Date: 
Wednesday 13 August 2014
Audio: 

From RightsTalk delivered by Sister Clare Condon

For more information go to http://rightstalk.humanrights.gov.au

TRANSCRIPT

Gillian Triggs: Well I'm Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission and it's our great pleasure on behalf of all of the staff and the commissioners at the Commission to welcome you here today. In doing so, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land: the Gadigal Peoples of the Eora Nation and respect their elders past and present.One of the objectives, the main objective in fact, of these rights talks is to reach out to a wider Australian public who would be interested, we hope, in the evidence-based arguments that we're putting based, of course, on international human rights law on the issues of the day. So we're really delighted to see representatives of two major schools here, thank you very much for joining us and for other members of the community who are interested in being part and understanding the kinds of arguments that underlay the human rights concerns that are so important in contemporary society.

Well it's my very particular pleasure today to be able to welcome Sister Clare Condon who is - or was this year's winner of the Human Rights Medal. We, each year in December, on the United Nations Human Rights Day, have a person selected from Australia who is a leader in promoting human rights. Sister Clare Condon emerged from a very large number of nominees for that position and she very kindly agreed to accept that nomination.

In awarding it to Sister Clare, we really knew instinctively that she was not a public person; she doesn't give public speeches, she's not on the 7.30 Report or Q&A, but she, in her history, has been a remarkably effective support of human rights in all sorts of ways and we knew that she would be a very worthy recipient of the medal. She very kindly agreed to accept it and to come to our event last year.

Today's she's going to talk about the impact of sanctioned violence in our community and the way in which it erodes the fabric of civilised society and our human interactions. But before I introduce her, or rather ask her to speak, I would like to just say a little bit about her background and I'll read it because I want to be sure I get it right. She's the congregational leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan of the Order of St Benedict. She's been with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan for about 40 years and during this time she's held the position of President of Catholic Religious Australia from 2008 to 2014.

In 1994 Sister Clare was appointed a member of the General Counsel and Trustee of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan and has held that position until 1999. Before being elected Congressional Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, she was Chancellor for the stewardship of the Arch Diocese of Adelaide. Sister Clare is an educator, she's an advocate and an administrator with a very strong focus on the needs of those most disadvantaged in society and on the Catholic Church's social justice mission. So I ask you please to welcome Sister Clare.

[Applause]

Sister Clare Condon:  Thank you very much, Professor Triggs. I to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation on whose land we meet and I pay my respects to the elders past and present.

I come here today as an ordinary citizen. I'm not an academic, nor am I a lawyer. I am simply a concerned citizen. There are many nuances to the meaning of the word violence. It is about violating another person, abusing and damaging, often about the abuse of power. It is associated with some level of vehemence. Violence is meant to inflict injury by intimidation, domination and power, or from fear, anger or a lack of trust.

Philosophers over many years have sought to explain the underlying causes of violent behaviour, whether it's individual, group or national behaviour and they ask is violence innate to our human nature or does it emerge from learned behaviour or does it evolve from cultural patterns of societal behaviour? Thomas Hobbs related violence to power, the seeking of absolute power. Machiavelli saw power as a part of revenge: it's safer to be feared than to be loved. But Martin Luther King saw the societal implications of violence as leading to a descending spiral. He proposed that violence multiples evil, not diminishes it. Are we not seeing evidence of this across parts of our world today, this very moment?

Someone also argued that violence is a form of dissociation, that it results from the opposite of interconnectedness, that it results from a separation and loss. So can violence emerge from the structural inequalities in society? We could spend this whole time debating the philosophical, sociological and psychological reasons for the outbreak of violence. But violence itself raises fundamental social, political, moral and religious questions for us citizens. Just in the past few days we've read or heard about a Queensland study where one woman is killed every week by her partner, or young men joining terrorist groups, or a man shot in my neighbouring suburb of Leichhardt on Monday night.

Such violent acts, depending on where and how they are perpetrated, can be regarded as criminal. However others are sanctioned by society, even applauded and cheered. Some are blatant; others are covert and subtle. Some are justified by cultural norms, by the blind eye or the deaf ear. They happen behind closed doors. Others are justified by official permission and approval or even by public opinion. So today I wish to just highlight four areas of sanctioned violence because it seems to me they are relevant and have an impact on who we are as a society today.

