"A Humanitarian for the Times: Indiana University Honors Justice Michael Kirby"

Dinner Honoring 2009 Spring Honorary Degree Recipient and Commencement Speaker
Federal Room, Indiana Memorial Union
May 8, 2009

Welcome and Acknowledgments

Thank you all for coming this evening.

We are delighted that so many distinguished guests could join us this evening.

Laurie and I are pleased to welcome our Indiana University Trustees: Vice President of the Trustees Pat Shoulders and his wife Lisa; Jack Gill and his wife Linda; Sue Talbot and her husband Bob; Tom Reilly; Phil Eskew; Bill Cast; and A.D. King.

I am also pleased to welcome the distinguished friends and colleagues of our esteemed guest whose presence here pays tribute to his service to Indiana University and to the world at large.

The Humanitarian Impulse

I am going to ask Justice Kirby to say a few words in a minute, but let me start by telling you a little about him.

On the occasion of his swearing in and welcome as a Justice of the High Court of Australia, Justice Kirby said, “[T]he lesson of our present enlightenment must be that there are other injustices to which we are still impervious, or indifferent or which we do not yet see clearly. We need to defend our legal institutions and to adhere to time-honored legal principles. Not blindly. And not mechanically. But with ears, minds and hearts always open to the call of justice.” 1

With this statement, Justice Kirby captures the essence of the humanitarian impulse that has moved people to compassionate action throughout history. That impulse enables people to see what others cannot and do what others will not.

For Michael Kirby, that impulse has shaped a life dedicated to the global search for justice.

“A Bishop or A Judge”

His commitment to those time-honored legal principles began, by his own account, six decades ago. When he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he wrote “A bishop or a judge.” As he put it, “the Church missed out, which was probably a wise career move in all the circumstances.” 2

Nevertheless, Justice Kirby remains a devout Anglican whose deep and abiding faith expresses itself in virtually every aspect of his life.

Justice Kirby completed his law degree in 1961 and graduated the following spring from the University of Sydney. After five years in a large law firm, he moved to the Bar in 1967 and built his own practice based primarily on insurance and workers’ comp cases. From early on, he also provided free legal services to a number of causes, and that generosity has continued throughout his career. 3

Upon his retirement from the High Court of Australia this past February, Justice Kirby was the longest-serving federal judge in Australian history. He began his federal service in 1974 as Deputy President of the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, a branch of the judiciary concerned with labor law. A year later, he was appointed the first Chair of the Law Reform Commission, a position he would hold concurrent with his deputy presidency. In 1984, he was named President of the New South Wales Court of Appeal, and in 1995, President of the Court of Appeal of the Solomon Islands. In 1996, he was called to serve as Justice of the High Court.

According to human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, during those years of dedicated service, he achieved a trifecta as a great judge, a great Australian, and a great man. 4

Justice Kirby the Internationalist

And I would add, a great internationalist, since Justice Kirby’s distinguished service and humanitarian impulse have taken him far beyond Australian boarders.

He has served as Commissioner—then President—of the International Commission of Jurists, Member of the Ethics Committee of the Human Genome Organisation in London, and Drafting Group Chair of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights.

He served as UN Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, Independent Chairman of the Constitutional Conference in Malawi, and member of the International Labour Organisation’s Commission on Freedom of Association, part of whose goal was to scrutinize South African labor laws.

Add to these, of course, his years of service to Indiana University as a member of the Kinsey Institute’s Board of Governors, as a Branigin lecturer and recipient of the Distinguished Citizen Fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Study, and as IU’s first George P. Smith Distinguished Professor and Chair in the Maurer School of Law.

Hidden within these facts is the real personal danger that Justice Kirby has faced in his international travels. His work in Cambodia, in particular, took him into harm’s way as he travelled through regions where foreign tourists had recently been murdered in that devastated country. Of his service in Cambodia, though, Kirby said it was “one of the greatest professional privileges of my life.” 5

He is also a tireless advocate for gay rights and has lived with his partner Johan van Vloten since 1969.

