Human Rights Day Oration

by President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
John von Doussa QC

Human Rights Medal and Awards Ceremony
Sheraton on the Park Hotel, Sydney

10 December 2007

May I add my respects to the elders past and present of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, on whose traditional land we meet today. Mr Allen Madden, many thanks for delivering the Welcome to Country this afternoon.

In celebration of International Human Rights Day, it is a great pleasure to welcome you to the Annual Human Rights Medal and Awards Ceremony.

In particular, I would like to acknowledge the presence of my Commission counterparts and staff, and all the many distinguished people here today.

Each year, on the 10th of December, the international community commemorates Human Rights Day in recognition of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this day in 1948.

This year, Human Rights Day is a particularly significant event, as it marks the start of a year-long campaign leading up to the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration to be launched by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. UN organisations around the globe will use the year to focus on helping people everywhere to learn about their human rights.[1]

The theme of the campaign, dignity and justice for all of us, reinforces the vision of the Declaration as a commitment to universal dignity and justice, not just something that should be viewed as a luxury or a wish-list.

1. 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Medal and Awards

The emphasis on rights ‘for all of us’ is an idea that I would like to discuss today. It is not enough if most of society enjoys their human rights. The true litmus test of a government’s human rights performance will be the extent to which the rights of the marginalised and the vulnerable are upheld.

The utility of international human rights standards in improving the lives of the marginalised and vulnerable depends on those standards being put into practice. Human rights are only truly meaningful when they are actually enjoyed.

It is customary on Human Rights Day to remember the famous statement of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the drafters of 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.'

This brings me to another notable anniversary. In 1987 HREOC established the Human Rights Medal to be presented annually in recognition of outstanding personal endeavour in the cause of human rights. 2007 marks the 20th anniversary of this prestigious award.

The Human Rights Medal and Awards are about celebrating the efforts of those who work tirelessly, everyday, to translate international human rights standards into practice.

Over the last 20 years the human rights awards have paid tribute to people who have defended the marginalised, and worked for real justice for the poor, the disadvantaged, the excluded; and to journalists and authors, who have brought us challenging stories that reveal injustices.

2. 21st Anniversary of HREOC

The theme, dignity and justice for all of us, also resonates strongly if we turn to another significant milestone – the 21st birthday of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

Since its establishment on 10 December 1986, HREOC has committed itself to standing up for the protection of basic rights and freedoms – for everyone, everyday.

Over the past 21 years HREOC has evolved as a strong, independent body. It has helped to highlight, investigate and respond to a wide range of complex human rights issues in Australia relating to discrimination, harassment and injustice.

During this time there have been many significant improvements. However, it is clear that gaping holes still exist.

The entrenched deprivations suffered by Indigenous Australians are unacceptable and challenge our status as a first world country.

The threat of terrorism has led to an increase in the level of prejudice experienced by Arab and Muslim Australians and has also had a negative impact on the treatment of refugees and newly-arrived immigrants.

And the mistreatment and neglect of people who have a mental illness in our community is chronic and requires immediate attention.

3. Looking Ahead

As with any significant birthday, HREOC’s 21st is an appropriate time to reflect on past achievements – to consider where we would like to go in the future – and to determine how we get there.

The Commission has chosen to mark this anniversary by undertaking a project known as ‘HREOC 21’. This initiative will examine our vision for the future and how best to achieve it. The project will analyse our past successes so we can focus on what we do well.

However, to discover and build the strengths of an organization everyone needs to be involved. This includes you here today. You will find questionnaires at your tables and some of you may have already been approached about the project by HREOC staff. We would be very grateful if you would take the time to give us your feedback.

A key part of this evolutionary process will be to ensure that HREOC adopts an approach to human rights that reflects changing community needs; one that responds to the emergence of new threats to human dignity and well-being.

I mention just one emerging threat – one which has received extensive media attention in the last week, as world leaders meet in Bali to discuss a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol – climate change.

The fact of change, and the rate of change, is now all too clear, even if there are still sceptics that wish to debate the causes.

For a long time climate change was discussed as an issue of academic rather than practical interest.

