Utrecht Graduate Sarah Dillon talks about her career in human rights and criminal justice.

Sarah Dillon

Sarah Dillon, a graduate of Utrecht University with an LLM in international law, spoke with Julie Fraser, Assistant Professor of International and European Law in Utrecht, about her career since graduating. Sarah has worked in Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and in the area of police oversight.

JF: Sarah, we studied together at Utrecht University (UU) over a decade ago, both completing the LLM specialising in international human rights and criminal justice. What did you study before doing the LLM and why did you choose Utrecht University?

SD: Before Utrecht I completed a double degree at Deakin University in Australia, a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts specialising in International Studies. It was always my plan to do a Master of Laws with a focus on human rights. I chose the LLM at UU because it was unique in combining human rights law and criminal law, my dual passions. Also, I thought it was fantastic that there was an externship component built into the curriculum, to give students hands-on experience in an international law environment. I ended up completing my externship with a Defence team at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; it was an incredible, eye-opening experience. 
JF: After graduating from UU, you returned home to Australia and got a dream job with the Australian Human Rights Commission. Why did you choose to go home and how did you get that great job?

SD: I chose to study my LLM outside of Australia because I wanted to learn about human rights law from an international perspective. At UU I gained an in-depth understanding of human rights jurisprudence from other regions of the world. When I finished my LLM, while I was interested in an international job, I felt a sort of moral pull back to my home country. Australia has significant human rights issues, and its human rights protections are underdeveloped (for example there is no bill of rights in the Australian Constitution). I felt an obligation to take what I had learned in Utrecht about how other parts of the world approach human rights issues, and try to apply those principles back home. I think my LLM from UU was instrumental in my getting a Policy Officer role at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). Being familiar with caselaw by the UN Human Rights Committee and from the European Court of Human Rights was definitely an asset for the Commission’s work. Also, it was not very common for Australian lawyers to have an LLM from a European university, so it was a great ice-breaker in interviews!

I was lucky enough to work on some amazing projects at the AHRC. The majority of my work related to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. I worked on the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, and was appointed a Torture Prevention Ambassador for Australia as part of an international 18-month programme run by the Asia Pacific Forum and the Association for the Prevention of Torture in Geneva. 

JF: That sounds so interesting! I know that you also worked at Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, what was that like?

SD: The Royal Commission was an extraordinary thing to be part of.  It was set up by the Australian Government in 2012 in response to the problem of child sexual abuse occurring in institutional settings around the country. I worked as a Legal Officer in the team investigating abuse that occurred in Catholic institutions, including churches and schools. Every person employed there was passionately committed to the work. We had to earn the trust of survivors of child sexual abuse, to obtain their testimony, so that through public hearings and reports we could reveal the truth about the crimes that had been committed against children by people in positions on power, and the failure of institutions to protect those children. We all felt an incredible sense of responsibility to those survivors who were courageous enough to share their experiences with us, to make sure their bravery meant something. We worked hard to identify why the patterns of abuse and the institutional failings had occurred, and to make recommendations for change to legal frameworks to ensure children were better protected in future. Many of the Royal Commission’s recommendations have been implemented, and governments across the country have amended laws to better regulate institutions and to remove barriers to child abuse survivors bringing criminal and civil proceedings. 
JF: You have also spent years working in the area of police oversight, can you tell me about that?

SD: After the Royal Commission I worked at the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) - the independent body that has oversight of the New South Wales (NSW) Police Force. The LECC can receive and investigate complaints against police, and I led projects which investigated systemic issues within the NSW Police Force. My most significant project was an investigation into the Force’s management of the NSW Child Protection Register (the register for offenders who commit sexual and other serious offences against children). The investigation revealed there had been systemic problems with the Register for over 17 years which had resulted in some convicted sex offenders being unmonitored in the community, and other people being wrongly convicted and unlawfully imprisoned for offences they hadn’t committed. I worked with the NSW Police Force to develop recommendations to improve the administration of the Register and produced two reports which were tabled in the NSW Parliament. The Force has since significantly improved its management of the Register. 

I enjoy working in the field of police oversight - it’s a really interesting and challenging area.
I am now working on legal policy as a Senior Policy Officer in the NSW Government, and one of the policy areas I work on is law enforcement. 
JF: After all this amazing experience Sarah, what advice do you have for other LLM students at UU who want to pursue a career in human rights or criminal justice?

SD: One thing I’ve learned is that if you are passionate about achieving outcomes that protect and promote human rights, it can pay to think outside the box. Sometimes the jurisdictions or areas where human rights considerations are most needed are the ones where there will be the most resistance to human rights language. In those contexts, it is important to consider how things like policies, corporate values or other legal obligations or principles might reflect and promote similar values as human rights law. When you start thinking broadly about the mechanisms that can be used to protect human rights, you start to take human rights thinking into spaces where it might not have been before. You also realise there are a lot more human rights jobs out there than you might initially have thought. 

My other bit of advice is to study internationally (if you can) in order to expose yourself to perspectives that are radically different to those that are embedded in the legal systems in your home country. It will challenge your assumptions about the way things have to work and will give you the insight to think critically about your own systems, and work to improve them. At UU I studied alongside some truly brilliant human rights advocates from around the world, and I learnt so much from them. I’m so grateful for the friends I made in Utrecht. More than ten years later, those friendships are still very valuable to me. 

JF: This is wonderful advice Sarah. Thanks so much for your time and stay in touch!