Intellectual Virtuosity

What is more apparent in these various roles is Justice Kirby’s extraordinarily broad intellectual range, which includes bioethics, genetics, technology, HIV and AIDS, labor policy, judicial activism, and—famously or infamously—breastfeeding in Zimbabwe. 6

Justice Kirby also demonstrates this intellectual range in the remarkable number of papers, book reviews, and speeches he has presented. Distinguished lawyer Rod Meagher said of Justice Kirby, “He loves making speeches. It does not, seemingly, matter to whom... [n]or does it matter on what subject. He will speak on any aspect of the law, on modern medicine, on dental decay, on child welfare, on the activities of UNESCO, on the Arab-Jew[ish] problem, on music, on economics, on the Stock Exchange, and on the multiple complications of the computer.” 7

What truly makes Justice Kirby one of the most impressive legal minds of his generation is that his intellectual virtuosity and deep curiosity enable him to speak with deserved authority on so many issues. His scholarship and industry in areas such as bioethics and data security have been particularly visionary.

According to legal scholar A. J. Brown, “[Kirby’s] interest and expertise in issues of biomedical policy, ethics and regulation—all unprecedented for a legal figure of his stature—all predated the first case of AIDS.” 8

Ultimately, Justice Kirby drew on this expertise to help shape the national and international legal responses to AIDS and HIV through the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS and other organizations.

Likewise, Justice Kirby’s longstanding interest in the interface between technology and the law led him to chair the OECD’s Expert Group on Data Security. That group generated the OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and the Transborder Flows of Personal Data, which form the foundation of modern privacy and data security law.

Put simply, the range and depth of Justice Kirby’s expertise in matters of immeasurable global importance is astounding.


Equally astounding are his accolades. He has received the Australian Human Rights Medal, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Australian Law Awards, and the Inaugural Australian Privacy Medal.

He was named Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by the Queen, Companion of the Order of Australia, and Laureate of the UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education.

He received the Yves Pelicier Prize of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, was awarded honorary membership of the American Law Institute, and was named Honorary Bencher of the Inner Temple in London.

His honorary degrees—by last count there are twelve— 9 have taken him gradually westward from Australia to India to the United Kingdom.

I am delighted that Indiana University has brought him further westward and will now count him among one of our most distinguished alumni. Soon those degrees will allow Justice Kirby to circumnavigate the globe, a fitting feat for a great internationalist.

“Humanitarian for the Times”

All of these titles and awards only begin to suggest Michael Kirby’s courage, compassion, and love of his fellow human beings.

In nominating him for an honorary degree, his colleagues described him as “wise, progressive, and compassionate,” “a voice of calm and reflection;” “modest, even self-effacing, and profoundly committed to advancing the cause of justice;” and: “a galvanic force for good and reconciliation,... a selfless spokesman for human rights—[and] truly a humanitarian for the times.” 10

It is my honor and privilege to present the Honorable Justice Michael D. Kirby.

Source Notes

  1. Kirby, Michael D. “Speech on the Occasion of His Swearing in and Welcome as a Justice of the High Court of Australia.” 6 February 1996. High Court of Australia. Canberra, Australia. Justice Michael Kirby Website. Accessed 1 May 2009. http://www.michaelkirby.com.au/ images/stories/speeches/1990s/vol36/ 1996/1318-Swearing-In_Speech_(HCA).pdf Page 6.
  2. Kirby, Michael D. “50 Years in the Law: A Critical Self-Assessment: The Hon Justice Michael Kirby AC CMG.” High Court of Australia Website. Accessed 1 May 2009. http://www.hcourt.gov.au/speeches/kirbyj/kirbyj_26jan09.pdf. Pages 47-8.
  3. Brown, A.J. “The ‘Inevitable’ Judge? A Biographer’s Note.” Appealing to the Future: Michael Kirby and his Legacy (SC). Edited by Ian Freckleton and Hugh Selby. Sydney: Lawbook, 2009. 48-80. Page 58.
  4. Robertson, Geoffrey. “Your Honour . . .” Appealing to the Future. xiii-xxviii. Page xix.
  5. Freckelton, Ian. “Introduction: Appealing to the Future.” Appealing to the Future. 1-47. Page 25.
  6. Brown. op. cit. Page 64.
  7. Brown. op. cit. 63-4.
  8. Brown. op. cit. Page 66.
  9. “The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG.” Justice Michael Kirby Website. Accessed 1 May 2009. http://www.michaelkirby.com.au
  10. All references in this paragraph come from Michael Donald Kirby, Justice of the High Court of Australia. Honorary Degree Dossier. Indiana University. 2 January 2009.