Michael Kirby Black and White David Cooper Lecture 2023

Michael Kirby: The important link between health and human rights

News | Published on 31 Jul 2023 by Samantha Hayes

Kirby Institute Patron, The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG delivered the 2023 David Cooper Lecture, sharing his insights into life during the AIDS epidemic, highlights of his career and the role of human rights in responding to infectious disease pandemics.

“Paradoxically, reaching out to those in need is to reach out to those most at risk, involve, inform and protect them until there is something - a vaccine or treatment - that could help. Doing this takes courage, support and evidence.”

For the third annual David Cooper Lecture, renowned jurist, legal scholar, Australia’s longest serving Justice of the High Court and Kirby Institute Patron Michael Kirby joined esteemed ABC journalist and broadcaster Geraldine Doogue for a wide-ranging conversation on Health and Human Rights at Leighton Hall at UNSW Sydney. The event was co-presented by the Kirby Institute, UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Medicine & Health.

The sold-out event began with a discussion about Michael Kirby’s personal life, including insights into his 55-year long relationship with his spouse Johan, his relationship to his homosexuality and his guiding belief in science from an early age.

These experiences from his personal life all shaped his empathetic, individual (and by his own admission, often contrarian) character. He spoke on his view of the responsibilities we all have to one another: “Our duty, as informed citizens, is to try to make life sweeter and kinder and lovelier for all people.”

The AIDS paradox

Throughout the evening, Michael Kirby spoke of the AIDS paradox. This was the idea that in many places around the world, the response to the epidemic involved criminalising the behaviours that can lead to an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. It is far better, he says, to introduce measures that protect the rights of people most at risk of infection.

But as Michael Kirby shared, the early days of the epidemic were dark times, characterised by fear and discrimination.

“We went to so many funerals. And when you went to them, on one side of the chapel was the blood family, and on the other side of the chapel was the gay family. And never the twain met,” he said.

Quickly though, Australia’s response evolved to embrace the most at-risk communities. And it was this that made Australia a world-leader in our HIV response.

“We were second to New Zealand and right through the pandemic from that time on, we had a much lower rate of sero conversion."

Michael Kirby attributed this successful approach to then Minister for Health, Neil Blewett as well as other key actors at that time including Peter Baume, Bill Bowtell, and David Cooper, and later on in the epidemic, Jillian Skinner.

“The AIDS paradox was simple: if we want to deal with this matter, well, we don't have a cure and we don't have a vaccine so paradoxically, the best way to do so is to reach out to those who are most at risk, because then we can inform them about the virus,” he said. “We can inform them of the way to protect each other and by protecting each other they protect society. And we can engage them and involve them until we get something that will help to cure them, or at least palliate condition.”

The evolution of our fight for equity: from gay rights to trans rights

Michael Kirby attributes his acceptance of his sexuality to the scientific research of Alfred Kinsey, whose important and impactful work proved that homosexuality was not abnormal or unusual.

“It was a sensation at the time. And it came to my notice as a young boy, and it stayed with me because the press was full of it. And I thought, when I discovered my sexual orientation, I thought, oh, that's interesting. Well, Dr Kinsey says that it's not all that rare and it exists in all societies. It's just part of the reality. So, get over it and get on with other things. And basically, that's what I did. And when people, including church… went on about the abomination and so on, I just used to look puzzled and think, well, you are just wrong,” he said.

“And I think that rescued me. So, it goes to show the role media plays. And it goes to show the role science plays. And it goes to show the importance of education and getting the message over to young people who have been discriminated against that it's just wrong.”

Michael Kirby spoke about the evolution of equity, which now and importantly has shifted focus to the rights of trans and gender diverse peoples.

“As somebody who grew up being told, just shut up and pretend, I have a lot of sympathy for trans people. Sympathy is not the right word. Understanding and respect,” he said.

Michael Kirby emphasised that respect for and listening to those within the transgender community should be the guiding principles when looking to protect and promote trans rights.

“The bottom line that should guide us is, respect for people who find that they feel locked in a body that is not in keeping with how they feel and how they find the world and how they want to make their way in the world. But there are steps on that journey that require some extra help and extra principles. And I think we're probably still developing those principles. But excluding trans people and passing laws that forbid the mention of trans and forbid their participation in sports and forbid their participation in schools is not the way to go.”

Honouring the memory of Scientia Professor David Cooper AC

In opening the evening, UNSW Chancellor David Gonski praised David Cooper’s scientific achievements, international impact, intellectual rigour, drive and determination.

Michael Kirby also reflected on the leadership of David Cooper, with whom he had a long friendship and whose influence he attributes to getting him first interested in the fight against HIV.

“When the Kirby institute was launched David Cooper said our interests lie in helping marginalised communities with infections. The Kirby Institute is foremost in pursuing a global approach. We reach out to the [Pacific] region in particular but globally also,” he said

“I’m very proud of [the Kirby Institute’s global outreach]; it’s a continuation of what we learnt from David Cooper.”

The Kirby Institute has ensured that David's legacy is passed on to and nurtures the next generation through the David Cooper Scholarship. The first David Cooper scholar, Dr Gail Cross, is a clinician-researcher who has led clinical trials into the better treatment of tuberculosis. She has just had her first paper published on this work in the highly prestigious journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

A second David Cooper scholarship has been awarded to Damian Honeymoon, who will conduct his PhD research on early warning systems that predict and prevent future pandemics.

The annual David Cooper Lecture honours the legacy of the Kirby Institute’s inaugural director Professor David Cooper, who passed away in 2018. He was an internationally renowned scientist and HIV clinician.