Date: 
Wednesday 10 December 2014

Author

Gillian.Triggs

10 December 2014

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

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Welcome to you all to the 27th Australian Human Rights Commission celebration of Human Rights Day, proclaimed by the United Nations on the 10 December 1950.

May I give a special welcome to:

  • Senator, the Hon George Brandis, the  Attorney General. it is an honor to have you with us tonight; it seemed entirely appropriate that we should hold this event at the Museum of Contemporary Art as you are not only the first law officer of Australia, but also the Minister for the Arts.
  • May I also welcome last year’s human rights Medal winner Sister Clair Condon of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and our many  distinguished guests who havejoined us tonight. [Jeremy Jones, AM, Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Dennis Eggington, CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service in WA, Ian Govey, the Executive Director of the Australian Government Solicitor, Timothy Pilgrim, the Privacy Commissioner and David Fredericks, the Deputy Secretary for the Attorney Generals Department.]

The aim of the UN's International Human Rights day is to bring to the attention ‘of the peoples of the world’ the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 as the common standard for all peoples and all nations. As you may well know, Australia’s ‘Doc’ Evatt was President of the UN General Assembly in 1948 in which position he was able to ensure that not a single negative vote was cast against the Declaration. This Declaration forms the foundation for modern international human rights law and the freedoms and rights that we enjoy today.

In holding our celebration at Circular Quay, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and respect their elders past and present.

May I also acknowledge our sponsors for their generosity:

  • King and Wood Mallesons
  • Telstra
  • Law Council of Australia
  • Al Jazeera Media Network
  • Audrey Page and Associates

In celebrating Stella’s life tonight, we also celebrate your achievements; for this evening is really about you; the individual members of the community who work so hard to ensure that the human rights of the most vulnerable are protected and advanced, especially children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and those experiencing homelessness, domestic violence and mental illness.

This year we received an unprecedented number of nominations for the 10 categories of human rights awards–over 300 nominations and 38 finalists - and those nominated have astonished us by the range of work that is being done for autistic children, indigenous bilingual education, the homeless, those detained often without charge or trial, those with mental illness, and migrant women.

You come from all parts of Australian society: small towns and rural communities and the big cities. Some of you are from community and legal aid groups, or are commercial lawyers and judges, members of religious bodies, university faculties, government departments and not-for-profit organizations. Some of you are artists, musicians and writers. Others are advocates and activists.  It is especially good to see so many young people here tonight, including students from Woodville High in SA and Holroyd High School here in Sydney.

On behalf of all my colleagues, we salute each of you and acknowledge your vital and practical role in ensuring that Australia is a country that lives up to the aspirations of the human rights treaties we have signed on the international stage.

2014 has been a big year for the Commission with a national debate about balancing fundamental freedoms and rights both with each other and with national security considerations. Our staff and six Commissioners have made some valuable contributions to the advancement of human rights in Australia this year:

  • Mick Gooda for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders has reported on progress with the Close the Gap campaign for health equality and will continue to contribute to the national debate that we hope will pave the way for constitutional recognition of Australia's First Nations people. 
  • Megan Mitchell has now reported on her examination of the incidence of self harm and suicide among young people and children.
  • Susan Ryan has flourished in her role as Age and Disability commissioner and is helping us to reimagine the contributions older citizens and those with a disability can make to Australian society and productivity.
  • Through Liz Broderick and her team we have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with the Defense force to foster a culture of gender equality, creating a fruitful partnership with the ADF we hope will continue for many years to come.
  • Dr Tim Soutphommasane has built upon the Racism it stops with me   campaign, now one the most successful campaigns supported by the Commission, and been a significant intellectual force behind public discussion of the right to freedom of speech.
  • Tim Wilson joined us this year and been on a listening tour of the country to hear what people’s primary human rights concerns are. He has also promoted the protection of sexual orientation, gender and intersex rights in this first year of the amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act.
  • The International work of the Commission continues, mainly in China and Vietnam.  Last year we celebrated the 15th anniversary of Australia’s Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue with China; additionally for the Commonwealth of Nations we produced a powerful comic and moving cartoon on LGBTI rights for educational purposes in Africa.

In short, I am proud to be able to say that some progress has been made this year and your community work makes a vital contribution to practical human rights protection in Australia.

2014 has also brought some disappointments:

  • We continue to have over 5,500 asylum seekers in mandatory and indefinite detention, including over 730 children, and the claims of 31,000 asylum seekers to refugee status have yet to be assessed. The good news is that with the recent agreement to TPVs many of the children will finally be released over the coming weeks.
  • In this very fortunate country we continue to struggle with poverty, (especially among our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders), disproportionately high indigenous imprisonment rates, especially among young aboriginals, prison detention for those with mental illness or disability who are unfit to plead to criminal charges and who often lack of access to justice, and of course the widespread consequences of domestic violence.

In conclusion, what is the Commission’s vision for the future?

The Commission is a unique entity within the Australian public sector due to its role as a bridge between Australia’s international human rights obligations and domestic protections. It is a tribute to Australia’s robust democracy that we are both an independent body with UN “A” status and funded by the taxpayer and responsible to parliament.

Our work for the next few years will focus on two main areas

  • Business and human rights: employment and the provision of goods and services by large, medium and small businesses are vital engines for opportunity and equality in the community.
  • Domestic violence, and bullying, especially through the internet and social media.

I congratulate the winners -whose names you will hear very shortly - and I wish you all a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

May I now introduce Australia’s 36th Attorney General, the Hon George Brandis QC, to speak to you.