Human Rights Lawyer, Shen Narayanasamy | RMIT University


Students, today I have with me as my special
guest, Shen Narayanasamy. Shen, thanks for joining me. Thanks. So Shen, you?re the executive director of
?No Business in Abuse? campaign and the human rights director of
GetUp. Can you tell our students what those jobs
entail exactly? So I work on social justice advocacy and campaigning,
which means that we get to sit across media campaigning in its traditional sense, working
with members of the community, working with the law, doing whatever we want really to
try and get the outcome we want. And how does human rights law actually inform
these campaigns? So, No Business in Abuse is a good example. No business in abuse was a corporate campaign
set up to target corporates who were involved in mandatory detention. Students, today I have with me as my special
guest, Shen Narayanasamy. Shen, thanks for joining me. Thanks. So Shen, you?re the executive director of
?No Business in Abuse? campaign and the human rights director of GetUp. Can you tell our
students what those jobs entail exactly? So I work on social justice advocacy and campaigning,
which means that we get to sit across media campaigning in its traditional sense, working
with members of the community, working with the law, doing whatever we want really to
try and get the outcome we want. And how does human rights law actually inform
these campaigns? So, No Business in Abuse is a good example.
No business in abuse was a corporate campaign set up to target corporates who were involved
in mandatory detention. So we used both the solid and the hard human rights law in terms
of the United Nations instruments, but we also used soft law, which is a whole, there?s
a whole kind regime of soft law around business and human rights to inform our analysis of
the offshore detention regime and to make an argument to corporations that they shouldn?t
be involved in it. So, it kind of informs what we do but I think the immigration situation
is a pretty good one for looking at the limitations of the law because obviously, especially immigration,
the law is set by parliament and there?s a bipartisan consensus at this point in time
for offshore detention, so the ability for the law to deliver enduring benefits on its
own in immigration is really limited, so what we do is jump off law or use law to inform
us. So for instance, Let Them Stay, which is one of the campaigns we did, it actually
arose out of a failure ? the High Court ruled against the lawyers that the 267 people that
were in that case in Australia had no legal right to remain here. And so it was a loss
and the campaign started from that loss. Right, so let?s go back a bit, how did you
get into law, did you always want to be a lawyer? Did you always want to study law at
uni? No. I wanted to do something good. I mean
I was quite an idealistic 16-year-old. Which is about the age I was back then when I was
choosing. And then I read the Justice Game, by Geoffrey Robertson and he?s description
of capital punishment, and decided I wanted to be a death row lawyer, so I changed my
preferences last minute. You sure did and can you remember whether
or not the stuff you learned at law school, actually hold you in good stead for the work
that you do now or did you actually have to forget a lot of what you left at law school
to do the job that you?re doing? Well I wasn?t the world?s most dedicated student.
So I think what I learnt at law school was possibly a little limited. What I think it
did teach me was a real methodology of teaching. I think the law is really good like that.
It teaches you, because you have to cross your i?s and dot your t?s and you have to
read through a judgement and understand it, that?s kind of before dot points, judgements
are often quite rambling beasts, so that way of thinking in long form but also the really
structured logical manner, I think is really useful. Because I see that now in campaigning,
I?m really structured and logical about it. And as a student you actually went to Immigration
Detention Centres ? Woomera and Baxter ? what impact did that have on you? Seeing the conditions
in which people were being held and indeed speaking to detainees? I think this is something that we don?t understand
very well about the law and about judges actually, is that seeing the reality of, I don?t want
to say evil, but the reality of pain and trauma caused by what the state can or can?t do is
quite shocking and I think of criminal lawyers who do that a lot, judges who sit across those
cases and seeing the reality of pain is really quite traumatising, so that burned sufficiently
in me that it kind of powered a whole trajectory but I think it can also burn in other ways.
So, I think there?s a significant form of burn-out and cynicism that can affect you
in the law. Well, you?ve been campaigning for asylum seeker
rights since at least 2000, some would say that Australia?s treatment of asylum seekers
hasn?t really change much in that time, how do you personally stay resilient, I guess,
in the face of setbacks? I think, you just have to have a dogged commitment
and I think what changes about the 16-year-old is, that you start to realise it?s a very
long game of chess that you might not complete in your lifetime. So Shen, part of your work includes targeting
corporations that seem to profit from abuse in detention centres and also targeting those
institutions that invest in those companies that are running detentions centres, do you
think that course of action is actually working? Do you think it?s changing the hearts and
minds of institutional investors? Well, so I think, changing hearts and minds
is one thing and I think what you?ve got to ask is, is No Business in Abuse working to
achieve the outcome we want to? Which was to see reputable corporations walk away from
providing systemic support to detention and it has done that, so every single contractor
inside detention is pulling out over the next 6, 7 months and this means pulling out from
millions of dollars of contracts, so in that sense it is working and I?m not sure how much
it really changed hearts and minds, but it didn?t really set out to do that. It set out
to use a host of soft and hard law to convince companies and their investors of the financial
and reputational damage that they would incur should they continue, and that worked. Ok, so last question, our students watching
this probably are deciding which area of law to go into, there will be many who want to
use their law to change the world, what bit of advice or bits of advice would you give
students who actually want to use the law for social good? Want to actually change the
way the law is currently operating in the social justice space? Well so the advice that was given to me was
really, really good, so this is not mine, it?s what I use and that was to get really
good at what you do, so, develop professional skills, because I think what you need to do
is know that if you want to work on social justice issues that often your clients don?t
have the ability to tell you you?re not doing a good job. So its upon you to really make
sure that you have the integrity and professional skills to deliver the kind of change you need.
So, what that meant for me was that the advice I got given was try and do a range of different
legal jobs and try and get really good practical experience and I think that?s the most important
thing, if you want to do social justice law, be good at what you do. Know that if you?re
going to say to a client or in a campaign if you?ve got to say to a client ?I will make
sure you do not get sent back to Nauru,? you can deliver on that. Because you have the
most precious kind of responsibility given to anyone which is the trust and faith of
people who have very little. Well there you go students, that?s some great
advice. Be good at what you do, there will be a whole range of area of the law that you
will practice in but your clients need you and you can change the world. Shen, thanks
for joining me. No worries.

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