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Human rights education in a time of terrorism (2003)

Commission Commission – General

‘Human rights education in a time of terrorism’

Presentation by the Hon John von Doussa QC, President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commisison at the Human Rights: New Paradigms, New Responsibilities conference, University of Technology, 5 December 2003

Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

Terrorism, we’re told, will be the defining conflict of the early 21st Century.

And, as we look around our world today, it is a proposition that seems difficult to refute.

In the newspapers of recent weeks we seem constantly confronted with similarly miserable and distressing events – a mortar attack on CARE Australia’s office in Baghdad; attacks on a synagogue and the British consulate in Istanbul; more suicide bombings in Israel.

Of course, in the past two years, we have all become highly attuned to the threat posed by terrorist groups.

September 11 brought home to people across the world, particularly those of us in seemingly ‘safe’ Western countries like Australia, what ‘terror’ on an epic scale looks like.

The Bali bombings which followed provoked a similar level of disbelief, confusion, sorrow and - let’s be clear on this - deep anger.

Our Prime Minister stated recently, that ‘the events of the 11th of September … changed forever the world in which we live. And it changed the way in which we must … respond.’

If living in an age of terrorism is the ‘new paradigm’ in which we find ourselves at the start of the 21st Century, then we have to ask what place we give human rights in a world dominated by the new global policy of ‘counter-terrorism’ and ‘pre-emption’.

What are our new responsibilities?

I would venture that whilst terrorism, on the global scale that we know it today, poses new and ominous dangers, our response to terrorism takes us down a path which we have travelled before.

And it places on us serious responsibilities to ensure that we protect and maintain the basic rights and ideals which make Australia one of the world’s leading democratic nations.

In the last year the Australian Parliament debated and eventually passed federal laws against crimes of ‘terrorism’.

As you would all be well aware, the ASIO Bill was also the subject of intense scrutiny and debate.

Indeed the Joint Parliamentary Committee which examined the Bill in its original form was of the view that it ‘would undermine key legal rights and erode the civil liberties that make Australia a leading democracy.’

The overall effect of these laws, as well as recently introduced amendments, is to allow long-standing rights to be wound back.

Of course, this is not the first time that we in Australia have felt the friction between introducing national security measures and protecting fundamental rights.

During both World Wars, Parliament granted the government extensive powers to detain ‘alien enemies’, as well as citizens born overseas or Australian-born citizens who were alleged to have expressed ‘disloyalty’ to Australia’s wartime efforts.

During the First World War, more than 5,000 people in Australia of German or Austrian background were held in internment camps as prisoners of war. A further 4,260 were on parole.

The camps were run by the military, and the military were the ones who arrested the detainees and searched their homes and offices.

In fact, in my home city of Adelaide, the Attorney-General at the outbreak of the Great War was Mr Homburg, a man of German background. Despite his high standing within the Parliament and the community, he suffered the indignity of having his offices searched by soldiers with fixed bayonets.

Despite some misgivings at the time about the extent of these powers, the view of those who sponsored the legislation was that:

The safety of the country is infinitely more important than empty talk about Habeas Corpus or the Bill of Rights or the Magna Carta. All these things will crumble to dust unless we are successful in this struggle.

These very same arguments were replayed in Australia during the Second World War when ‘enemy aliens’ – this time mainly people of Japanese background - were detained in internment camps

I am barely old enough to remember the Second World War and therefore too young to make any first-hand assessment of our treatment of Australian residents of Japanese extraction.

But I have firm memories of my mother, after the War, saying that we did not treat these people fairly. My parents also repeated stories from the time of the First World War about the gross injustices committed against men and women of German backgrounds who were interned.

History shows that once the hostilities ended, and with the passage of time Australians were more accepting of people from German and Japanese backgrounds.

Similarly with the Italian and Yugoslav immigrants of the late 40s and early 50s, once they and their culture became understood, initial discrimination based on fear of their differences dissipated. They were accepted by the wider community and valued for the skills, energy and diversity they could bring to post-war Australia.

