Graduation address given by Professor Lawrence Ogalthorpe Gostin

Professor Lawrence Ogalthorpe Gostin gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Law graduation ceremony held at 9.30am on 25 May 2012 in the Great Hall. Professor Gostin is Associate Dean (Research and Academic Programs) and the Linda D and Timothy J O'Neill Professor of Global Health Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

The photo of Professor Gostin is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Lawrence Ogalthorpe Gostin

Graduation address

Deputy Chancellor; Dean Gillian Triggs, an extraordinary and innovative legal educator; Roger Magnusson, my dear friend and close academic partner; Justice Michael Kirby, who more than anyone epitomizes the person we all aspire to be: Thank you for this great honour. I cannot begin to express how privileged and humble I feel being with you on this special day.

My topic today is something dear to my heart: Health for All, Justice for All. Why health and justice? Health and justice are both transcending values.

Health has special meaning and importance to individuals and the community as a whole. Health is necessary for much of the joy, creativity, and productivity that a person derives from life. Individuals with physical and mental health recreate, socialize, work, and engage in family and social activities that bring meaning and happiness to their lives.

Justice - the equitable allocation of benefits and burdens - is necessary because all human beings deserve a fair chance of leading a life that brings dignity and fulfilment. Poverty, hunger, voicelessness, disempowerment are all antithetical to justice. The raison d'être of law is justice. Law is but the means, justice the end.

My Three Passions: Pursuit Your Own Passion to Bring Meaning to Your Life

The first love of my life was Jean Catherine Allison from the village of Applethwaite, near Keswick, Cumbria, where Coleridge built a cottage for Wordsworth tucked into the fells lying beneath Skiddaw Mountain. From a professional perspective, the first love of my life was mental health. And the two loves are intertwined, as I met Jean while working as the Legal Director of MIND (National Association for Mental Health), and some of our most enthralling “dates” (from my vantage point) involved going to high security mental institutions, such as Broadmoor, Rampton, and Moss Side.

Many of the proposals in the two-volume book I wrote at MIND, A Human Condition, were adopted in the Mental Health Act of England and Wales. I was privileged to bring test cases in the domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights ranging from the right to vote and pursue grievances in courts of law to the right of review by a tribunal and humane conditions of confinement.

The second love of my professional life was civil liberties, as I became the General Secretary of the National Council of Civil Liberties (NCCL), now called “Liberty.” I led NCCL during its 50th anniversary in the prophetic year of 1984. Aneurin Bevin, E. M. Forster, A.A. Milne, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, and H.G. Wells were among its founders. At NCCL, I became embroiled in politically contentious debates during the Thatcher era, with the national miners’ dispute, the troubles in Ireland, and NCCL’s legal representation of a neo-Nazi group called the National Front.

At Harvard, and now at Georgetown, I discovered a third, and I think final, passion – the public’s health and welfare, which was first expressed in my work on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, then population health, and now global health. During that period, I wrote the Model Emergency Health Powers Act following 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. And more recently have proposed a global health treaty endorsed by the United Nations Secretary General – a Framework Convention on Human Rights.

At your age, I entered a North Carolina Hospital for the Criminally Insane as a pseudo-patient. My first recollection of that experience was when a patient asked, “What you in for boy?” I was petrified, but the experience transformed my life. I spent the next several months finding out first hand about the experience of being a mental patient in a “total institution:” the filth, smell, and sweltering heat; the food spoiling and riddled with insects; the toilets situated in the open ward without doors or toilet paper; the isolation of a barred cell every night; and, above all, the mind-numbing tedium of staying in a single ward without any activity or stimulation.

Recently, my son found a medical record written by the senior psychiatrist at the mental hospital:

Mr. Gostin arrived at the Forensic Mental Health Unit dressed in dungarees pinned together with visible safety pins, a dirty khaki shirt, and his overall appearance was considerably below the standard set for our patients. During the time Mr. Gostin was on the Unit our treatment programs were virtually at a standstill, and he provoked unusual, unnatural, and dissident behavior by our patients. Mr. Gostin succeeded in convincing patients to question and even denounce their treatment. Mr. Gostin has been and continues to be disruptive, time consuming, a nuisance, non-purposeful and unwanted on this Unit.

And here I am!

Three Values to Live Your Life By

What are the values I have lived my life by and which I hope to plant a seed in you today? Devote yourself to three passions:

  1. Self and Family
  2. Community and Country
  3. One Health/One World: Health for All / Justice for All

A word of warning: This may sound preachy. But I will treat you today as if you were my daughters and sons. And I sure Dean Triggs would agree that you are now all daughters and sons of Sydney Law School forever.

And speaking of preachy. My sons Bryn and Kieran once said insightfully that my passion for public health “Sucked all the joy out of life.” I will try not to do that this morning.

1. Self and family

Here are my secrets to a good life:

Find Balance

  1. Personal health and vitality: Remember to be physically active, eat well, and reduce your stress. Never skimp on these essentials of life. It never costs too much to buy nutritious food, a gym membership, or a yoga class.
  2. Apply all these to your family: Cherish your parents, brothers or sisters, and later on your children, and pass these values onto them. Think about how your parents got you to where you are today – finely honed learning machines.
  3. Career: Devote yourself to a career that you love. Your work is not everything, but it is a key element in your self-fulfillment.

Take Risks
Take risks, not with your health, but in your life’s choices. Push past your comfort zone. You can’t be all you can be by playing it safe in life.

Take the Path Less Travelled
Don’t follow the path that everyone else is taking. Find a path that less explored, one where your presence can make all the difference.

2. Community and Country

You are graduating from a world-class law school, renowned throughout the globe. You live in arguably the best country in the world. Look around you at this stunning beauty and heritage. How fortunate and privileged you have been.

Devote yourself to your community and country – Give Back.
Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Build a house for a family in need. Use your legal skills to represent the poor and disenfranchised, persons with mental or physical disabilities, the elderly, or the poor.

Fight for social justice in your country. Indigenous people live on average nearly ten years less in many states, and the aboriginal people of Australia have among the lowest life expectancies. Why should this be? Why should we tolerate or accept it?

3. One Health/One World: Health for All, Justice for All

Think and act globally. Commit yourself to a healthy, vibrant people living in a healthy and vibrant planet.

Fight for global justice and global health; or for an end to poverty; or for the human rights of women; or for a sustainable environment. Put an end to climate change in your generation.

Consider two children – one born in sub-Saharan Africa and the other in Australia. The African child is 20 times more likely to die in her first five years of life. If she lives to childbearing age, she is nearly 140 times more likely to die in labour. Overall, she can expect to die 26 years earlier than a child born in Australia.

Strive to do something big to correct these or other global injustices. Attempt something big and impossible. I am currently working with a global coalition of civil society and academics – the Joint Action and Learning Initiative on National and Global Responsibilities for Health (JALI), available at JALI is aiming to establish a Framework Convention on Global Health. Sometimes I feel exhilarated. Sometimes, I am wholly dispirited, thinking it will never happen. Never give up on your dreams.

Your Generation

If your generation does not fight for health for all, justice for all, the vicious cycle of poverty and endemic disease among the world’s least healthy people will continue unabated. And that is a consequence that none of us should be willing to tolerate.

Congratulations Sydney Law Class of 2012. Be very proud of what you have achieved. Do wonderful things in your life: For yourself and your family. For your community and country. For the world’s people and the planet in which we live.