Fighting Injustice



When I left law school, I followed the path of least resistance.  I went to work for a corporate law firm.  I ended up on this path for a number of years.

Some of the work was mind-numbingly dull, like paginating thousands of documents.  On the other hand, some of it was intellectually rigorous and fascinating.  At other times, the work involved celebrities, sums of ridiculous amounts of money, and, as they say in the Speights ad, a box at Eden Park.

Of course, almost all of us were there because of our own privilege.  I don’t think it is an unfair thing to say that we were generally unaware of that.

On the odd occasion, my work stepped away from acting for corporations and led me to being able to work for individuals.  Whether it was a minor dispute, a defamation action, or a leaky building issue, I enjoyed using my skills to assist an individual at a difficult time for that person and could somehow alleviate that person’s concern, even if only in a small way.

So, and in an attempt to do more work at an interpersonal level, I decided to do something completely different.  I went to work for refugees in North Africa in 2005.

From Auckland to Cairo.  Sure.  Easy.  No worries…

When I got to Egypt, though, I instantly felt the relevance of the work I was doing.  Providing free legal services to the asylum seeker and refugee population in Cairo was both tangible to the clients and to me.  I remember straight away meeting an Ethiopian journalist who had undergone indescribable torture (with the scars to prove it), a Somali woman the victim of terrible sexual violence, and a young Sudanese man who had literally just fled the Janjaweed in Darfur.  And that was just the beginning!

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What struck me with each case as I continued to meet more refugees and hear increasingly terrible stories was a real sense of unfairness.  Most of my clients simply had no recourse against their persecutors – they had no ability in their legal, social or political systems to challenge or confront the abuse.  There was no option but to flee their country.

There was no justice.

In my mind, this is what the Refugee Convention provides.  A sense of justice.  Directly, the Refugee Convention is a human rights remedy – it is international law’s response to suffering human rights abuse in your home country and the legal remedy is one of protection.

But, on a more human level, it allows individuals to access some justice for being victims of persecution.  Being a lawyer in this situation, seeing someone change from victim to survivor, is incredibly rewarding and empowering.

I don’t do refugee work because I am enamoured with the different countries and places I get to work in.  I don’t do it because I meet clients and colleagues from all over the world with interesting backgrounds and dynamic experiences.  I do it to redress injustice.  To fight the unfairness that is unfortunately too evident and to use my skills to actually tip the scales of justice back in favour of the marginalised.  And, I try to be aware of my privilege.  To acknowledge that it is only through chance I was born into the family I was, and how that position of privilege has allowed me to do this work.

Currently, I am based in Hong Kong still working on refugee issues.  Here too, injustice thrives.  In this land of plenty, this monument to capitalism, refugees are forced to eat off HK$33 (NZ$5) a day.  A flat white, meanwhile, costs HK$44.

But, then my mind wanders to Aotearoa.  In our beautiful and plentiful country, injustice is also far too obvious.  White privilege prevails, primarily in favour of one gender, with structural discrimination, the on-going impacts of colonialism, and we have had for almost thirty years this imposed and fundamentally flawed neo-liberal economic ideology.  This ideology has, among other things, led to a precarious workforce where women clean our politicians’ excrement for what John Key would spend on buying a packet of golf tees next time he is at the Hills Golf Course in Queenstown.

But, I don’t see any evidence that this government cares about the unfairness people face right across New Zealand.  I see no tangible steps towards addressing real issues of inequality.  I see only facades at attempting to create a truly more diverse and environmentally sustainable economy across the regions, along with a constant and flagrant disregard for anything resembling democratic accountability.

So, I have decided this election is about fighting injustice.  As a country, we need to embrace that.  As Paul Krugman argues for the US, where is the new New Deal leading to more prosperity for more people?  When will we once and for all refute this neo-liberal paradigm and again lead the world in progressive policy with egalitarianism at its core?

Well, as to my last question, 2014 sounds good to me.

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Michael Timmins is an expert in international human rights law. Specialising in refugee rights, Michael has worked in Egypt, the United States, Australia, Thailand, Pakistan and his home country of New Zealand across roles in advocacy, academia, and government. He is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group's Management Committee. Michael’s writing covers international human rights, counter-terrorism, international environmental law, rule of law and accountability issues, as well as anything interesting happening in international relations.


  1. Injustice will continue to flourish as long as the majority remain too apathetic to care. Injustice also begins at the top and trickles down.. It’s time to change the world..

  2. Great post Michael. I think you nailed it with the mention of privilege. Speaking as a Pakeha NZer, and in response to David’s concern about apathy, I think that until we confront the issue of privilege – the ways in which we have benefited from colonialism – we won’t be a force for justice in this country. As a feminist I find it so frustrating when men of my generation spout the same old sexist attitudes. I always think there’s no excuse for it in this day and age and in a country where education is reasonably accessible. But, I am beginning to see all the ways that I don’t question my privilege as a white NZer and I think there is no excuse for that, either.

  3. And, speaking of feminism – what is with the “male gamers only” advert that features on this website?? Um….

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