They are: Australia's response to asylum seekers and refugees; violence in sport; domestic violence, often the hidden nightmare for many women; and the media, what impact does it have on human behaviour.

Often violence is portrayed as a necessary outcome of responding to the enemy and currently in Australian community the government is justifying the use of violence to support - to stop smuggling of asylum seekers and this approach has been bipartisan. Unfortunately this humane approach has been driven by public opinion, generated by the politics of fear of the other, fear of the stranger. The nature of this violence is hidden from the public's eye by secrecy and by holding people in detention in remote areas of Australia or offshore in deals with developing countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea and perhaps even Cambodia.

The mantra, stop the boats, actually demonises desperate people fleeing violence and persecution in their countries of origin. It's emotive language which attempts to justify government policy in a subtle but no less sanctioned form of violence towards humans. In letters from government justifying its behaviour, these people seeking refuge have been called illegal maritime arrivals. They've had their identity as human being expunged. Such demonization sanitises the reality for the Australian public.

As a consequence, our societal and racial relationships are often diminished and subtlety eroded. We can begin to believe that some humans are more worthy than others. We can begin to believe that such actions are justified and normal, when in fact the government of the nation is engaged in a form of sanctioned violence. An example, today no one has been held accountable for the death of Reza Berati on Manus Island on 17 February this year. On Christmas Island, women have been placed on suicide watch for exhibiting extreme signs of depression and self-harm. Others have reported verbal abuse and mockering by processing staff.

In commenting on Australian Government's detention of asylum seekers on a custom boat for nearly a month, Nitin Pai, a foreign policy expert and director of the Takshashila Institute in Bangalore commented: I am sympathetic to Australia's need to prevent illegal immigration, but this is a moral and legal sleight of hand. In his article in the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut argues that in this instance, the assessment of policy by the Australian Government in negotiating with India was done on the basis of the implications for economic trade between the nations, rather than any moral requirement or human rights of the asylum seekers. Subsequently these people have been sent to Nauru in a covert, secret, overnight removal, with no process to determine even their status.

Children are held in detention centres and the last reported numbers that I knew, that I'd seen, were that there were 137 children on Christmas Island without the provision of their basic human rights and the dignity due to them. There were 37 children of the 157 on the customs boat on the ocean for some weeks and apparently now in detention in Nauru. The consequences of such detention is a violation with the potential for significant long term mental health issues and that was evidenced in the submissions of Dr Peter Young and Professor Elizabeth Elliott at the recent inquiry into children in detention.

These children are exposed to brutal, negative and neglectful modelling. The consequences of such detention is likely to breed a dissociative reality for these children, leading, as suggested by Martin Luther King, to a spiral of hatred and evil within their own experiences of life. This detention is in direct violation of the United Nations Convention on the rights of children, a document which Australia has ratified. I don't need to list some of those articles as I'm sure all of you are aware of that.

As citizens though, then, we must ask what behaviour do we propose for the future human development and relationships for these innocent children? So is society encouraged to be vindictive, self-serving and aggressive in all its relationships with anyone who is identified as a stranger, rather than a society which is welcoming, others-centred and compassionate, respecting the dignity of the other in those relationships?

In one response I received from government, it stated that it would not be involved in misguided compassion. I think true compassion is a strong virtue. It is the antithesis of violence and I think this Leunig cartoon says it all. There is nothing weak and soft about a well-guided compassionate response.

Walter Schultz, a German philosopher, argues that compassion becomes an ethical authority of great significance. In fact it is the only authority and counterforce to cruelty which depersonalises the other and degrades him or her to a simple object of destructive desire. Compassion is the very final possibility for saving the human person in his or her naked existence in the face of the direct negation of this existence. They're strong words.

A second aspect of what I called sanctioned violence is in sport. If this scene had been depicted in downtown George Street or outside this building here, police would have been called and criminal charges would have been instituted and all of us would have probably said, rightly so. Sport is a basic feature of Australian life and culture. It has an essential role to play in a healthy society. But violence on the playing field and amongst spectators not only sets a bad example to impressionable young people, it is destructive of basic civil relationships. Put simply, an unruly crowd can mar a family outing on a weekend afternoon. It can also instil fear and anxiety, especially in children.

