The Honourable Catherine Branson QC
Sydney Town Hall
23 May 2011
Thank you Indira - and thank you Michael for your welcome to country. On behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission, I acknowledge the Gadigal peoples of the Eora nation and pay our respects their elders past and present.
Ladies and gentleman, I extend to you the warmest of welcomes to tonight’s forum, Human Rights 20-11.
It is wonderful to see so many of you here in this magnificent venue. And what an appropriate venue it is! The town hall is a great symbol of democracy, a place of the people where issues of concern and interest to the community have long been debated. It is a place where we can celebrate community triumphs and protest against things that offend our sense of what is just and right.
I dare say it is quite a time since a major human rights event was convened inside this town hall – as opposed to on its steps and on the streets outside!
But it is timely that we should be here. Human rights currently sit high on the political agenda – both in this country and abroad.
Internationally, we are witnessing turmoil across many countries, including perhaps most significantly in the Middle East, as peoples struggle to enjoy their right to live free and dignified lives under democratically elected governments. Here at home most of us are spared comparable challenges but we should not be complacent. The Commission has made addressing violence, harassment and bullying, along with improving community understanding of human rights, priority areas of our work because of our firm commitment to the right of every individual in our country to live the free and dignified life, and be treated with the respect, that we would choose for ourselves.
As Australian citizens we will soon have the opportunity to participate in an important democratic process that touches on respect. National consultations will shortly start on whether, and how, we should reform our Constitution to reflect the reality of the prior occupation, and continuing existence, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first Australians. Hopefully, this will be the first of a many public meetings that will canvass the need for reform and, as I hope, persuade the Australian community to resoundingly say ‘yes’ to a Constitution that appropriately recognizes and respects our nation's first peoples.
There is also a pressing need in our country for an informed debate on other issues that touch on respect for individuals and groups in our community. The Northern Territory Emergency Response Act – ‘The Intervention’ – and its future is one such issue and immigration and refugee policy is another. In each case we should have a policy that respects the dignity of those affected by it.
There must be genuine engagement with Aboriginal people and effective communication which recognises their right to self-determination between governments and Aboriginal communities on all issues affecting them.
Our immigration and refugee policy must also be one that does not degrade but rather respects the dignity of those who claim our protection. It must be a policy that does not promote the trafficking of people but does respond in a fair way, in accordance with our capacity, to the consequences of persecution and conflict in other countries. A policy which does not lead to individuals, including children, being arbitrarily detained - and for far too long. And a policy that promotes regional cooperation while also ensuring compliance with our international obligations such as those set out in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Refugee Convention.
This evening the Commission has invited an eminent panel to discuss these and other key human rights challenges.
We are honoured and delighted to have with us Her Excellency Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. We warmly welcomes you, High Commissioner, and we look forward to hearing of your experiences – in apartheid era South Africa, in the global fight for gender equality and in your important leadership role on human rights globally.
It is the first visit to Australia by a High Commissioner for Human Rights for many years. I commend the Australian Government for facilitating this visit and engaging in dialogue about human rights.
The Commission is also delighted to welcome Professor Patrick Dodson, a man who has inspired our quest for reconciliation in Australia, and Mr Paris Aristotle, who has played a key role in seeking humane treatment for asylum seekers and in supporting victims of torture and trauma once they have entered our community.
We also welcome one of Australia’s great cultural institutions, the Bangarra Dance Theatre, who will be performing for us later this evening.
Once again may I welcome you all? Human rights are everyone’s business and I thank you for choosing to be part of this exciting event.