International Human Rights Day Address

Delivered by John von Doussa QC, President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney, 10 December 2004

I begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Gadigal People, of the Eora Nation.

In keeping with the theme of today's awards, I want to welcome you all here to celebrate our local champions, many of whom are with us as nominees for the 2004 Human Rights Medal and Human Rights Awards.

I would also like to acknowledge the Commissioners of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission; previous Human Rights Medal winners with us today, Elizabeth Evatt and Marion Le; Hugh Evans, Young Australian of the Year; and some of the students and teachers who participated in the Commission's Spirit of Reconciliation poster competition.

Human Rights Day is a time to reflect on recent events, both here in Australia and internationally. v

It is also a time to think back to that time when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948.

Consider the world at that time.

People still shell-shocked from the bloodshed of the Second World War. Numb from the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. And, despite the peace, still fearful for the future and the threat of new wars, more carnage.

Imagining the world at that time, you get a sense of the motivations of those who drafted the Universal Declaration.

While the language of the Universal Declaration is very simple, its message is strong.

It envisions a world where nations foster friendly and peaceful relations with each other; where people enjoy a better standard of life; and where there is universal respect for human rights.

Importantly, it also sets out what those fundamental human rights are.

Some have labelled the Universal Declaration 'starry-eyed'. Others think that it is a document best confined to dusty archives.

But recent events demonstrate to all of us the fact that human rights do matter.

The rise of international terrorism and the consequent 'war on terror' remind us - if we needed reminding - that we are still capable of treating each other with the utmost cruelty and brutality.

For instance, the images of extreme humiliation, degradation and violence that have been broadcast around the world over this past year have shocked us all.

Hostages pleading for their life. The school children at Beslan. The Abu Ghraib prison.

Those images are a sobering reminder that the world envisioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is still far off.

But it would be too easy to simply retreat into cynicism or despair.

The shock that we all feel -irrespective of our race, or culture, or religion - reveals how much we abhor the sight of people being stripped of their human dignity.

That realisation shows us that human rights are not abstract matters. It tells us that there are certain lines - certain minimum standards - that should not be crossed.

The response of many governments to the 'war on terror' is a clear reminder that human rights standards can be very fragile.

Concerns about national security have led some States, and indeed a few legal scholars,(1) to argue that some human rights are more fundamental than others.

Thoughts then begin to cross the minds of decision-makers:

  • Can we be a bit flexible about what constitutes a 'fair trial'?
  • Are there certain situations when torture might be necessary?
  • All for the greater good, of course.

And so we now find ourselves embroiled in a global debate about what minimum human rights standards are, and whether the bar was set just a bit too high in those days after the Second World War when the Universal Declaration was drafted.

Within Australia, events continue to turn the spotlight on the plight of many Indigenous Australians who because of poor health, disengagement from mainstream education, unemployment, poor housing and domestic violence do not enjoy many fundamental human rights.

We all have a responsibility to hold up to scrutiny and accountability circumstances where the human rights of others are compromised.

That's why promoting a strong culture of human rights is so vital today - and it's why we need human rights defenders. That's why we need activists to speak out for basic rights and to influence government and community thinking.

Without a culture of human rights, democracy suffers. The rule of law can be weakened. Society's commitment to values of equality, non-discrimination and social justice can slowly - but irrevocably - start to erode.

We need lawyers to defend the marginalised and work for real justice.

We need journalists to ferret out abuses, to reveal injustices and to bring us stories that challenge us.

We need members of the community who respond to the disadvantages of others.

Of course, as many of you in the room today can attest, promoting and protecting human rights is far easier said than done.

There can be many barriers.

Institutional resistance. A lack of funds. A lack of time. The hostility of others. Or worse, their apathy.

But change can happen. The achievements of those nominated for today's awards demonstrate that.

And let me give you just one other potent example of change this year - Australia's attitudes to asylum seekers.

During the height of the Tampa crisis in 2001, polls showed that less than half of all Australians wanted asylum seekers to enter Australia. Further, a majority thought that boats trying to enter Australian waters should be turned back.

Now, according to a recent Newspoll published in The Australian found that over 60 per cent now wanted at least some asylum seekers arriving by boat to be allowed to enter Australia.(2)

This turn-around owes much to the many journalists who have shared the personal stories of asylum seekers, and to the dedicated and determined work of many ordinary Australians - people who visited asylum seekers in detention, or provided support to them in the community, or advocated for them in court, or raised community awareness through public rallies.

I think it would also be appropriate to acknowledge the work of the Commission in contributing to community understanding about the rights of children in immigration detention - and, in particular, the work of the Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowski, and his team which produced the Commission's report - A last resort?

So change can happen. And one of the most important aspects of bringing about change lies in education - educating people about human rights, and the community's responsibility to ensure those rights are respected.

The United Nations has dedicated Human Rights Day 2004 to human rights education and, to mark the occasion, it will proclaim a World Program for Human Rights Education.

The initial years of the World Program will focus on human rights education in primary and secondary schools.

The Australian Government has given its strong support for the World Program and the Commission commends that.

We look forward to working with the government and other educational groups to implement the World Program here in Australia.

And today, Human Rights Day, we look forward to recognising your efforts - in educating, in advocating, and in making a difference in the lives of others.

Human Rights Day is a special day because it gives us the chance to celebrate our local heroes and the difference that their hard work has made to the community.

Their contribution - often in difficult circumstances and sometimes at great personal or professional cost - is something that enriches all of us.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to a very colourful part of today's event, which you may have noticed on your way in.

On display are some of the hundreds of entries we received in the Spirit of Reconciliation Poster Competition, which the Commission ran in partnership with Reconciliation Australia.

Students from secondary schools right around the country submitted entries. The aim was simple - tell us what reconciliation means to you.

The sheer volume of responses shows that reconciliation is alive and well in young Australians.

Their colour, vibrancy, humour, originality and creativity are also incredibly refreshing.

And I think they capture the mood of today - which is one of celebration.

Do take the opportunity to look at them later on today - or afterwards on the Commission's website.

Thank you for being part of Human Rights Day. I hope you enjoy the afternoon.

Thank you

1. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, US legal scholar Alan Dershowitz argued in favour of legalised torture as a counter-terror measure. Refer to Richard Falk, 'Think Again: Human Rights', Foreign Policy, March-April 2004, page 1 of 6,

2. 'Poll finds Australians more accepting of asylum seekers', The Australian, 20 August 2004, at The August 2004 poll found 35 per cent of voters want all boats trying to enter Australian waters turned back, compared with 56 per cent at the last election.