There has been little recent research done on quantifying the level of violence on and off the field in Australian sport. Violence in the field can be viewed as the sacred cow; there are significant vested interests to subvert any attempt to study the area in a serious manner. Recent enquiries in to the use of performance enhancing drugs in a variety of sports is a sign of a degree of personal violation that takes place to achieve certain results in the so-called elite classes of sport.

But this photo depicts a game of footy and was taken from a Sydney newspaper and don't get me wrong, I enjoy most sports and as a child I was taken to the rugby league on most Sunday afternoons and I'm not targeting rugby league. What I say is relevant to other codes of contact sport. However it seems to me that violence has increased. I suspect that the introduction of high monetary stakes as well as sports betting has influenced the increase of violence in contact sports. I find it curious that the ARL has sought to improve the insurance scheme of its injured players, rather than seeking to reduce the impact of violence on the field. Why? Is it because rugby league is now a billion dollar industry rather than a sport?

The injury to Alex McKinnon, the Newcastle player, was a tragic event. But I ask, how is it an accident when what led to it was a violation of the basic rules of the game? Do the normal expectations of civil behaviour cease once the players step onto the field? Does the constant replay of these moments of violence and sometimes thuggery, seek to justify them as acceptable behaviour?

Often direct acts of violence are promoted by commentators and officials. There is a growing gladiatorial image, a macho image, being promoted that sets a very low standard for role modelling to young men and boys: one is not a real man unless one is like the highly paid macho stars. Such images are often supported by alcohol and drug-induced violence off the field. Some sports are actually sponsored by the producers of alcohol. There are examples of fractured relationships with partners and examples of AVOs being sought from sports stars who have been presented as role models to children.

Is it not time for some extensive research on the facts and some community discussion on the type of role modelling that sport ought to be portraying to the youth of this nation and what kind of relationships society might expect to support and sustain for an advanced, civil, democratic society?

The third area of sanctioned violence is domestic violence, a hidden nightmare for many women. You might think it odd that I have placed violence of sport before one of the most hidden and often justified or sanctioned violences of the household, domestic violence. It impacts mostly on women and children. It is often hidden, excused and justified from a male perspective. The macho image often promoted by sport can become the macho image for some men in their day-to-day behaviour. Are these two matters connected or not? I don't have an answer.

Statistics taken from the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault in 2012 indicated that 17 per cent of women aged 18 and over have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15. The relationship of women to the sexual assault perpetrator is as high as over 87 per cent. One in seven who experienced violence from an intimate partner indicated that they had reported the most recent incident to police; only one out of seven. Back in 2006, the Australian Bureau of Statistics did a personal safety survey and the statistics were not much different then.

Women with an intellectual disability are 90 per cent more likely to be subjected to sexual assault than women in the general population. In Australian prisons, 90 per cent of Aboriginal women and 82 per cent of non-Aboriginal women have been sexually assaulted in some point in their lives. In 2011, the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and Children estimated the cost of domestic violence to the Australian community is around $13.6 billion per annum; much of that is borne by the victims.

The Child Protection Australia Report of 2012/13 of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported the following: Between 2010/11 to 2012/13 there was a 29 per cent increase in the number of children who were subject to substantiations of sexual abuse, thereby reversing what had been a downward trend. Most of these were from areas of lowest socioeconomic status; emphasises again the structural factors in society that we need to address.

In a small refuge for women and children in Melbourne, conducted by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, each year close to 500 women and children seek shelter. The vast majority of these are as a result of domestic violence.

Statistics can be boring, but these statistics are chilling. Domestic violence often leads to homelessness, further abuse of children, significant health issues for both women and children, ongoing economic hardship, unemployment and social, psychological and family isolation. Thus the capacity for building strong, healthy and mutual relationships in the future is undermined and damaged severely. Many women have had to live in situations of corrosive control where fear stops them from breaking out of destructive relationships and seeking a level of basic human freedom.

