"The Importance of Australian Community in Protection of Human Rights during the War against Terrorism"

Presentation by Dr Sev Ozdowski, OAM Human Rights Commissioner to the Human Rights: New Paradigms and new Responsibilities Conference held at the University of Technology in Sydney 5 December 2003

Acknowledgements

  • Commission President John von Doussa
  • Chancellor Eric Tan
  • Many distinguished guests
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, All.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand, the Eora People, and pay my respects to their Elders, both past and present, and by so doing:

  • remind ourselves that Australia's cultural traditions stretch back many thousands of years, and
  • acknowledge the rightful aspirations of the First Australians to their just place in Australia's future.

The past and the present

Allow me to start with quotations from speeches by two important world leaders that were made some 200 years apart.

The first quotation is from a speech to the House of Commons delivered by Prime Minister William Pitt on 10 November 1797. Prime Minister Pitt described France under the government of the Directory as:

A system of tyranny, the most galling, the most horrible, the most undisguised in all its parts and attributes that has stained the page of history or disgraced the annals of the world.

In order to combat the spread of "the Jacobin terror" to the British Isles, the Pitt government, inter alia, suspended habeas corpus - the key human rights remedy of the time.

The second quotation is from a speech by President George W. Bush delivered on 7 September 2003 in an Address to the Nation with regard to the war on terror. President Bush said:

The terrorists thrive on the support of tyrants and the resentments of oppressed peoples. When tyrants fall, and resentment gives way to hope, men and women in every culture reject the ideologies of terror, and turn to the pursuits of peace. Everywhere that freedom takes hold, terror will retreat".

And of course as we are all aware countries such as Britain, the United States, Australia and others have reacted to the war against terror, inter alia, by introducing a range of laws that have the effect of suspending some the individual's human rights.

The perceptions that these two eminent leaders have about the threats facing their nations, and the body politic of their time, straddles the centuries. But let me be clear: the threats were then - and are now - very, very real.

Terrorism - key threat to human rights

It is for that reason that today, I decided to speak about the contemporary threat of terrorism and its linkage with human rights in Australia. My speech will also focus on the importance of Australian community in protection of human rights in this difficult period.

We would all agree that terrorist attacks against civilian targets constitute the gravest possible assault on human rights imaginable. Acts of terrorism are conceived and perpetrated by a few with the deliberate intent of causing indiscriminate death and serious injury to their victims - whoever they happen to be - for some often undefined and unspecified "cause" (and I use that term advisedly).

It is important, however, to note that such arbitrary and unjustifiable acts not only violate the human rights of their victims.

They also circumvent both the democratic principles and the values established by the various international human rights conventions and the very fabric of the society against which they are perpetrated. In other words, terrorism has a potential to undermine human rights; in particular civil liberties always suffer under terrorism.

This dimension of terrorism is often given little attention but must not be forgotten. In fact, it is important to realise that the protection of human rights is one critically important aspect any government must consider and address when preparing its response to terrorist acts against its citizens going about their daily lives. This is especially important in Australia where we do not have a statutory menu of rights.

Response to terror

As Pitt and Bush remind us, down through the centuries, all societies have come under threat from one source or another, necessitating strong action by the government of the day. And on each of these occasions, it could be argued that the flags have been waved and the call to arms has been made, often appealing to the common good, patriotic ideals, and the prevailing mood of the people.

What, however, in my opinion, we must not do when formulating our response to the latest "threat" - in our case the "war on terror" - is to ignore, or worse still, permanently override, the hard won civil liberties and freedoms that we, as a civilised society, have adopted and enshrined in international Conventions and domestic law.

Allow me to turn once again to our friend William Pitt, who cautioned in 1783: Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.

Clearly, new and deadly threats will continue to emerge for the near future. Many perceived by our generation to be different, if not worse, than the threats before. And on each of these occasions history teaches us there will be a call to introduce "exceptional measures" to deal with them.

In such new circumstances, as we face threat of terrorism, my plea is to ensure that in formulating our responses to terrorism, we build on what has been achieved in the area of human rights. We must not see our fundamental freedoms and civil liberties as something to be circumvented or merely as another obstacle to be overcome.

But the key issue here is how to strike the appropriate balance.

How to ensure that our response is inclusive of human rights, proportionate to the threat and limited to the time period of the threat.

I consider it to represent the most considerable challenge faced by lawmakers, opinion leaders and human rights activists alike in recent times.