However, looking back, it seems that, under the threat of war, Australians responded by stereotyping all people who had a connection with the nations against which we were in conflict.

Looking back, we can say that we overacted. We saw only their ethnicity, and we condemned them for it. Driven by fear and insecurity, we failed to see them first and foremost as individuals – individuals with fundamental rights, who were just as committed to their host country as we were.

We infringed those rights grievously – and it’s important that we draw on the lessons of history as we understand the ‘new paradigms’ of the present.

We should guard against knee-jerk responses that are likely to discriminate against whole classes of people, identified only by their race, religion or ethnic background.

This is the fundamental principle of non-discrimination, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – both of which were drawn up to address the gross violation of rights during the Second World War.

And, of course, we need to speak out in defence of basic rights.

But, at the outset, we need to define our goal. To what extent, if at all, should our defence of fundamental rights be tempered by pragmatic considerations?

International law recognises that there are some times – times of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation - when individual rights can be limited.

The questions facing us today are:

  • Is this such a time?
  • How far do we allow our rights to be limited?
  • What pragmatic compromises might we make?
  • And, specifically, how do we direct debate so as to maintain the greatest possible access to legal advice, the courts and the rule of law to those who may be subject to the new anti-terrorism laws?

I believe we need to insist on the fundamental role of the courts to scrutinise matters.

A democratic state can’t comprise this basic principle without, in some way, compromising itself - because it is a cornerstone of a strong, democratic nation.

We also need to demonstrate to the Australian public in practical ways that protecting individual rights and freedoms does not necessarily diminish national security, rather they can fortify it by ensuring we have strong, robust institutions.

Furthermore, and I would say especially right now, we need to develop a culture of dialogue, tolerance and understanding.

In the past two years – post-September 11 and then post-Bali - Arabic and Islamic people have felt a growing wave of prejudice and vilification. Mosques have been vandalised. Women wearing the hijab have been attacked in the streets.

There have been people who, in a perversion of the notion of freedom of speech, have delivered a message of fear and exclusion. They have fanned simmering fears by disseminating frightening misinformation about Arabs and Muslims.

Whilst it’s not internment, there are echoes of the same rush to blame that was seen during the World Wars, driven by the same fear and mistrust of difference.

In times such as these, we must all see education as a priority. It certainly is for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Our goal is to help people to understand their rights as well as their obligation to respect the rights of others.

How are we trying to do this at the Commission?

We believe listening is an important place to start promoting understanding.

We’ve just completed a series of consultations with Australians who have an Arabic and Muslim background. Called ‘Isma’ – which is Arabic for ‘listen’ - this forum gave us a chance to understand how they have experienced religious and racial discrimination in recent times – and to listen to what strategies these communities believe would help combat harassment and vilification.

Foremost amongst useful strategies these groups have developed have been open days and information sessions conducted to explain their culture and beliefs to the wider community.

We also run Youth Challenge programs in high schools around the country, providing students with practical ways to help them understand their rights and to counter myths and stereotypes, which are often at the heart of discrimination and harassment.

It is so important for young people to have reliable information and resources, to be able to ask questions, analyse, debate and, finally, draw their own conclusions on important issues.

We take advantage of all the opportunities at our disposal to provide simple, clear and accurate information that counters the voices of fear and division in our community.

I would urge everyone to do the same.

This is a significant time in the life of Australia.

Whilst the threat of global terrorism is new, the arguments to wind back human rights and to tacitly foster community division are not.

We must be alert to these voices and the demands to give up a number of basic rights – especially when giving up these rights would not appear to affect us immediately or directly. We must remember the possibility that innocent people will be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some 150 years ago Frederick Douglass, a famous human rights advocate in America said: ‘Where justice is denied, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.’

He was talking about African-American slavery.

However, I can’t help but feel his words contain a note of warning to us today.



Last updated 7 January 2004

Former Commissioners

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