Human rights focus for Notre Dame Law students

Document Type

Media Release

Publication Date

Winter 10-7-2006

Publisher Name

The University of Notre Dame, Fremantle

Publication Place



Senior law lecturer on The University of Notre Dame Australia’s, Fremantle Campus, Mr Ben Clark has developed a Human Rights course which explores contemporary issues such as war, terror and torture, and indigenous customary Law from a human rights perspective.

Through a range of speakers Mr Clarke invited to the University over a period of a week, students heard first-hand about the experiences of people who have been the victims of human rights issues.

One session, presented by Professor Samina Yasmeen, Director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, dealt with Islamic conceptions of Human Rights, raising the question, ‘What does Islam say about Human Rights?’ In another, Perth Lawyer and Human Rights defender, Scott Johnson, spoke on his involvement with the Montagnard Foundation, an organisation which aims at preserving the lives and culture of the indigenous people in Vietnam.

Another topical presentation was a session on Human Rights Law and Customary Law, conducted by two indigenous Wongie women; Josie Boyle and Beth Woods who are currently on the reference committee for the Law Reform Committee Review of Customary Law.

As children, Ms Boyle and Ms Woods were taken from their Wongie mothers to Mount Margaret Mission located in the Goldfields of Western Australia. They lived and were educated at the mission but they also had regular contact with the mothers. As a result they experienced both their indigenous culture and mainstream ‘Australian’ culture.

They explained to students that customary law had a continuing role in the identity and culture of the Wongie people. The complexity of the role of customary law in sentencing and the punishment of indigenous offenders was discussed and students heard that often indigenous offenders received double punishment – once under customary law and then in courts.

“The presentation by the Wongie woman gave a fascinating insight into the world view of Wongie people and the challenges they face in straddling two cultures and systems of law.

“It was very topical for the students in view of the current WA Law Reform Commission’s review of indigenous homicide offences and customary law and the proposal by the government to stop provisions within the law allowing judges and magistrates to regard customary law when sentencing indigenous offenders,” explained Ben Clarke.