Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice

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Scribe Publications Pty Limited, Nov 1, 2007 - Law - 320 pages
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The first decade of the twenty-first century has seen a sharp decline in respect for human rights and the international rule of law. The legal conventions of the new realpolitik seem to owe more to Guantanamo than Geneva.

Australia has tarnished its reputation in the field of human rights, through its support for illegal warfare, its failure to honour international conventions, its refusal to defend its citizens against secret rendition and illegal detention, and its introduction of secretive anti-sedition legislation and draconian anti-terror laws.

In Watching Brief, noted lawyer and human rights advocate Julian Burnside articulates a sensitive and intelligent defence of the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees, and the importance of protecting human rights and maintaining the rule of law. He also explains the foundations of many of the key tenets of civil society, and takes us on a fascinating tour of some of the world’s most famous trials, where the outcome has often turned on prejudice, complacency, chance, or (more promisingly) the tenacity of supporters and the skill of advocates. Julian Burnside also looks at the impact of significant recent cases — including those involving David Hicks, Jack Thomas, and Van Nguyen — on contemporary Australian society.

Watching Brief is a powerful and timely meditation on justice, law, human rights, and ethics, and ultimately on what constitutes a decent human society. It is also an impassioned and eloquent appeal for vigilance in an age of terror — when ‘national security’ is being used as an excuse to trample democratic principles, respect for the law, and human rights.


Watching Brief is cool and rational, providing uncomfortable detail in succinct prose. Burnside wants Australians to confront what is done in their name. Detaining asylum-seekers is wrong and illegal, and decent people should demand change … Like Zola in 1898, Burnside accuses his nation’s most senior leaders of complicity in injustice, of duplicity in their public statements. He condemns attacks on human rights and consequences for those wrongly and secretly imprisoned … Watching Brief is his argument for a new approach to human rights policy. Julian Burnside has produced a brief that deserves a wide audience and careful judgement.’ The Age

‘A fascinating read for anyone who burns with a passion for human decency and an interest in ethics.’ The Sunday Telegraph

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - questbird - LibraryThing

Julian Burnside is an Australian lawyer who has specialised in human-rights cases since 2001, when the Norwegian ship 'Tampa' rescued hundreds of asylum-seekers near Christmas Island. This book is a ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - skif - LibraryThing

Julian Burnside is an advocate for people in immigration detention centre and as such can write a very readable but horrifying account of the conditions under which people are imprisoned. The book ... Read full review

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About the author (2007)

Julian Burnside, QC, is an Australian barrister who specialises in commercial litigation and is also deeply involved in human rights work, in particular in relation to refugees. He is a former president of Liberty Victoria, and is also passionately involved in the arts: he is the chair of Melbourne arts venue fortyfivedownstairs, and is chair of the Mietta Foundation. He has published a children’s book, Matilda and the Dragon, as well as Wordwatching, a collection of essays on the uses and abuses of the English language, and Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice.

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