A life devoted to improving rights Reply

by Leanne Elahmad

Daniel Rowland, recently appointed to the Sydney PEN Management Committee, is currently the Law and Development Advisor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney. Before taking up this position in late 2010, he was Senior Law and Justice Adviser in AusAID for 10 years, and before that, Principal Solicitor in the Australian Government Solicitor. In all of these activities, human rights, including the freedom of expression, have been central to his practice. Leanne Elahmad reports.

Growing up in a conservative English society plus liberal education equals social conscience. Well, at least for Daniel Rowland, 63, that’s how it adds up. He comes to the PEN Management Committee with an impressive career as a lawyer, at both the national and international level, representing the Australian Government, and working for AusAID, and gaining insight into restrictions on human rights and freedom of expression.

He joined PEN to help tackle existing issues of freedom of expression and says  that while he is not a writer, his legal background and experiences have equipped him to become an activist for freedom of expression.

“Can you imagine what a world would be like without freedom of expression, without a freedom to read and write? I’ve been to worlds like that through different roles in my life, and they’re very frightening places,” he says.

“It’s very important that we pursue freedom of expression generally whether it’s for writers, journalists, or Governments, whether in Australia or elsewhere.”

He believes PEN’s role is important because it highlights these issues and exposes the stories of those who have fallen victim to oppressive governments.

He also believes that privileged countries such as Australia have a responsibility to highlight these impediments on human rights and advocate against them. This is a challenge he accepted when joining PEN.

“You know, it might have something to do with taking things for granted. It’s rarely an issue that comes home to the individual. ‘So what if a Chinese dissident writer is locked up … why do I care? The football’s on tomorrow night, I’d rather be there’. So I think we have got to find ways of attracting an audience. It’s going to be a very interesting challenge for me,” he says.

Daniel attributes the foundations of his social conscience to his middle class upbringing in London in the 1960s. “One of the great things about my family was that we would have robust discussions and interrogation was the order of the day at the dinner table,” he says.

As a teenager, he witnessed the UK Government’s power to ban certain events and literature if they didn’t conform to ‘society’s norms’. He recalls the end of the era in which the Lord Chamberlain banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel by DH Lawrence, because “he thought it was shocking in whatever way he thought that meant”.

Daniel says he was lucky to enjoy a liberal education studying at a college school in London founded in the 18th century by Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher behind the theory of Utilitarianism – the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

The clash between liberal education and a very conservative environment in the early 60s fomented a cultural change that basically pulled down conservative Victorian cultural values that had remained for many years, he says.

“It lead to a flowering of artistic expression at the time and I think my own social justice thinking emerged from that transformation.”

He studied law in England and later moved to America and Italy to complete a master’s degree in international relations and international law, because he felt he needed to gain a context to law, something he says was lacking in his undergarduate degree.

He moved to Adelaide in the early 1970s with his Adelaide-born wife before he relocated to Sydney to teach public law, including human rights, at the University of New South Wales. He says he appreciated the relative freedom of Australia, particularly when it came to raising children.

While at UNSW, he was elected to the Executive Committee of the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) and, quite separately was involved in the early days of the Redfern Legal Centre. He says that his engagement in such activities was an expression of his interests in human rights.

During his time on the ICJ’s Executive, he experienced two eye-opening moments: a human rights demonstration in Manila savagely stopped by President Marcos’ police, and an ICJ mission to investigate the conditions of some 30,000 West Papuan refugees into PNG who were taking refuge from Indonesians violence across the border.

“There was a significant number of the refugees and some of them were dying in dense jungle, and one of the things it brought home to me me was the impact of a lack of human rights in countries neighbouring our border.”

His career took a different turn in the early 1980’s when he agreed to help with a Federal Government supported initiative to establish community television, now called Metro Screen. That led on to running a private film and television company and then the Australian Film Commission, which in a way was all about the development of many and varied Australian film and TV cultural expressions.

But, after 10 years in film and television, he decided it was time to go back to law. “I had an offer and I like the law, it’s been in my blood for 40 years,” he says.  And so Daniel became a principal solicitor with the Australian Government Solicitor, which is effectively the in-house lawyer for federal ministers, federal departments and federal agencies, and on one view, acting on behalf of the “Aussie taxpayer”, he says.

Later he joined AusAID as the senior law and justice advisor.  Over a 10-year period he visited many countries in Asia and the Pacific, like Cambodia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea where he says “much of my work was about advising on legal and judicial reform”.

“Freedom of expression in these countries is not necessarily taken for granted to the extent it is here, and while it wasn’t necessarily my main activity, I was always very conscious of that.”

While he enjoyed the governance work he was doing at AusAID, he admits it could be frustrating at times.

“The work I was doing over those 10 years, was about seeing results, and results when it comes to law reform take a long time. It’s not like building a bridge, or building a health clinic or inoculating people. Significant substantive legal reform leading to better justice outcomes takes many years whether in a  developed or a developing country,” he says.

Daniel’s goal with PEN is to work with his committee colleagues to get Australians more engaged in human rights issues. While he believes Australians are complacent because “we commonly know what we like and what we don’t like,” he is optimistic about Australian society’s concerns for basic freedoms.

“My view about breaches of fundamental rights is, ‘stay engaged … you will probably gain an entry point for change eventually,” he says.


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