International Human Rights Day address - 2005

Delivered by the Hon John von Doussa QC
President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
Friday 9th December 2005

I begin by acknowledging that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

I would also like to acknowledge;

  • The commissioners of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission;
  • The former Human Rights Commissioner, Dr Sev Ozdowski, who has had a lasting impact on the human rights landscape of this country; and
  • Previous human rights medal-winners who are with us today, including last year's joint winners Ms Deborah Kilroy and Mr Dick Estens.

International Human Rights Day falls on 10th December each year. It marks the occasion on 10th December 1948 when the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Declaration emerged from the wreckage and unthinkable horrors of the Second World War. It sought to rekindle human dignity, which had been gravely debased in the preceding 10 years. The nations of the world intended it to be the cornerstone of future principles of international law, which would be developed in order to prevent a recurrence of the terrible events so recently in mind.

We now know that these treaties could not prevent other great violations.   Nonetheless, international human rights law has provided us with detailed standards against which we can measure conduct.

Australia , and most other nations of the world, formally recognises these standards. And Australia, like most other nations of the world, has shown a tendency to slip below the bottom line from time to time.

Human Rights Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on recent events, and to contemplate their impact on the promotion and protection of human rights.

It has now been about four years since the Tampa incident, and the creation of the Pacific Solution which added to the mandatory detention regime that was already a blight on Australia's human rights reputation.

Then came September 11, 2001. The terrifying events of that day were beamed into our homes by repeated television coverage.   One year later, the first Bali bombings brought the fear of terrorism into our own backyards.

The Government responded with a raft of new counter-terrorism measures that were both quick and severe. It was plain to see that the new measures would infringe basic human rights. Yet there was a majority, indeed, at times, an overwhelming majority, which supported these measures. This was so, notwithstanding the pleas from human rights advocates for respect of the rule of law and basic human fairness. Most Australians were fearful and self-interested.   They saw the immediate need for security at all costs.

It is all too clear now that these laws generated fear and disillusionment in others, especially amongst the Arab and Moslem communities, amongst communities whose fellow countrymen were in detention, and amongst those who cherish the traditional Australian values of democracy and “a fair go”.

Since the most recent London bombings, we have again been presented with legislation that increases the power of our security forces at the expense of human rights.

This time, however, I believe that the government has found it much more difficult to gain community support for those parts of their proposals that would insulate action of the authorities from the scrutiny of the courts. The Government has responded to criticisms that basic human rights were not being adequately protected. At least now the laws provide for independent merits review in one form or another, and give some scope for challenging whether an order sought by the police for preventative detention or control is necessary and proportionate to the risk that a person presents.

I sense that in the past year or so there has been a significant change in peoples’ attitudes towards the importance of human rights and the rule of law.

It is surprising that it took so long to dawn on people, as there were numerous stories of human tragedy coming from refugee advocates and support groups. Dr Sev Ozdowski's report, “A Last Resort?", undoubtedly helped to focus the community’s attention on the suffering of children in detention. Yet the community’s concern did not initially extend to adult detainees, whose suffering was surely equal to that of the children.

It took revelations about Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon, and the subsequent Palmer Report to bring about a fundamental shift in attitude. The realisation that government agencies do make serious mistakes highlighted the need for protections.

Two important lessons can be learned from these events. First, it seems that the hearts and minds of the community can be won when the stories of particular individuals are told.    People can empathise with personal tragedy when they are given detail to enable them to picture themselves, or their families or friends in a similar situation. Those engaged in human rights education should never lose sight of the power of personal narratives. Many of these narratives have been eloquently portrayed in the entries in this year’s Arts Non-fiction Awards category.

Second, the media plays a hugely important role in influencing and educating the community. Great credit must go to the journalists, to the authors, to the film-makers and to the radio broadcasters, indeed to all those who have contributed to telling human rights stories. We must never overlook the fact that a free and independent media is of critical importance to the preservation of our democratic system and the rights of individuals. I would like to congratulate all the entries for this year’s Media Awards for the human rights stories they have reported.

The community is at last recognising the rights of individuals who are accused of wrongdoing, even of great wrong.

The plight of David Hicks, whatever he may have done, is now widely considered to be grossly unfair.

The barbaric execution of Van Nguyen has touched nearly everyone across the country. As Sir William Deane recently said to the nation on television, that execution was in breach of international human rights law. It was arbitrary because it was mandatory and it was for a crime which international law does not recognise as justifying execution in any legal system.

It is important that the community be proactive in the protection of human rights.

Home-grown terrorism is now becoming a source of fear in Australia. It is raising issues about the nature of an individual’s civic obligations to the community.   It should also be leading us ask ourselves why a member of the community has become so disillusioned with it that he or she wishes to destroy it.  

Some 150 years ago Frederick Douglass, a famous human rights advocate in America said:

"Where justice is denied, where ignorance prevails, and where 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".

It is also valuable to reflect on the famous words of Eleanor Roosevelt whose tireless work led to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

"Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; ... such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal-opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the large world."

The small places of isolation of Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon, David Hicks and Van Nguyen bear testament to this. So too, the unknown isolation of those members of the community who feel they have no option but to fight back.   It is important that these small places continue to be revealed to us by the media, NGOs and human rights advocates as they are uncovered.

Civil disobedience, whether it is terrorism or rioting, such as we have recently seen in Paris, will not be eradicated by further oppression. We must give more attention to understanding how the community has failed these people and address their concerns, including their sense of injustice. It is of the utmost importance, that the human rights of those who come into conflict with the customs of the community, with government policy, and even with the laws of the country, have their human rights respected.

More than this, I think it is important that our law makers go to lengths to express that everyone affected by the law is entitled have their fundamental rights respected and, if necessary, recognised and enforced through the ordinary legal system.

Other Western democracies have attended to this by enacting a Charter or Bill of Rights. The time has surely arrived when Australia should at least be debating how fundamental civil and political rights can be preserved and protected. There should be no need each time a new Act is proposed on topics such as national security and counter terrorism to hassle over acceptable standards of merits review, judicial oversight and remedies for exercises of power which are mistaken or excessive.

A well formulated charter of rights would emphasise that fundamental rights are for everyone. Groups in our society who presently suffer ongoing systemic inequality, our Indigenous Australians, the disabled and the mentally ill, would all gain enforceable protections that they so plainly need.

The need for clear statutory protection of fundamental rights in the so-called war against terror is of particular importance. As Sir Robert Menzies said following the outbreak of World War II:

“the greatest tragedy that could overcome a country would be for it to fight a successful war in defence of liberty and to lose its own liberty in the process”.

It is precisely at these times, when a nation expresses a sense of fear and vulnerability, that it needs to strengthen and protect its human rights mechanisms. We need to be mindful of the fact that human rights laws are among the foundation stones of our functioning democracy, and if we seek to justify the sacrifice of particular rights in an attempt to safeguard our society, we risk foregoing the very rights that are essential to the maintenance of the rule of law, and ultimately, the very sense of security we value so much.

I thank you all for attending today. We shall shortly move to the announcement of this year’s Human Rights Awards. As the citations of those whose work is acknowledged are read, I am sure you will be left with a deep sense of admiration for their achievements. I am sure they will be an inspiration to us to go on working for the recognition of the human rights of those around us who continue to suffer disadvantage and inequality.

Thank you.