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Joseph Gabriel (Joe) Starke (1911–2006)

by John Farquharson

Joseph Gabriel Starke, who has died in Canberra aged 94, was for some years the only surviving member of the League of Nations secretariat in which he became involved by chance.

He was at Oxford University as the 1932 Rhodes scholar for Western Australia when he became seriously ill before completing his law degree. However, he recovered sufficiently to sit his final exams and took out his degree with first-class honours, as well as being awarded the Vinerian law scholarship. 

Recuperating in Majorca a Polish woman author advised him to spend time in the Swiss mountains, so he went to Geneva in 1934. There he took time to acquaint himself with the work of the League and was soon invited to undertake post-graduate studies at the Institute of International Studies in Geneva. With the approval of Oxford University, he embarked upon these studies, under his Vinerian scholarship, and so gained a thorough grounding in international law. During these studies he was approached by Duncan Hall, an Australian historian noted for his monumental work on the British Commonwealth.

When Hall, then working in the opium section of the League secretariat, suggested that Starke also consider joining the secretariat, he abandoned his plan to return to Australia and establish a legal practice in Perth. So in 1935 he accepted a position in the League secretariat's drug section dealing with the opium trade. He wasn't there long before he was transferred to the credentials committee that had to deal with the thorny question of the recognition of the Spanish Government arising from the Republican-Franco conflict. Later he worked in the League's legal section where he stayed until World War II brought the League's day-to-day activities to a halt in 1940. Making his way to London, where in 1939 he had been admitted to the English Bar, he practised there for six months before returning to Australia.

His work at the League suited his temperament: his legal and intellectual talents were fully engaged with a galaxy of Europe's high-profile intellectuals, as well as rubbing shoulders with many high-profile political and diplomatic figures. But the person who probably had the greatest influence upon the young Joe Starke was Wilfred Jenks, who became one of the International Labour Organisation's most distinguished directors. Starke also came into contact with Dr Herbert Vere, the Australian jurist Labor politician and writer who was seeking information on minorities and human-rights questions. He also undertook research for some of Evatt's judgments when he [Evatt] was sitting on the High Court bench. Starke's work also brought him into collaboration with Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who as Australian High Commissioner in London, was Australia's representative to the League.

His knowledge of French was essential to his work for the League. He had won the gold medal of the Alliance Francaise in Perth, where he was born and educated before going to Oxford. He was one of the first pupils of the law school at the University of Western Australia, to which he won an exhibition at the age of 16. He went up to university from that cradle of many distinguished Australians, Perth Modern School. Though drawn by inclination to mathematics and science he acceded to the wish of his father, a Perth businessman of Russian origin, that he take up law.

Back in Australia in 1941, Starke became a lecturer in international law at Sydney University, where among his students were a young Gough Whitlam (later a Labor Prime Minister) and the King of Tonga. He also began practising at the bar, writing for the now defunct racy, nationally published Smith's Weekly and doing news commentaries for the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission). In 1942, he served briefly in the army before being called upon by the RAAF in 1943 and given an honorary commission as Flight Lieutenant to help sort out some cipher problems, drawing upon his mathematical knowledge. He also played a crucial role in compensation paid to Australian POWs injured through ill treatment during their captivity. The Government agreed to the payments following his advice to Smith’s Weekly that under the Geneva Convention such compensation claims should be allowable.

In the 1950s he developed a practice in the High Court. When, in 1957-58, he had three cases going in that jurisdiction, he looked around for a junior and chose Bill Deane, who went on to become Governor-General. After being appointed QC in 1961, he took a post as a senior fellow, in the Law Faculty of the Australian National University's Research School of Social Sciences, staying there until 1976. While there he also lectured in equity practice. In 1974 he took on the general editorship of the Australian Law Journal, continuing until 1991 and was founder and first editor of the Australian Year Book of International Law. He was a consultant to the first Australian Law Reform Commission 1975-1984 and to the International Court of Justice, at The Hague 1966-69, as well as being a member of the court's panel of international arbitrators.

He wrote and published widely on aspects of international and public law, as well as more general legal subjects, particularly during his time at the ANU. In later years, he was sought out as a consultant both in Australia and overseas. Visiting professorships also came his way in San Remo, Italy, Oxford, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg. However, the great experience of his life remained his work with the League of Nations secretariat, which he once described as ‘an intellectual Camelot’. Though he extolled the League's achievements, he was also conscious of its deficiencies.

From 1920 to 1930, Starke considered that the League achieved a measure of success in settlement of disputes and in engendering cooperation between nations, but recognised that its effectiveness was frustrated by the rule of unanimity, which has been described as ‘representing the tyranny of the minority.’

Starke was a man of strong opinions, who was not easy to get to know. However, once the spark of friendship was struck it remained constant and illumined by an impish sense of humour.

His wife, Irma, daughter, Sanchia, and grandson, Aaron, survives him.

Joseph Gabriel Starke, born 16 November 1911; died 24 February 2006.

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Starke, Joseph Gabriel (Joe) (1911–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 April 2024.

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