Sydney Spotlight with Professor Ben Saul

8 December 2023
A conversation with Professor Ben Saul
10 December is Human Rights Day. To get a better understanding of what this means, we talk to Professor Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law, who has recently been appointed UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights.
Professor Ben Saul in Nepal

My favourite thing about my role is...

(Winks) naturally being an elected Fellow of the University Senate – representing the interests of academic staff, advancing the collective mission and performance of our great and complex University, and improving our management and governance. More generally I’m grateful that academia gives me the freedom to choose my own adventures, whether in research, teaching, work travel to wild places, mentoring generations of curious students, legal practice and consultancy, or participation in public debate and public service.

At the moment I am working on... 

Marking a mountain of exams for my course War Law, starting a 12,000-word report to the United Nations Human Rights Council (due in two weeks!), and preparing my January lectures for The Hague Academy of International Law and for my Sydney Law School course, Himalayan Field School in Nepal.

The Himalayan Field School in Nepal enables students to learn first-hand about the role of law and human rights in development processes, from child labour in brick factories, to squatter settlements and victims of civil war. It can be a life and career-changing experience for students, and includes visiting development projects, meeting with disadvantaged communities, and interacting with local, national and international development actors.

Being a United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism means...

Persuading or cajoling 193 countries to respect human rights when countering terrorism in their social, law enforcement, intelligence, and military activities. This can be through quiet, high-level diplomacy, legal advocacy, or public campaigns. The work is not only about rights of “terrorists”, but also of the many innocent people against whom terrorism laws are misused, such as political opponents, activists, non-governmental organisations, minorities, journalists, academics and students. The work happens on a shoe-string – the position is unpaid and has only two staff in Geneva – because many governments are reluctant to put their money where their human rights mouths are. Philanthropy welcome! I also enjoy UN immunity from legal proceedings, so am hopefully safe from frivolous defamation claims in litigious NSW.

Commemorating Human Rights Day is important because...

It reminds us of our common humanity in the global sea of suffering, dehumanisation, and polarisation that is typified by conflicts from Israel/Palestine to Ukraine to Sudan. Modern human rights law sprang from the tragedy of 80 million lives lost in the Second World War and remains a clarion call that security and freedom are interdependent, not opposites. Closer to home, Human Rights Day can prompt us all to demand that our governments and leaders treat people with respect and dignity, and that we do the same to each other, whether at work, at home, in the community or on social media.

My favourite place to go on campus is...

I never go there, but I still have affection for two buildings where I spent a lot of time as a student in the 1990s: the bleak basement of the Wentworth Building, where we edited the student newspaper Honi Soit; and the Woolley Building, where, as an Australian Literature honours student, courses still ran with only four students and reading lists could mandate one Dostoyevsky and one Patrick White novel every week of the semester.

Something that might surprise people about me is...

My passions for carpentry and tools in general, ping pong, and the Snowy Mountains where I grew up.

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