Date: 
Tuesday 8 May 2001

Author

Former.Commissioners

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

Opening remarks by Professor Alice Tay, President,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission


Professor Glele, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I thank you for joining us today to participate in the national summit of civil society on racism. Before I make some introductory remarks about the summit on behalf of the Commission, I would like to acknowledge the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land where we are meeting.

As the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, I am very proud to extend to you a warm welcome to Civil society and racism: A national summit on racism. This Summit, and the Youth Summit that we held here yesterday, form the first stage of our domestic consultations in the lead up to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. The World Conference, as many of you are no doubt aware, is due to take place in Durban, South Africa from 31 August to 7 September this year.

The Commission has been participating in the international program for the World Conference for some time now. From our participation in the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, and the development by them of a position paper on the World Conference in August last year; to the participation of Commissioner Ozdowski in the Informal working group in preparation for the World Conference that is taking place in Geneva as we speak, the Commission has consistently been contributing on the international stage to this important conference in the fight against racism.

I was in Geneva for the Commission on Human Rights and the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions just a few weeks ago. What became abundantly clear to me was that the Commission's efforts in the lead up to the World Conference are among the most extensive by National Human Rights Institutions in the world. We have been the only national institution who has attended all of the key meetings for the World Conference this year - from the Asian regional meeting in Tehran in February, to the Open Ended Working Group in Geneva in March, to the upcoming 2nd preparatory committee meeting at the end of this month.

The level of commitment to the World Conference's processes that the Commission have demonstrated has been noted by Mrs Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights. As recognition for this commitment, the High Commissioner's Office has provided funding to HREOC to conduct domestic activities such as this summit. We understand that to date we are the only human rights commission in the world to receive such funding. On behalf of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for providing this funding and for allowing us to give you this opportunity to have your say on strategies for combating racism in Australia.

Dr Jonas, the acting Race Discrimination Commissioner and Social Justice Commissioner, will tell you more about the other aspects of the Commission's domestic program for the World Conference shortly.

In the limited time remaining to me, I would like to put the deliberations that you will have over the next two days into context by asking 'why is racism so bad?'

In the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 'recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world'. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration goes on to state that 'All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood'.

As the current acting Sex Discrimination Commissioner I might amend that text slightly to reflect the sisterhood as well. But that aside, these words take us to the heart of the issue - for at its core, racism is a denial of humanity, and of human relationship.

As one commentator has stated, 'A victim of racism experiences the deepest feelings of offence, humiliation, shame and pain. It is a denial of his or her claim to be fully human ...Those who do not experience often fail to understand how profoundly offensive it is'(1).

The preamble to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination also tells us why racism is so bad - succinctly and vividly. It states that 'any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere' and that 'the existence of racial barriers is repugnant to the ideals of any human society'.

What we must remember is that the text of this Convention was agreed upon by the nations of the world as far back as 1965. 36 years later, we continue to witness in the world some of the grossest violations of human rights imaginable - based on race or ethnicity. Racism has continued to flourish. It has been expressed through different manifestations from that envisaged in 1965. It has proven intractable.

Events in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and closer to our doorstop in Indonesia and East Timor remind us of the need to be vigilant and to condemn and combat racism in all its forms. These examples all fall at the extreme end of the spectrum. Unfortunately for many, racism is equated with such extreme violence - which we see on our television screens each night. Of course, racism is much broader than this - it is invisible to many if not most people in our society. That fact also contributes to its pernicious nature.

And that brings me back to this Summit. In Australia, we have many things to be proud of in the fight against racism. We have one of the world's longest established national human rights institutions, and longest standing legislative mechanisms for dealing with racial discrimination. We also have formal legislative mechanisms in all states and territories - an achievement which we have only achieved in recent years with the passage of legislation in Tasmania.

But we must not pretend that our only contribution to the World Conference should be as a model to the rest of the world. There can be no doubt that there exist in Australia the most serious cases of racism and racial discrimination.

When the very fine words I read you from the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination were agreed in 1965, Australia still did not count Aboriginal people in the censuses. They were not regarded as relevant in the life of our federated nation. Policies of forcible removal were also still in place; and many Indigenous people were not entitled to the protections of the State - such as welfare. We still grapple with this legacy today.

For migrants, Australia still had the vestiges of the 'white Australia policy', which were not removed until into the 1970s. We were not an inclusive nation, respectful of diversity. We have come a long way since then - but we are still not free of racism. The role of this summit is to ensure that Australia presents an accurate and robust assessment of what we do well, and where we must do better, in the World Conference process. It is also, crucially, about ensuring that we can identify further strategies to overcome structural inequalities in our society, and to commit to pursuing them - across all areas of society - with determination and urgency.

This is your challenge over the next two days, and I wish you well in this task.

Thank you.

Pause - then introduce UN Special Rapporteur

We are extremely fortunate that joining us this morning is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Professor Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo, and members of his delegation.

Professor Glele is visiting Australia for three weeks to consider issues of racism in Australian society, in the performance of his mandate as a special rapporteur to the Commission on Human Rights. Professor Glele has very much been involved in the processes of the World Conference to date. On behalf of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission I welcome you firstly to our country, and secondly to this summit of civil society. Thank you Professor Glele.


Footnotes

1. International Council on Human Rights Policy, The persistence and mutation of racism, P3.