2008 Human Rights Day Oration

The Hon Catherine Branson QC
President, Australian Human Rights Commission

Human Rights Medals and Awards, Sydney

10 December 2008

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

May I also acknowledge the Honourable Robert McClelland MP, federal Attorney-General, Professor David Weisbrot, President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, Stepan Kerkyasharian AM, President of the Anti Discrimination Board of NSW, Ross Ray QC, President of the Law Council of Australia, Mark Hummerston, Assistant Privacy Commissioner, Chris Sidoti, former Human Rights Commissioner and National Spokesperson for the Human Rights Council of Australia, Sue Conde AM, President of UNIFEM Australia, Jeremy Jones AM, recipient of the 2007 Human Rights Medal, and other distinguished guests.

Thank you all for coming here today to celebrate with us this special Human Rights Day, marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sixty years ago today saw the historic commitment of all nations to protecting the freedom, dignity and equality of all people.

The rights and freedoms which the Declaration proclaims remain as important today as they were in 1948.

Human rights were then, and continue to be now, the foundation of a fair, democratic, inclusive, and peaceful society. A society where we all can feel safe and be protected from violence; where everyone has the opportunity to participate in their community; where we all treat each other with respect.

This year we can celebrate significant progress towards a fairer Australia.

With us today are many individuals and groups that have worked tirelessly to achieve social justice and equality. Your efforts are often insufficiently recognised. You are working to create a society where human rights matter.

Australia has taken significant steps forward in the protection of human rights in our country:

  • We were all profoundly moved by the National Apology to Indigenous peoples in February.
  • All Australian governments have committed to closing the gap in Indigenous life expectancy, with an unprecedented level of funding for Indigenous health. I recognise the efforts and influence of the Close the Gap campaign led by my colleague Tom Calma.
  • Discrimination against same-sex couples and their children has been removed from Commonwealth laws. This historic development was placed back on the agenda by the work of my colleague Graeme Innes, influenced by the continued advocacy of the gay and lesbian community and underscored by the commitment of the government to reform.
  • Australia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, commenced the development of a National Disability Strategy, and introduced standards to make sure that all Australians can access our public buildings. Again I recognise the work of Graeme Innes, his team and the countless disability organisations who have worked to get this momentous result.
  • Paid maternity leave is squarely back on the agenda, with Elizabeth Broderick forging a strong alliance with the business world and unions.
  • The immigration processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island have been closed and temporary protection visas have been abolished.
  • Internationally Australia is re-engaging with the United Nations.

We have much to be proud of. These achievements will make an important difference to the lives of many individual Australians now, and even more so, into the future.

But we still have a long way to go.

The fact is that Australian law does not always protect our human rights and fundamental freedoms. Let’s take a few topical examples:

  • Measures to address abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory are vitally important, but aspects of the current intervention laws are racially discriminatory and were imposed without any proper engagement with the people affected. Measures that deny people basic dignity will not lead to sustainable change.
  • Our anti-terrorism laws allowed Dr Haneef to be unjustly detained for an indefinite period.
  • We still have mandatory immigration detention laws and offshore processing on Christmas Island.

When the rights of any person in Australia are denied, we are all diminished.

I want to live in an Australia of which I can be uniformly proud. Where freedom, equality and dignity matter. Where human rights matter.

I believe that we will have a society of this kind:

  • if those who make our laws are respectful of human rights
  • if those who make decisions under those laws are respectful of human rights
  • if we all are respectful of human rights and live by them each day in our interactions with others.

I believe that we need greater formal protection of human rights in Australia. A federal charter of rights will send an important message to those who make our laws, and to those who administer them, of the rights we want them to protect and respect.

Earlier today, the federal Attorney-General announced that the government will hold a national consultation about human rights. This consultation will be a unique opportunity for all Australians to discuss with each other, and tell our government, what human rights are important to us, and how we want our human rights to be protected. I would like to congratulate the Attorney-General for the leadership he has shown in making sure that the consultation became a reality.

I will be working with all sectors of the community, including the federal government and public service, business leaders, community organisations, and disadvantaged communities to discuss how human rights impact on our everyday activities.

Australia played a leading role in the development of the Universal Declaration. Now, sixty years later, we have a chance to bring human rights home. Let’s talk about our rights and our options for making sure that they are better protected. Let’s continue to build a fair, inclusive, tolerant and secure society, one where human rights matter.

Our challenge is to make 2009 the year in which we committed ourselves to join all other western democracies and place freedom, dignity and equality at the centre of our national life.