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Civil society and racism: A national summit - William Jonas (2001)

Race Race Discrimination


Civil society and racism: A national summit
Tuesday 8 and Wednesday 9 May 2001

Opening remarks by Dr William Jonas AM, Social Justice Commissioner and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

I would like to acknowledge the Ngunawal people - the traditional owners and custodians of the land where we are meeting over the next two days, and to thank Matilda House for her generous welcome to country.

I'd also like to acknowledge Professor Glele and thank you for joining us today. I'm particularly appreciative that you have been able to schedule this time during your stay, given the hectic and relentless pace of your visit to Australia.

I would also like to express my thanks to Michael Curtotti and the Ba'hai community for providing this wonderful venue for this summit. Yesterday we held a national youth summit on racism here, and I think that, apart from the dynamic nature and enthusiasm of the participants themselves, the serene nature of this venue contributed to what was a truly memorable and inspiring day.

This summit, and yesterday's youth summit, form the first stage in the Commission's domestic consultations in the lead up to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which is due to take place in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September this year. The World Conference will be the third such conference convened by the United Nations and the first to be held in 20 years.

As our President Alice Tay has told you, HREOC has been an active participant in the international processes of the World Conference. One of the observations I have from participating in these processes, is that there is a very real engagement by many nations of the world in World Conference activities, coupled with a growing determination among nations to commit to comprehensive measures to eradicate all forms of racism.

The various declarations that have emerged from regional meetings of governments for the World Conference state that they are 'determined that the 21st century shall be the century of human rights and the realization of genuine equality of opportunities and treatment for all individuals and peoples' and are 'determined to devote ourselves without reservation to redoubling our efforts to fight racism ... fully and effectively, giving this struggle the priority it deserves'. To achieve this they call for the World Conference to focus on the development of action oriented outcomes 'which bring added value to existing mechanisms'.

There are two things about these fine words and commitments that I think help to put this forum into its proper context.

The first is that, when I talk about there being a very real engagement by many governments of the world in the World Conference, I am not talking about Australia. The efforts of our national government in the lead up to the World Conference can only be described as extremely poor. As many of you know the government periodically - usually twice or three times a year - holds NGO forums on human rights. Recently, the forum held by the Attorney-General devoted an entire two hours to discussion on the World Conference. The forum held by the Minister for Foreign Affairs a month earlier had devoted approximately half a day.

These two meetings, alongside the routine attendance of diplomatic staff at meetings for the World Conference in Geneva, constitute the entire government program in the lead up to the World Conference.

Australia, along with New Zealand, was also excluded from the regional preparatory meeting in Tehran in February, and so, having been unable to attend the European meeting in Strasbourg last year - as it was confined to Council of Europe members rather than the usual grouping of Western European nations in which Australia normally participates - have also not participated or contributed to any of the four regional declarations on racism. These four declarations form the core documents from which the declaration, strategies and outcomes of the World Conference are currently being negotiated.

The government also declined a funding application by HREOC to run national consultations on its behalf in the lead up to Durban, preferring to run its own consultations.

The upshot of this is that there has been little effort made to either raise the profile of the World Conference in Australia, to take any steps towards engaging in a thorough and frank discussion about our race relations record, or to contribute internationally to the World Conference. What concerns me is that this follows some fairly forthright comments by the government on the need to reform the UN treaty committee system -especially the Committee on the Elimination of racial Discrimination, following the extensive concerns that they expressed about Australia in March 2000 - coupled with assurances of the government's commitment to the United Nations human rights system.

The lack of effort, and demonstrable lack of commitment to combating racism, reflects badly on the government and seriously calls into question their bona fides about the treaty reform process.

But if anything, I think that this makes a summit such as this even more important. Your participation here today and tomorrow sends a strong message that Australian civil society is committed to developing strategies to combat racism both in Australia and internationally. For that reason, I am delighted that so many people, coming from the diverse backgrounds and areas that you all come from, have chosen to participate in this National Summit.

The second thing that I think helps to put this summit into its broader context is the recognition that there is nothing particularly novel about the nations of the world crafting such fine words as those which are starting to emerge in the drafting of the World Conference declaration.

Yesterday I told the participants in the youth summit about a United Nations General Assembly resolution of 20 December 1965, which detailed some of the preparations for the International Year for Human Rights - due to take place in 1968.

The resolution approved an interim programme for the International Year of Human Rights, in which the Commission on Human Rights - I quote - 'set before the Member States, as a target to be achieved by the end of 1968, the complete elimination of ... all forms of discrimination based on race' as well as on all other grounds.

Similar words can be found in several UN documents since, including the Vienna Declaration adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, paragraph 15 of which calls for 'the speedy and comprehensive elimination of all forms of racism ... (as) a priority task for the international community'.

And while the General Assembly took one of its most significant steps towards realising that goal when it approved the text of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (or CERD) the day after it passed the resolution that I quoted, they are yet to achieve this goal.