Sanctioned violence towards women and children is not only physical violence, but often emotional and psychological abuse which renders them unable to live a productive and sustainably healthy life into the future. As written by Hannah Piterman, Professor of Monash University and I quote extensively: it is the ubiquity of ordinary sexism that creates the circumstances for violence against women and sees it as the leading cause of death and disability in Australian women aged 15 to 44. In Australia, a woman is murdered every week at the hands of her partner or ex-partner. Worldwide, 35 per cent of women experience either intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime; one in three women. The normalisation of pervasive sexism is a slippery slope that sees violence against women excused and sanctioned. It occurs by an insidious erosion of their dignity as whole human beings, summarily rendering them as part objects of secondary and inferior status.

In this context, I need here to also address the sexual abuse of children within the context of institutions and the response of institutions which is the focus of the current Royal Commission. My own church, the Catholic church, is subject of much criticism for its past practises and which has seemingly placed the reputation of the church ahead of its responsibility to children. It again highlights the power differential that has existed and has allowed such clergy sexual abuse to remain hidden and sanctioned by the highest levels of authority.

Abuse by those held in some degree of esteem and trust within the community is a betrayal of that trust and as we have seen, has a long term, destructive impact on survivors. This sanctioned violence of young people has damaged the trust and the faith of numerous young people. The church and other institutions have a long and hard road ahead to rebuild credibility and trust.

The fourth area, media violence, does it have an impact on human behaviour? There would be some who would say the jury is still out because conflict is what makes a good story. Violence has always been a part of the movie world, but now movie violence, TV violence and electronic games have become the norm; they are louder, more vicious and bloodier. Some United States research suggests that by the time a child is 18 he or she has watched 200,000 acts of violence. The Australian Psychological Society, in 2013, updated its report which is called Media Representations and Responsibilities: Psychological Perspectives and in that report it notes: there have been hundreds of reports with diverse views on the impact of media violence, particularly on children. However it confidently states that from the vast literature there is a reasonable consensus on some critical issues and one such is the long exposure of children to violence portrayed in the mass media leads to long term aggressive behaviour. Whether there is such a detrimental effect depends on the social context, that is, whether the violence is watched with a discerning adult who can assist in critiquing the experience.

Too often, too, crimes by youth and people with a mental illness are more likely to be over-reported and dramatised in the media. In that report, finally, I quote: it is common for the media to present simplistic, uni-dimensional analysis of conflict where ethnic difference is in itself given as a cause of the conflict.

There are certainly other examples of sanctioned violence that we could consider. There's the growing militarism across the world, the proliferation of arms sales and the urgent concern for the environmental degradation across our earth. But my concern here is the impact sanctioned violence has on society and on ordinary, day-to-day relationships. I believe some of the consequences can be corrosive and long term. Where violence is sanctioned and regarded as acceptable and routine, then the societal norms are being set in place for the future. Such acts become embedded in the cultural fabric of the society.

If it is acceptable for a government to treat strangers in cruel and demeaning manner, then it becomes acceptable for the citizen to treat the stranger in a similar way. If it's acceptable to use excessive violence on a sports field, then why not off the field in the school yard? If it's acceptable to exercise violence in the private space of home, then why not on the streets? If it's acceptable to spend hours watching real or virtual violence on the screen, why not activate the same violence in ordinary relationships?

The cultural myth-making processes of society begin to reinforce violence as a survival mechanism in daily life. Violent responses to problem solving begin to override other more civilised, humane and compassionate responses to such problems. A society can be plunged into the myth of survival of the fittest, where the powerful snuff out the aspirations of the weak, where might is right.

My congregation of religious women follow and ancient rule, a fifth century rule of St Benedict. It's a way of life which helped to civilise Europe after generations of wars. Benedict's dictum, for his followers, was that all should be structured so that the strong have something to strive for and that the weak have nothing to run from.

Kenan Malik, in his recent book The Quest for a Moral Compass: A global history of ethics, writes: if everyone were to believe that truthfulness is bad and torture good, that would damage all our lives in a fundamental way. There would be a tear in the very fabric of society. Moral questions may not have objective answers, but they do have rational ones, answers rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need. To bring reason to bear upon social relations, to define a rational answer to a moral question, requires social engagement and collective action.

In those areas of our society where sanctioned violence is seen to provide the answer, we citizens need to actively participate in social engagement and collective action. We need to say, no more, as a nation we can do better and I repeat, compassion is the final possibility for saving the human person in his or her naked existence in the face of the direct negation of this existence.

Thank you.

[Applause]

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