the realise of his report “On Larger Freedom” in 2006 which led to the inceptions of the excellent Universal Periodic Review (UPR) system which has, at the close of its second cycle of reviewing the human rights records of 196 UN member countries in 4.5 years for each cycle, proved to be largely successful albeit not perfect.
What my United Nations 2.0 would look like is perhaps the subject of another article and a PhD and it would involve many changes and renovations to existing models and most certainly would include the establishment of a World Court (or Global Tribunal) of Human Rights as recommended by Australian Gallipoli hero Colonel William Roy Hodgson during the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hodgson was a person with disability after being shot at Gallipoli and went on to become an excellent and compelling international diplomate and ardent advocate for small nations at the inception of the United Nations. He was also one of the members of the 8-person drafting party of 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Eleanor Roosevelt. We need to renovate and enhance the ANZAC legacy (and the Australian national identity) to include our proud history of leadership in the establishment of international human rights law.
We understand you are a slam poet of some renown and presently dabble in ballet classes and acting classes and also that you are reading Joseph Campbell's seminal book about storytelling and mythology, Power of Myth. Two related questions–
In your experience, what is the importance of "storytelling" and "theatre" in the court room or in a royal commission?
Good and effective advocacy is all about good and effective storytelling and theatre. Looking at life in a Bard-ish “All the world’s a stage” context, I believe that we all follow scripts in our lives to some degree whether that be:
  • In our own internal narratives (that allow and limit us in our beliefs/thoughts/endeavours);
  • In our professional lives and careers which allow us to market ourselves as “experts” in certain fields of service-provision, knowledge and inquiry;
  • In our social, personal and intimate interactions with others;
  • ...etc
Humans are social creatures and life is about relationships and communication and the field of law and the legal profession are no exception. The development of good law requires to a significant extent good advocacy inter alia, which requires good storytelling about the theatre of life within the theatre of the courtroom.Does creativity matter in the context of a legal career? Why is it important for lawyers to dance?I like the idea of dance as a metaphor for actively engaging with, reacting to, and communicating in life in a wide array of contexts and on macro and micro levels. Dancing is also about being creative and having fun, it can be energetically active and devoutly spiritual. I think creativity is of indispensable important to a legal career both in one’s practice (running innovative and creative cases to attempt to actively develop the law) as well as creative pursuits to counter-balance the cognitive-headiness of law.However, I don’t think there is any blanket prescription for creativity, each to their own. I am expressly here going to avoid the term “work life balance” (noting the irony that I just used it to disabuse it) spewed across corporate websites has become such a trite, meaningless and often utterly disingenuous cliché. However, a balanced life for all people in all careers is fundamentally important for a fulfilling life. Human are creative and social creatures, not merely number-crunching-balloted-billable-unit-bible-bashing-sausage-factory- automatons. I have worked for large firms and I found it particularly dehumanising, Machiavellian and, notwithstanding I learnt some important life lessons and some legal things, it really wasn’t for me. That said, I have colleagues and friends who really enjoy working for large firms and it works very well for them which is great. The beauty of studying law and “the legal profession” is that is broadly diverse and accommodates all kinds of personality types including extroverts, introverts and us acrobatic ambiverts!I have had a few experiences of burn-out in my life both during and prior to my legal career. Passionate people need to be careful that their passion, as benevolent as it might be, does not become all consuming. My latest lesson especially at the moment with effectively working almost two full time jobs is that I need to balance my law with creative pursuits, exercise and meditation – so slam poetry, taking classes (of things I have never done before which challenge me). However, I don’t think there is a blanket prescription for everyone and some people thrive from being immersed in the law and when you’re young you can do that but perhaps not-so-much when you’re oldies.In terms of periodic existential assessments which we all experience from time to time, I generally future- think in terms of being on my deathbed. That is, when it comes to making decisions in life and in periodically assessing my life I imagine looking back on my life at the point of being close to death in order to ascertain what I might ultimately regret having done or having wasted time on in my life. This is why I avoided studying law like the plague for a good eight years. I have used this methodology for many years I think initially since reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying when I was about 18yo and subsequent multiple Vipassana meditation retreats and increasingly after my first child died in tragic circumstances just after he was born when I was 27yo and had just started my law degree. I have also taken on a more spiritual perspective I guess in focusing on gratitude and not being attached to outcomes such as being a lawyer for the next XX years or becoming a barrister or running this kind of case or that kind of case...etc Exercise, meditation and creativity make present and grounded which is, for me, an important pre-emptive antidote for burnout.In the context of TLF and the age of digital disruption I think the dancing metaphor is very apt because dance is about responding to your environment – music, rhythm, dance partner, space etc. We hear a variety of corporate fitness buzz words ad nauseum these days like “stronger” “leaner” “agile” “ready to respond to changing markets and the challenges of today...blah blah etc”. However, notwithstanding how quickly corporate generics can manufacture cliché, it is not untrue! I think the randomly rapidly expanding multi-versic marketplace is all about creative adaptation which is of course the basis of evolution generally and therefore (i) corporations on the ASX are buzzing on about nothing new and (ii) we all need to be strong, lean, agile dancing thinkers to robustly respond creatively to changing and challenging times!The other thing I like about the dance metaphor that it can be about core soulful individual expression. For example, if you put people a room turn on some music and ask them to freestyle, everyone will dance differently. Dance can be the expression of the essence of our individuality. So, while we don’t have to all be literal get down dancers, I think that in order to sustain longevity in the law it is important that you find your own groove and of course if it does not exist you apply creative robust will and persistence and you carve it out!
How can our readers assist and get involved with ALHR?It is very easy for lawyers and law students to become involved in ALHR - simply visit our website and become a member!Membership of ALHR offers legal professionals the chance to have a voice on human rights and law reform in Australia and internationally. They can get involved and impact state and federal legislation through work on submissions and our thematic subcommittees listed below:
  • Disability Rights Subcommittee
  • Indigenous Rights Subcommittee
  • LGBTI Rights Subcommittee
  • Business & Human Rights Subcommittee
  • Refugee Rights subcommittee
  • Freedoms Subcommittee
  • Women & Girls Rights Subcommittee
  • Human Rights Act Subcommittee
  • (start up a new national Children's Rights Subcommittee)

Lawyers and law students can also get involved in their local state or territory committee and help with events and strategic advocacy at that level.If you are not a lawyer you can still support ALHR by becoming a Friend of ALHR.AND for any readers that would like to give more than their membership and time toward assisting ALHR to maintain and grow our current presence, donations can be made to ALHR here. ALHR accepts no funding from governments or political organisations. We rely solely on the revenue we raise from paid membership and the generosity of donations.Also members get actively involved in our State/Territory committees and national thematic subcommittees.

Thank you very much, Benna!