36 years later, we continue to witness in the world some of the grossest violations of human rights imaginable - based on race or ethnicity. Professor Tay has reminded us of some of the most extreme examples of this in recent years.

But let me pause for a moment and ask you a question that I asked people yesterday. That question is: What would be your reaction if during the World Conference process the member states of the United Nations committed to the total eradication of racism 3 years from now, as they did in 1965?

Would you think that they were being realistic? Would you think that they had lost their sanity? Would you reminisce about our former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and his memorable pledges that 'no child shall live in poverty by 1990' and that there would be 'statistical equality in employment for Indigenous Australians by the year 2000'?

In many ways, the answer to this question tells us how deeply entrenched and pervasive racism is in the world today. It encapsulates why there is a need for the world to reaffirm its opposition to all forms of racism, and to consider new ways of combating it; and it clearly explains why events such as this one today are so crucial in the lead up to the World Conference. By asking ourselves, what can we do in our own country to combat racism, we can contribute to the deliberations of the World Conference and also send a message to our government that we also attach great priority to the eradication of racism in our society.

I want to make a few basic points for you to keep in mind as you proceed during the next two days.

First, if we are to be frank and honest about our race relations record, we must concede that we have a long way to go to eradicate racism in Australian society.

The recent appearances by Australia before several of the United Nations human rights treaty committees provide us with valuable guidance on where Australia currently stands on racial discrimination.

Australia appeared before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in March 2000; the Human Rights Committee in July 2000; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in August 2000; and the Committee against torture in November 2000.

The various Committees expressed the following concerns about Australia's compliance with its existing human rights obligations:


  • The lack of an entrenched guarantee against racial discrimination, which would override any subsequent legislation at the federal, state or territory levels. While there exists a Racial Discrimination Act this can be overridden by a subsequent piece of federal legislation that expresses contrary intentions. It is quite extraordinary to think that a government would override a guarantee of non-discrimination on the basis of race but this is exactly what happened with the amendments to the Native Title Act - which authorised states and territories to conduct activities that were racially discriminatory, and which would otherwise have been illegal.
  • This is coupled with the lack of adequate protection of rights or provision of effective remedies for breaches of rights in the Australian system. International obligations are not automatically effective in Australian law upon ratification of a treaty. It requires an act of incorporation before this occurs. The result is that our obligations under the covenants on economic, social and cultural rights, and civil and political rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Convention Against Torture are poorly implemented in the Australian system.
  • A factor that accompanies this lack of protection of rights in Australian law is the refusal of the federal government to ensure compliance of the states and territories with Australia's international obligations - despite the compliance of all states and territories being an obligation undertaken by the federal government under a number of treaties, including the Racial Discrimination Convention (which requires Parties to the treaty to rescind, nullify, amend or repeal all laws that are in conflict with Australia's obligations under the treaty) and the civil and political rights covenant. This refusal to ensure compliance was most vividly demonstrated in the continued refusal to overturn mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.


The various Committees also raised as specific areas of concern:


  • The inadequate response of the government to the Bringing them home report;
  • Over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system;
  • The extent of continuing disadvantage of Indigenous Australians, and the lack of equality in Australian society that it reflects;
  • Inadequate protection against racial hatred in Australian law;
  • The poor response of the government to individual communications lodged with UN human rights committees, especially relating to our obligations of non-refoulement; and
  • The manner in which the government interprets and implements the Refugee Convention.


These committees have undoubtedly identified a range of issues that are relevant to today. The challenge for us is to identify actions that can be taken to address these concerns.

I also want to counsel people to be precise in your use of the terms 'racism' and 'racial discrimination' over the next two days. There is a tendency for these words to be overused or to be used imprecisely. Not all violations of human rights are racist.

You will have in front of you a discussion paper that the Commission has prepared on the world conference, titled Combating racism in Australia. If you look briefly at pages 7 and 8, you will see that it provides a series of definitions of the key concepts that are relevant to today's discussion. I urge you to have a read of these when you get a chance. If you flick through the following pages you will see that there is also an explanation of each of the five themes of the World Conference, with some questions to stimulate discussion.

Finally, this National Summit and yesterday's youth summit, form the first stage of the Commission's domestic consultations in the lead up to the World Conference. The outcomes of both will be transmitted to the Government, as well as presented to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and at the 2nd Preparatory Committee meeting of the World Conference which is due to take place in Geneva from Monday fortnight.

This Summit will be followed by public forums in every capital city in Australia, as well as in key regional areas across June and July. We are also accepting submissions on the discussion paper that I referred to earlier, as well as operating a bulletin board on our World Conference website - to which people can electronically submit their views on any issue relating to racism and which we will then post on the site to stimulate further discussion.

Once again, thank you for joining us here today to contribute your views on this most serious of issues. In my capacity of Social Justice and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner, I look forward to hearing your considered views on racism and strategies for combating it.


Former Commissioners

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