More recently, the economic consequences of climate change have attracted the attention of developed and developing nations. But to date, the social and human rights implications of climate change have largely been overlooked in the debate.

When climate change is viewed through a human rights ‘lens’, the picture looks very different from the scientific statistics and economic forecasts we generally hear.

Looking at reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other recent research papers, the human rights lens shows populations becoming increasingly vulnerable to poverty and social deprivation as large tracts of previously fertile land become useless. We see violent conflicts over limited water supplies becoming more severe and frequent. We see problems in controlling infectious diseases, which are also spreading wider. We see rising sea-levels submerging low-lying atoll countries. We see mass displacement of populations in the Asia Pacific region in the order of hundreds of millions.

In Australia, it has been predicted that northern Aboriginal communities will bear the brunt of climate change, with more than 100,000 people facing serious health risks from malaria, dengue fever and heat stress, as well as loss of food sources from floods, drought and more intense bushfires. In the Torres Strait Islands, at least 8000 people will lose their homes if sea levels rise by 1 metre.[2]

These are scenarios which directly threaten fundamental rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; rights to life, to food, to a place to live and work. The human rights lens brings into focus the reality that climate change will exacerbate existing social inequity – at both the local and international level.

Research commonly concludes that the world’s poor and marginalised will be disproportionately affected by climate change – because their living conditions expose them to climate change-induced disasters, and because they have a much lower capacity to cope with disasters.

The first response to climate change has been to pursue measures to mitigate its rate of acceleration, for example by curbing green-house gas omissions.

Recognising now that change will continue whatever the mitigation measures, governments have moved to encourage adaptation by providing financial support to affected communities so that they can cope with changing conditions.

Australia has obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to help developing nations develop regional adaptation programs. The values inspired by the Universal Declaration’s vision of dignity and justice for all of us provide a powerful reference point when developing these programs.

But already climate change catastrophes are happening that are beyond mitigation and adaptation remedies. Displacement of communities has started. As displacement increases, so will the movement of people not only within the boundaries of their countries, but across borders and across oceans.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mike Keelty has said publicly that the potential security issues from climate change are enormous and should not be underestimated. He argues that ‘in their millions, people could begin to look for new land and they will cross oceans and borders to do it’.

In the past two decades Australia has experienced movement across the seas of people seeking refuge from persecution. Australia’s legislative response to these so called ‘unlawful non-citizens’ has, as we know, fallen short of well-established international human rights norms.

The flow of this human traffic in the past may turn out to be a trickle of what may occur in the future.

In the past, Australia has repatriated the majority of these overseas arrivals because they could not establish to the satisfaction of Australia’s administrative system that we owed them protection obligations under international law. But different considerations will apply to climate refugees. They may not fit within the definitions of the UN Refugee Convention because they are not victims of State persecution. But people cannot be returned to their island state if the island no longer exists. International law is clear that a non-citizen must not be returned to a border of another country where the safety of that person is at risk. Plainly, to return people to a country that still exists, but is so ravaged by the elements that food, water and housing cannot be provided by its government would be to expose them to cruel and inhumane treatment.

How will Australia treat unlawful arrivals that are in desperate need of protection from starvation and death? Hopefully, no longer by confining them, children and all, to indeterminate detention.

There are enormous human rights challenges ahead. Australian attitudes to unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond their control who seek our protection will need to exhibit a spirit of humanity and tolerance that has been sadly lacking in the past. This raises again the old question of how to warm hearts and minds.

Forward planning and strong leadership will be crucial.

The challenge for those of us who cherish the ideals of the Universal Declaration will be to develop and promote a human rights based framework against which legislative and executive policy to address climate change catastrophes can be formulated, and then implemented through transparent processes.
There could be no more fitting theme for the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration than dignity and justice for all of us. I fear we have a lot of hard work ahead to make this the reality it should be. “Well”, you might say, “What’s new?” The crucial thing is that we - HREOC, each of us individually, and all of us together as human rights defenders - do not stop trying.

[2] Rosslyn Beeby, Climate heat on indigenous: study, The Canberra Times, 25 November 2007