Impact of anti-terror laws on Australians

All of us here have a very good appreciation of the extent to which the existing anti-terror laws in Australia and especially the ASIO changes, have the capacity to impinge on our rights and now the Attorney-General has achieved a further stiffening in this regard.

Against this is the counterbalancing argument that for average Australians, in a post Bali world, let alone the horrors of September 11, there is genuine concern about their safety and a desire, possibly somewhat subliminal, to see that the Government is "taking care of things". Under such conditions, we must accept that people will usually give the safety of their loved ones priority over questions of human rights.

When I travel and speak to people Australia wide, often I am being told that protection against terror is more important than human rights.

And at the simplest level Australians appear to have accepted some of the more intrusive changes to our civil liberties - such as airport security - as a part of normal routine of life. No longer are body searches at airports the sole province of TV cop shows.

Perhaps most Australians accept that asylum seeking boatpeople may present a clear and present danger to our security despite assurance by ASIO Chief Denis Richardson in response to a question from a parliamentary Committee that in 2001-2002: " ...none of them had received an adverse security assessment in terms of posing a direct or indirect threat to Australia's security".

And many of us may be willing to accept further changes to ASIO and related legislation, irrespective of the human rights questions.

I must say that sometimes I worry that collectively we may become so de-sensitised to future erosions, that after a while we simply won't recognise how much we have sacrificed.

A bit like the frog experiment: put a frog into a beaker of boiling water and it jumps out, like any sensible frog would; put it into a beaker of cold water and slowly bring it to the boil and the frog lets itself be broiled alive!!

Another important point which needs to be made here is that the extent to which we Australians agree to forgo our basic human rights because of terrorist concerns, represents in itself a victory for terrorism. This, of course, is one of the sad consequences of any war for a democracy.

Keep human rights on the national agenda

It is the responsibility of the Commission to ensure that human rights considerations inform the government's strategies on the war on terror. It is also our statutory responsibility to keep the human rights issues on the national agenda.

All of which brings me to the very core of our purpose for attending this seminar. Human rights education.

Human rights education cannot just aim at delivery of academic information about international conventions. With the way representative government operates in this country, irrespective of which party is in power, we need to compete for the "hearts and minds" of the Australian public with the same level of purpose that the government does. Human rights education needs to aim at participating in the very core of Australian democracy.

It needs action across the whole community by human rights advocates such as those of you here today, by those in the media and in the educational institutions and by people who live in cities and in the Bush.

If we want to protect the human rights of average Australians then they need to be empowered with knowledge about the subject. Only then will they be in a position to signal to the government, on the security front, when enough is enough.

Further, if we want to protect the human rights of our fellow citizen, we need to be strategic. There is so much material presented to us in a variety of different forms on dangers of terrorism and its consequences, and in such graphic terms, that it is very easy for the human rights considerations to get swallowed up in the background noise.

Finally, let me conclude by saying that this educative process can take many different formats. Obviously 4 and a half million page views in 2002/03 of the HREOC website (www.humanrights.gov.au) is a clear indication of our ability to communicate effectively with the Australian public.

But so too does a public inquiry process. I am satisfied that the Children in Immigration Detention Inquiry, which should be reporting to parliament no later than May next year, has also played an educative role in alerting Australians to human rights issues.

Current attitude shift

While many different factors are obviously at work here, I think it is instructive that post-Tampa 75% of those surveyed supported the government's actions, whereas current polling shows that 70-75% of those surveyed believe that children should be released from detention.

Some proportion of that shift is attributable to the educative function of a public inquiry.

In closing I would like to quote from another American President, who guided his nation and its allies through possibly the most terrifying threat to world peace known to that time, and I quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in a 1941 address to Congress had this to say:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms:

  • The first is freedom of speech and expression, everywhere in the world;
  • The second is freedom of every person to worship God in their own way, everywhere in the world;
  • The third is freedom from want;
  • The fourth is freedom from fear.

That fourth freedom in particular - freedom from fear - remains as significant now as ever. In an age when terrorism has become a worldwide strategy of evil forces, no free government can shrink from its responsibility to do all that is reasonable to protect its people, their rights, and their expectation of a life free from fear.

It is responsibility of us as human rights practitioners to ensure that the human rights continue an important part of any governmental decision.

Thank you.

Last updated 9 January 2004

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